The Tsemai people (also spelled Tsemay, Tsamay, Tsamai, Tsamako, or Tsamakko) are an ethnic group of southwestern Ethiopia. They speak a Cushitic language called Tsamai, which is one of the Dullay languages, and thus related to the Bussa and Gawwada languages.
According to the 1998 Ethiopian census, the Tsamai number 9,702. The number of speakers of the Tsamai language is 8,621, with 5,298 monolinguals. Many Tsamai use the Konso language for trade purposes.
Most Tsamai live in the Bena Tsemay woreda of the Debub Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region, in the Lower Omo River Valley and just to the west of the Konso special woreda. Many Tsamai live in the town of Weyto, which is approximately 50 km from the town of Jinka, on the Konso-Jinka road.
Most Tsamai are agro-pastoralists, herding cattle as well as growing crops. Many Tsamai women wear clothing made from leather. Many Tsamai men carry small stools around with them, which they use in case they need to sit down.
They have a very low level of literacy: below 1% in their first language and 2.8% in their second language.
Neighbors include the Konso to the East, the Bana - Bashada group to the West, the Male to the North, and the Arbore to the South. They speak an East Cushitic language called Tsamai, which is one of the Dullay languages, and thus related to the Bussa and Gawwada languages.
The Tsemay are predominantly followers of their ethnic religion which believes that the male and female star created the world. The origin of Tsemay people is told in a folklore.
The Tsemay are agro - pastoralist who used the banks of the Weyto River which is suitable for crop cultivation and other plantations like cotton. However, the Tsemay mainly grow sorghum and millet. They also engage in livestock herding like all the Omo Valley tribes.
Like the Hamer tribe, the Tsemay boys who wish to marry have to successfully complete a bull jumping event, a rite of passage ceremony. This is a ceremony where the boy runs across multiple bulls. If the boy can make it across four times without falling, he becomes a man.
To prove a boy has accomplished a bull jumping, he is outfitted with a band that has feathers on it. It is worn on his head and it shows that he is now looking for a wife.
Unlike most other people in rural Ethiopia, does not have a laid down custom, which emphasizes on the availability of girls virginity until their official day of marriage. In other words, a Tsemay girl, if she wishes to, can have a sexual partner with whom she can engage in premarital relations. However, Tsemay culture strictly prohibits the girls from bearing a child out of this relation.
Thus, in the Tsemay culture, the freedom to have a pre-marital sexual partner, does not necessarily guarantee the freedom to bear child, which in turn necessitates marriage.
In the Tsemay land, marriage can be arranged with or without the will of the girl. Yet regardless of the consent of their daughter, her parents always take the binding decision of the matter.
Once her parents gave their approval, the bridegroom's parents are responsible for the preparation of the wedding feast.
Tsemay bride's hands are not given to her husband. Instead, she is handed over to her parents -in-law. This takes place at the time when the bridal group is summoned to the party. According to the culture, until he is required to join the party, the bridegroom must not appear in the occasion.
During the wedding feast, the bride and the bridegroom shave and put butter on their heads. From this day on, the new couple is freed from any sort of obligation or work for the next six to twelve months.
Except their honeymoon time, Tsemay couples do not eat together at home from the same plate for the whole of their life.
Similar to other Omo valley people, the Tsemay are polygamous society, which follows the paternal line. They have regulations, which prohibit marriages between very closely related individuals. Traditionally inter marriage with the Benna is allowed. However, the union is always one directional. Thus, if there is any conjugal union between Tsemay and Banna people, it is always the case that a Tsemay woman marrying a Benna man, never the other way around.
The traditional costume of the Tsemay women involves a leather outfit. While married women's leather apron is wide and can cover both sides of the legs, that of the unmarried is a short skirt with a long v-shaped leather apron which is only enough to cover the backs of the legs
Although the major marriage payment comes in the form of livestock, other items such as honey, grain, clothes, coffee beans, bullets and 'arake' are also accepted. In order to get the hands of a girl, a Tsemay man must prepare all or most of the above items in abundance. Nevertheless, collecting this bride wealth is so hard for the suitor that he is usually helped by his closest kinsmen.
In this respect, the contribution of his father and his uncle(s) is immense. In the final analysis, it is her parents, not the bride, who are the real beneficiaries of this bride wealth. The justification given for this is that it is a return for all possible investments made in her upbringing. In addition, the bride wealth compensates for the loss of her labor and potential for reproduction.
The Tsemay are an Omo Valley people of southern Ethiopia that practice tattooing which is called do-ey. I met young Elsa Mamo at a tourist rest-stop before the village of Weyto and she told me that “once I became a woman, I got my facial tattoos.” Unfortunately, I had just a few moments with her and the only other information I could learn about her beautiful tattoos is that payment was a chicken, goat or some quantity of sorghum beer (depending on the size, form, and amount of tattoos), and that she was tattooed by a woman. In the old days, the neighboring Hamar who practice incredible forms of scarification believed that the Tsemay had karsama or lethal magic so they rarely attacked them. Photograph © Alexander Khimushin