Saturday, March 3, 2007


The Hamar live among the bush covered hills on the eastern side of the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. They are a tribe with unique rituals such as a cattle-leaping ceremony that men go through in order to reach adulthood, whereupon young Hamar women get whipped to prove their love for their kinsmen.

The 15,000 to 20,000 members of the Hamar make their living as cattle herders and farmers. It is reported that once they hunted, but the wild pigs and small antelope have almost disappeared from the lands in which they live; and until 20 years ago, all ploughing was done by hand with digging sticks.

The land is not individually owned as it is communally shared by all and free for cultivation and grazing, just as fruit and berries are free for whoever collects them. The Hamar move on when the land is exhausted or overwhelmed by weeds.

Sergio Pessolano Images

Often families will pool their livestock and labour to herd their cattle together. In the dry season, whole families go to live in grazing camps with their herds, where they survive on milk and blood from the cattle. Cattle and goats are at the heart of Hamar life. They provide the cornerstone of a household’s livelihood. They are equally used to pay dowry to the brides family during wedding ceremonies.

Sergio Pessolano Images

There is division of labour in terms of sex and age. The women and girls grow crops (the staple is sorghum, alongside beans, maize and pumpkins). They’re also responsible for collecting water, doing the cooking and looking after the children - who start helping the family by herding the goats for example. The young men of the village work the crops, defend the herds or go off raiding for livestock from other tribes, while adult men herd the cattle, plough with oxen and raise beehives in acacia trees.

Hamar women will ocassionaly invite fellow women with the community to assist in tasks such as roof raising or harvesting and in retrurn to show her appreciation she provides them with beer or a meal of goat, specially slaughtered to feed them.

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Relations with neighbouring tribes vary. Cattle raids and counter-raids are a constant danger. The Hamar are said to only marry members of their own tribe, but they have nothing against borrowing songs, hairstyles, even names from other tribes in the valley like the Nyangatom and the Dassanech.

A Hamar man comes of age by leaping over a line of cattle. It’s the ceremony which qualifies him to marry, own cattle and have children. The timing of the ceremony is up to the man’s parents and happens after harvest. As an invitation, the guests receive a strip of bark with a number of knots one to cut off for each day that passes in the run up to the ceremony. This is accompanied with several days of feasting and drinking of sorghum beer.

Hamar Market Scene
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On the afternoon of the leap, the man’s female relatives demand to be whipped as part of the ceremony. The girls go out to meet the Maz, the ones who will whip them who are simply a group of men who have already leapt across the cattle, and live apart from the rest of the tribe, moving from ceremony to ceremony. The girls do not show their agonyl and are reported to be proud of the scars. The community would look down on a woman who refuses to join in. However, young girls are discouraged from getting whipped.

Whipped girls at the male initiation ceremony

One effect of this ritual whipping is to create a strong debt between the young man and his sisters. If they face hard times in the future, he’ll remember them because of the pain they went through at his initiation.

As for the young man leaping over the cattle, before the ceremony his head is partially shaved, he is rubbed with sand to wash away his sins, and smeared with dung to give him strength. Finally, strips of tree bark are strapped round his body in a cross, as a form of spiritual protection.

Elders line up about 15 cows and castrated male cattle, which represent the women and children of the tribe. The cattle in turn are smeared with dung to make them slippery. To come of age, the man must leap across the line four times. If he falls it is a shame, but he can try again. If he is blind or lame he will be helped across the cattle by others. Only when he has been through this initiation rite can he marry the wife chosen for him by his parents, and start to build up his own herd. Once his marriage has been agreed upon he and his family are indebted to his wife’s family for marriage payments amounting to 30 goats and 20 cattle.

Sergio Pessolano Images

At the end of the leap, he is blessed and sent off with the Maz who shave his head and make him one of their number. His kinsmen and neighbours decamp for a huge dance. It’s also a chance for large-scale flirting. The girls get to choose who they want to dance with and indicate their chosen partner by kicking him on the leg.

It doesn’t stop there. Wife beating is an accepted part of life rather than a taboo, and the convention is that a man will not generally tell his wife why she is being whipped. On the other hand, if a beating is severe then family or neighbours will step in; and after a couple have had two or three children, beating stops.

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