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The Kara (often called 'Karo' by outsiders) are a population of about 1,500 people living on the east bank of the Omo River. In spite of their small numbers, they form an important element in the political and economic system of the Lower Omo. In the more distant past, the Kara were traders and middlemen, and occupied a key position in the web of trade routes that extended into today’s Kenya and South Sudan.

Today the Kara are clustered around three major villages - from North to South Labuk, Duss and Korcho - with some particularly important farming areas interspersed with smaller hamlets. In former times, the Kara were also settled on the west bank of the Omo and they still maintain a claim to these lands. However, over the last 20 years all permanent villages on the west bank have been abandoned, as this area has been encroached upon by the more numerous and better armed Nyangatom. Very few Kara have permanently out-migrated, but there are numerous Kara school children to be found in the nearby market towns, as well as young Kara men attending college much further away.

This otherwise stable population is ethnically heterogeneous. While the majority of members are categorized as (true) “Kara”, there are also people identified as Bogudo, Gomba, Nyangatom and Moguji, as well as some individual immigrants from as far away as Toposa. The “Kara”, therefore, are first and foremost a political group of diverse origins which attempts to maintain social cohesion along the fertile banks of the Omo. The very heterogeneity of this polity is downplayed in everyday affairs, to support the appearance of unity, but a number of ritual constraints influence the relations between the dominant “true Kara” and the progressively lower-ranked Bogudo, Gomba, and Moguji.

The Kara are segmented into patrilineal and exogamous clans, which act collectively during marriages and other rituals, or in the distribution of property. However, the household remains the central social unit. Genealogical memory is shallow, rarely extending beyond two generations. The age-set system is of decisive relevance in the day-to-day affairs of most men. While there are also age-sets for women, these have much less public relevance, as women are constrained in their associations with others beyond family or neighbourhood. A man’s main peers are his age-mates, and these very egalitarian and “horizontal” alliances are cherished and cultivated, at times even at the expense of kin relations. The Kara are acephalous, with self-appointed committees of elders guiding political discourse and decision-making, a process from which women are largely excluded.

Linguistically and culturally, the Kara can be considered part of the “Hamar-Banna-Bashada cluster”. The Hamar, Banna and Bashada communities are found further east, spreading up into the hills. These three closely-related neighbours are often called “the mountain people” by the Kara. Their languages  are mutually intelligible, although many Kara are multilingual. The fact that Kara can speak the Hamar language can obscure some very real differences between Kara and Hamar. The older Kara often understand and speak Nyangatom, and some also have good Dassanech or Mursi language skills. Amharic is generally understood by adults, but this ability is often denied or downplayed. Together with the Hamar and the Arbore, the Kara belong to the administrative distract called the Hamar Woreda.

Kara religious practice is also similar to Hamar-Banna-Bashada. It is low on cosmology beyond the acceptance of a creator and source of good fortune, barriyo, and focuses on rituals of cursing and blessing. Both sorcery and witchcraft are acknowledged and feared. The religious leaders of the Kara, the bitti, have the task of securing communal wellbeing and clearing up disturbances in the social and natural environment. Many of these religious practices can be found in very similar form throughout the region. Generally speaking, the main difference lies in the apparent adapting of Hamar-Banna-Bashada rituals to their very different ecology and forms of livelihood. For example, the extreme emphasis of the “mountain people” on cattle pastoralism is not matched in the river valley, as the Kara themselves have very few cattle, keeping mainly goats and sheep. Instead, ritual life is to a great extent aligned with the rise and fall of the Omo River, which governs the yearly cycle of subsistence activities and seasonal movements. The main crop is sorghum, which grows well on the river banks after the water level has subsided, and on the flood plains further inland which are inundated when there is a particularly good flood. Rain-fed agriculture is of distinctly secondary importance to the Kara.

Their ability to maintain their position in this ecologically extremely viable niche along the Omo, producing enough food within a six-months farming season to support the population for the rest of the year, is a pillar of the Kara’s identity and self-esteem. In defence of their territory, they have – over the last 30 years – regularly engaged in warfare with their western neighbours, the Nyangatom, who are encroaching on the river as they themselves are being pushed out of their pastoral grounds further west. The Kara pride themselves on their general resourcefulness and their ability to hold their own amongst larger populations, having been neither militarily defeated by the Nyangatom nor assimilated by the Hamar.

The ethnohistory of place and people is shallow, as there are particularly few records and no travellers’ reports predating the 1880s. The discursive practices of the Kara show little evidence of the trauma of conquest or the shock of contact. Instead, they tend to frame the past very much in terms of the present. This presentist orientation enables them to engage with current challenges and to “modernise” on their own terms. Exemplary are their great success in dealing with tourists, the younger generation’s commitment to education,  among both young men and women, and the Kara’s attempt to gracefully abolish the practice of infanticide in their own way in recent years, after over 100 years of admonition from the Ethiopian state and other actors.

The more recent creation of industrial plantations in the Kara’s traditional grazing areas, as well as an increase in protestant missionary activity, makes it difficult to assess what the future holds for the Kara. Meanwhile the Gibe III dam, due to be finished within the next few years, poses  a severe threat to Kara livelihoods and thus threatens their very identity. Its completion will permanently change the hydrology of the Omo and the capacity of even the Kara to deal constructively with such an apocalyptic transformation is questionable. We can only say that their future is uncertain.

FELIX GIRKE, Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Regionalstudien (ZIRS), Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg


More information

Felix Girke, 'Homeland, boundary, resource: the collision of place-making projects on the Lower Omo River, Ethiopia', Working papers / Max-Planck-Institute for Social Anthropology, 2013, 148, pp. 1-24.

Felix Girke, 'Plato on the Omo: reflections on decision-making among the Kara of southern Ethiopia'. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2011, 5, pp. 177-194.

Felix Girke, 'Bondfriendship in the cultural neighborhood. Dyadic ties and their public appreciation in South Omo', in Echi Gabbert and Sophia Thubauville (eds.) To Live with Others: Essays on Cultural Neighborhood in Southern Ethiopia, Köln: Köppe, 2010, pp. 68-98.

Felix Girke, 'The Kara-Nyangatom War of 2006-07: dynamics of escalating violence in the tribal zone', in Eva-Maria Bruchhaus and Monika Sommer (eds.) Hot Spot Revisited: Trials to Make Sense of Conflict. Münster: Lit, 2008, pp. 192-207.

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