The Hamar (or Hamer) were the fourth and last tribe we visited on my trip to the Lower Omo Valley. One of the largest tribal groups in the region (their number is estimated to be about 20,000), the Hamar is a peaceful and friendly tribe. As with the other tribes of the area, the Hamar’s life centers on cattle and goats. But the Hamar also farm and they barter their surplus livestock and produce at the weekly markets in neighboring small towns. The Hamar (as well as the Kara although they practice it a little differently) have a very distinctive ritual, a bull-jumping ceremony as a rite of passage for young men. But more on this later.
Visiting the Hamar tribe was not easy for us. It was at least a 3 hours ride from our camp to Turmi, where a weekly market was held, and when there were roads at all they were not what you would call smooth. We arrived fully jostled. Before heading to the market, we made a stop at a small Hamar village (that is, after we stopped for a flat tire which, amazingly, occurred only once during the trip). The village was rather quiet as a lot of the women were on their way to the market by then. We spent some time with a small group of young (mostly unmarried) women that had stayed in the village, presumably to tend to the children. The Hamar women are just soooo beautiful! I know I have said this about other tribes, but judge for yourself. As with the other tribes, they have their own stylish way of dressing that is very elaborate. They too wear goatskin skirts; theirs are longer in the back than in the front, and the back tappers down in a way that is often described as resembling the tail of a gazelle. They also wear goatskin aprons or frocks covering their breasts and both the aprons and the skirts are always decorated with colored glass beads. They also wear cowry (a type of snail) shell necklaces as well as earrings made of seeds and glass beads. Brass and copper wires are wound tightly around the arms. One of the women kindly put one on my arm, probably thinking that I needed a little embellishment.
The Hamar women also use their adornment as a way of signaling their social and marital status. For instance, while unmarried women and young girls wear beautiful beaded necklaces and hair bands, engaged or married women wear at least one solid metal necklace. A woman wearing a “burkule”, a necklace made of leather and metal that has a distinctive detail in the front, is the “first wife”. She is the lucky one, life for any Hamar woman is hard, but life as a second and third wife is even harder as they are often more like slaves than wives. If a woman wears a burkule and has two more simple necklaces around her neck, it means her husband took 2 more wives. A man can marry as many wives as he can afford cattle-wise (as the dowry is paid in cattle) but we rarely see more than 3 wives. Elder married women also wear leg “bangles”. Once on, these are never removed.
But I was quite impressed at how creative the Hamar women were at finding unique ways to adorn themselves. They will make “jewelry” out of anything they find, safety pins, buttons, keys and yes, a dreidel. But the “hot” fashion item these days, for men and women are metallic watchbands. They use them to ornate their heads, chest or sometimes … wrist. In fact you may have noticed in my previous blogs that a number of the men of the other tribes were wearing watches. Well, none of these watches can give a clue about what time it is since they do not work (not that the exact time matters a great deal for them anyway) but the tribal men were proudly wearing them. Seeing their reaction to my plastic Swatch, it was clear that metal bands are the thing. Once again I had failed to impress.
The Hamar women’s hairstyle is also quite distinctive. Most women put in their hair a mixture of red-ocher coloring and animal fat then style it in plaits over their foreheads. Men also have a unique hairstyle that mostly seems to provide a good way to hold the feathers they proudly wear.
We finally ended up at the Turmi market. The markets are held once a week and the Hamar from nearby villages and other neighboring tribes come there to sell or trade their produce. These markets are simple transactions; purchases and exchanges are made of fruit, honey, butter, sorghum and coffee mostly based on the weekly needs.
The town of Turmi was also interesting as it gave us the opportunity to see not only Omo tribal people in their traditional style but also others that have adopted a more western lifestyle at least in terms of clothing. We had a coffee (a very Ethiopian thing to do) in a small local shop adjacent to the market. Coffee in Ethiopia is amazingly good. There, we met an attractive young boy sitting in front of a wall painted a deep shade of blue. A young man joined in later, wearing his best outfit, namely his soccer jersey (a prized possession as they are all very enthusiastic and informed soccer fans) as well as his watchband proudly displayed below his neck, not to mention the bullets on his belt.
But of course the main event of the day was the bull-leaping ceremony, the “bulla” that we were able to attend. This is a ceremony to determine whether a young Hamar male is ready to make the social jump from youth to adult, and is ready for the responsibilities of marriage, raising a family and owning cattle. (I couldn’t help but wonder whether we should we have an equivalent test.). This event is put on by the young man’s family and is very costly so it does not happen very frequently. A young man may have to wait quite a long time before his family can have the resource to have the ceremony (some even get to be in their thirties) especially if the family has many boys. As a result, they marry women that are typically younger than they are and will be outlived by their widow by many years.
But back to the ceremony, which is a multi-part event. There are many important players taking part in this ritual. First, there are the women relatives or close family friends of the to-be-initiated boy. These women will volunteer to be whipped as a sign of commitment for the young man (and as a result will secure the boy’s loyalty.) Then there are young men who are still single but have recently gone through the bull-jumping ceremony. These men are called the “maz” or “maza”and will be the ones doing the whipping and holding the bulls during the jumping ritual. Finally of course, the initiated young man who will have to leap from one bull to another, until he finally reaches the end of a row of 10 to 15 of them. He has to complete this feat four times in a row without falling off to have the right to become a husband. The young man we watched slipped and fell on his first try, but later succeeded, thankfully.
The women come highly decorated, their hair and bodies totally covered with grease (to either help with the scaring or with the pain depending on whom you ask). For this occasion, they wear some clothing on their upper body to prevent their breasts from being injured. At the beginning of the ceremony, after much drinking of sorghum beer and wine, women sing and dance in circles while blowing their trumpets and whistles. The maz, decorated with feathers, necklaces and bracelets approach the area carrying long thin flexible branches, which will be used as whips. The maz choose their whips so that they cause the least amount of pain possible and leave a clean mark. At some point, one of the girls gets in front of the maz and sings the praise of the initiated, declaring her love for him and also her desire to be marked by the whips of the maz. Eventually the maz reluctantly concedes to the continuous demands of the girls. With careful aim, the maz strikes the girls so that the end of the whip hits her on the back. The rest of the women are sitting and watching with some anxiety, as they will go next. The whole spectacle is highly disturbing to watch. We were told that the whipping of the women during a “bulla” ceremony is one of the “harmful traditional practices” that the Ethiopian government is trying to ban. But again, changing a practice that has been so central to a culture is a slow process and women are apparently resisting such a ban that would prevent them from showing their courage and commitment to a young man related to them.
Once the “whipping” ceremony is over, the maz take part in the ritual of painting their faces as leopards in red and white with spots while the women start assembling the herd of oxen. The herd is then brought into a clear land, the women circling it, screaming and shouting. The maz then head for the animals and with great skill, they gather them side by side until a line is formed. The naked young man has to jump up and then run over the backs of the oxen, which are held in place by the maz. I am not sure whether anyone ever fails the bull-jumping test, but the young boy we saw looked quite anxious before starting.
When the event was over, the whole crowd moved on, probably to continue the celebration elsewhere. We went back to our vehicle, discovering that its mirrors had been of great interest to the local women, providing an opportunity for one last shot. Then we were on the road to start our long way back; first to the camp, and then eventually back home (after a little more exploring in northern Ethiopia).
So this is the last installment of my Omo tribe’s saga. It was a wonderful journey, which sometimes feels like a dream (and so I go back to my photos to make sure it was real). Is it possible that there are still people living this way in our modern world, still untouched by most of our modern trappings (except soccer perhaps)? Should they be left alone or be urged to join the modern world? These are, of course, hard questions, ones I still ponder. New cell towers are getting closer and closer to these tribal areas, which means that they will not be as isolated for long. More of a concern, the largest dam in the world (the Gilgel Gibe III) is being built a few hundred miles upriver from where the tribes currently live. By diverting the water of the Omo River, the dam will generate much needed electricity for the country, but the water the tribes rely on for cattle and farming may go dry. What will happen to the tribes? Will they still be there in 10 years; will they have disappeared, been destroyed, or integrated to the modern world? Are they really the vanishing tribes? I don’t know but they sure will stay with me.