@ Work with the Hamar, Omo Valley, EthiopiaPosted: February 2023
The Omo Valley has been described as Ethiopia’s ‘poisoned paradise’ because although its landscape is at times extremely beautiful during the rainy season, the rest of the year it sizzles in extreme heat and drought.
The region mostly lives on meagre resources and over the years has been victim to cattle-rustling, violence and ethnic struggles.
Most of the Omo people have retained a bellicose temperament.
Indeed, fighting the enemy is an inherent part of their culture and tradition.
We can even speak of a primeval hatred between neighboring tribes.
The Hamar live in the large south central area of the South Omo zone. An area characterized by mountains, hills and lowlands, between the Rift Valley of the Weito River in the east and the Omo River in the west.
The entire life of the Hamar turns around their cattle, which marks the wealth of its owner-family, provides food during times of hardship and plays an important role in the tribal rituals, like dowry for weddings.
When a man loses a family’s cattle herd, his reputation will be ruined.
Cattle-raiding is an important tradition.
From time to time, a man will go on raids to take food, cattle and or the weapons and ammunition of a man he kills and more importantly, this will give them status.
After a Hamar man has killed an enemy, he struts back to his home village singing songs of praise to himself and others along the way. Once he reaches the gateway of his father’s homestead, a white goat’s throat is cut and the blood is spilled over the killer’s shoulders to symbolically wash away his guilt of having slain another man.
The warrior is decorated with a garland of leaves from a local shrub.
Women enter the scene and decorate the hero with beads and small leather belts that are tied around his head, elbows, and arms.
The ‘hero’ then receives a special name ‘yirmit’ reserved for a killer and is entitled to scarification, one line for each killing performed.
Some Hamar say that a man can have his entire chest scarred for just one kill, while others say each human kill should be represented with one vertical line of cuts extending from the waist to neck.
The process of scarification is very painful.
The scarist, who is invariably female, cuts a small branch from the thorny ‘dili’ bush.
The clusters of double thorns on this bush resemble a molar tooth whose center has been completely eroded but its two crowns have been filed to razor sharpness.
The double thorn is used to lift the skin which is then cut with the iron hade tool after is has been sharpened on a stone. The heat of friction is said to sanitize the blade.
As the wound begins to bleed, the scarist scrapes her tool across the wound to clear the blood and makes another cut to remove the excess flesh. Once she has completed a row, she again sharpens her tool for the next round of slicing.
For healing, the pulverized fruits of the ‘garanti’ plant which resemble small yellow tomatoes, are used to make a liquid.
An old warrior told me that this concoction hurts far worse than the actual cutting itself and many Hamar now refuse it altogether.
The Ethiopian Government is trying to put an end to the tribal conflicts and killings and has begun prosecuting men who got new scars of a killer and fewer men are risking it as they face imprisonment, as well as the scarmaster involved.
As if to balance this militaristic obsession, there is a sort of no man’s land between each tribe, into which neither will ever take its cows.
Sometimes though, it’s difficult to control the animals, as they tend to go wherever they can find grass.
If any do venture too close to a neighbor’s territory, the response is immediate; shots are fired, or the cows are claimed.
The warrior’s code is harsh in the extreme, but the battle never affects the woman, children or elders. Fighting is strictly between the warriors.
For men between the ages of 20 and 30 life is extremely dangerous and unpredictable.
The Hamar call warfare ‘banki’ or ‘spear’ which was the traditional weapon used in combat before civil conflicts in neighboring Sudan and Somalia flooded the region with automatic weapons. AK-47s, which can be purchased with a few cattle, are nowadays the weapons of choice and have certainly made it much easier to hunt game animals as well as men.
Before a Hamar male can prove himself as a warrior on the field of battle, he must first prove to his peers and relatives that he can become a man. And as long as there have been cattle, there has been the bull-jumping ceremony called the ‘bullah’.
The ceremony usually takes place after harvest.
Once the young man has been prepared for the ceremony, his closest relatives and family give him a stick knows as ‘boko’.
Then, a week before the ceremony, the young man sets out on a journey with his ‘boko’, visiting friends and distant relatives to invite them to the festivities.
During the ceremony, the boy must run back and forth twice across the backs of a row of bulls and is ridiculed if he fails.
Most Hamar men prefer death over failing at the bull jump, and if you succeed your name will be mentioned in folk songs and soon enough, you’ll have a new wife.
Hamar men are polygamous.
The ‘bullah’ rite is a complex ritual, full of symbolism.
Female relatives dance and invite whipping with wooden wands until they bleed heavily, leaving horrendous scars from men who have recently been initiated; this shows their support of the initiate, and their scars give them a say on who they marry.
During the whipping, the women and girls get into a frenzy through their dance, songs, and horn blowing and they end up with foot-long cuts up to several cm deep, while flesh is hanging off their backs.
The ‘bullah’ rite begins several days before the actual jumping takes place.
Female relatives trek to the village of their beloved over distances that sometimes reach twenty or more miles.
The desert heat is intense, wild animals roam about, and then there are marauding enemies lurking in the Ethiopian darkness.
Once they arrive at their destination, pounds of food, gallons of sorghum beer and honey wine have been prepared for the visitors so that they can complete their work before the bull-jump begins in a couple of days.
From dusk till dawn, these women drink gourds of grog, dance in and around their family corral, blow on brass horns called ‘gola’, and sing the praises of their man who they will not let go without a bloody fight.
Hamar women also have artistic scars, some women before marriage, others afterwards.
In some villages if a man has no more room to tally his ‘kills’, one of his wives have his scarring entitlements on her skin.
Most men prefer scarified women to those who are not.
Women who receive their beauty marks do not have them all done at once; it takes many sessions with the scarmaster to complete the successive rows of cuts that will become part of her body.
As for men, they endure their chest carving in one grueling day.
Married and engaged women wear two heavy iron rings around their necks called ‘esente’, but if they are the first wife of a man an additional torque with a phallic protrusion known as a ‘binyere’ is worn.
They also decorate themselves with shells, glass, seed and metal beads, and they wear beaded goat skins that cover their bodies.
Their appearance is extremely important to the Hamar People, having spectacular hairstyles, for both men and women, so hair grooming is essential to the Hamar's sense of beauty.
Women paint their locks with fat and red ochre and then twist them into thread, while often ostrich feathers and other ornaments are attached.
Courageous men that have killed an enemy or dangerous animals wear a style of mud cap that lasts from three to six months.
It consists of various pigments, mainly red and white and in smoothing the clay they create very small protruding tubes in which they house ostrich feathers from their hunts.
To protect their hairdos, they always carry a ‘borkoto’, a wooden headrest for a pillow.