The Dassanetch or Dassanech, live in the Southernmost area of the Omo Valley, in Ethiopia, a harsh and inhospitable place, an incredibly dry region, despite the presence of the Omo River.
The main activities practiced by the Dassanech for their survival are sheep farming, cultivation and fishing.
The Dassanech and breeding
The Dassanech live a semi-nomadic life, moving from time to time to look for new land and new pastures, in a desperate attempt to escape the aridity of their territory and to save their cattle.
The livestock is fundamental for the life of the Dassanech and, like the other tribes of the Omo Valley, they raise cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and camels; the livestock provides them with meat, milk, skin for clothing and for covering huts, it also establishes the status of a man within the village and the entire tribe, it defines his wealth and guarantees him the possibility of to get married.
The livestock is also fundamental for the sacrifices that are practiced during the most important ceremonies and in the rituals of passage.
The Dassanech and agriculture
The Dassanech practice agriculture exclusively near the course of the Omo River, that supplies the necessary water and, during the rainy season, usually in the month of July, overflows and, flooding the land, makes them more fertile.
The flood brings with it the silt that comes from the Ethiopian highlands and, settling on the ground, renews the productivity of the land, guaranteeing both grazing and cultivation, and this guarantees more abundant crops.
The Dassanech mainly cultivate sorghum, that is planted along the banks of the river and in the alluvial plain as soon as the waters of the Omo River re-enter the bed of the river; the harvest takes place during the dry season, the first harvest is in December and the second in February.
Sorghum is the main food in the Dassanech diet, in wet periods it accounts for up to 68% of their diet, while, during the dry season, they tend to eat more meat, since in this period they slaughter cattle as the pastures are more limited.
The Dassanech and fishing
In the past the Dassanech have always despised fishing because they have always considered it a subsistence activity practiced by the poorest who do not own cattle; when a Dassanech lost his livestock due to illness, drought or raids by a neighboring tribe, and was no longer able to support his lifestyle, he was named Dies, that means poor, and for his livelihood and of his family he had nothing left but fishing.
In more recent times fishing has been revalued both as a source of protein and as a source of income.
The Dassanech also hunt crocodiles that live in the waters of the Omo River; crocodile hunting takes place during the night in the shallow waters of the Omo River Delta.
Small pirogues are used and hunting is done in silence so as not to drive the prey away, when the canoe is close enough to the crocodile, this is captured using a harpoon; it is a very dangerous activity and it requires a lot of courage because the crocodiles can also be very large and aggressive and their strength can easily overturn the boat.
The practice of subsistence activities in the Dassanech family
In the Dassanech society the productive unit is the family that usually consists of a man, wife or wives and their not yet married children.
If the wives are more than one, the man, besides building a hut for each wife, must distribute the cattle and the arable land equally among the wives who milk the cattle, cultivate the land, store the fruits of the harvest and cook the meals that they then consume together with their children; the husband, on the other hand, does not have a hut and goes in turn to the huts of his wives.
The poor in the Dassanech society
The dies, the poor, occupied the lowest place in the Dassanech society, as cattle are considered a very important status symbol and therefore not having it meant being marginalized, even if they continued to be considered members of the tribe.
The Dassanech society is based on mutual aid, so the dies can rely on the help of the richest members with whom they can exchange the fruits of fishing and hunting, receiving meat or livestock in exchange.
If a dies man needs cattle in order to pay the bride's price, he can ask for the livestock his relatives or other village members, thus obtaining a loan that, in the following months, he will have to repay with the puppies that will be born from the cattle or selling various products in the markets.
The status of dies is temporary, selling goods and products and buying cattle anyone can go back to being a Dassanech.
Current threats to the Dassanech livelihood activities
The current situation sees new dangers that threaten the survival of the Dassanech: the arrival of big investors, who buy the land to build large commercial farms, the future construction of a dam, that will limit the floods and the related contribution of silt to the land, and oil exploration, following the discovery of oil fields near the nearby Lake Turkana in Kenya.