Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Ethiopia: The Fascinating Hamer Tribe

Ladies with pots at Hamer market

In the scorching heat, four of us set out for the local Hamer tribe market. We spotted Hamer women, with their characteristic red clay and fat matted hair and clothing made from animal hides decorated with shells, carrying large loads of trade goods on their backs heading for the market.
Three Hamer women going home from market  
Photograph by Dorit d'Scarlett

As we pulled into the market square, a large expanse of unshaded red earth, the curious and somewhat suspicious stares of several hundred market goers met us. All market trading was conducted on the ground, not a table in site.
The women sold dried foods, mainly sorghum, as well as liquor in earthenware jars and the heavy metal bracelets, anklets and necklaces the women of this tribe favours.

Elder women adorn themselves with zau, thick iron rings stacked on their arms and legs. Zau  can only be purchased with cattle, one cow fetching 25 zau. First wives wear a special ‘first wife necklace’ made of tightly bound animal skin tethered together with metal bindings and a phallic protrusion called a binyere. This (as well as their animal hide clothing) must be lovingly cared for by applying a mixture of red clay and animal fat to prevent the skin from drying out and cracking. Together with this ‘first wife necklace’ they also wear the esente worn by the other wives. Men will typically have 2 or 3 wives but their houses are often built quite apart from each other to prevent inter-wife conflict. 

Hamer woman in cowrie shell decorated goat hide and silver bangles

The men tended to wear slimmer brass bracelets with no decoration. These are made from smelting down bullet casings. Also being sold or traded were tobacco and moringa leaves, as well as some other necessities such as goat bells and the wooden headrests that each tribe styled in their own characteristic way. 

Naked children in the desert on the way to the Hamer village
The terrain we drove thru to find the Hamer village Photograph by Dorit d'Scarlett

After bartering for some metal bracelets and a first wife necklace we set out to find the nearest Hamer village. We were given a tip-off as to where we might find the temporary nomadic village and had to leave the main dirt road and follow goat tracks for some distance before we spotted a group of naked children wandering with their goats, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Portrait of a Hamer woman  Photograph by Russell d'Scarlett

Young Hamer girl with child on back Photograph by Russell d'Scarlett

Monkeybuns & Venus with Hamer children

Occy & me with Hamer child

A bit further on we eventually spotted the low lying village consisting of a dozen grass huts set in a rough semi-circle, similar in style to the neighbouring Karo villages with whom they intermarry to prevent inbreeding.

Hamer village Photo by Russell dScarlett

The huts are constructed with flexible poles set in the ground in a circular pattern. The poles are bent upward, joining at the top, then tied. Thatch is laid over this in the dry season and skins during the rainy season. When the campsite is being set up, beds for the women and young children are built first; then the tent frame is built around it. The tents Men and older boys usually sleep on cots in the centre of the semi-circle of huts guarding the cattle. 

The children were all eager to hold our hands, stroke our white skin and touch our hair.

The adults were just coming back from the fields or the market. A group of four older teenage girls posed for their photo, giggling shyly as we took their picture.

Hamer tribe girls
Four gorgeous Hamer girls

Most of the tribes practise female circumcision. We were pleasantly surprised to find the Hamer quite progressive in their attitude towards sex. Sex before marriage is allowed – but, if the girl becomes pregnant she must either abort or practise infanticide. The Hamer men cannot marry until they have killed either an elephant, a lion, a buffalo or a man and they say it is much easier to kill a man than a lion.
Hamer beehive close up

Hamer man making a Beehive
One of the young men was busy making a traditional beehive. These are made from a hollowed log, sealed with the exception of one hole for the bees to enter and exit, then stung up to hang from a tree branch. One tree will often have a dozen or more beehives hanging from it like some modernist mobile artwork.

The Hamer are very famous for their traditional bull jumping -  a rite of passage for boys coming of age. The event last three days and involves only castrated cattle.  Boys have to jump over a line of 10 to 30 bulls four times completely nude without falling. The task is made more difficult by the cattle's back being greased with fat. To have jumped the bulls is to be declared a Maza.  While the boy is jumping the cattle, the women of the tribe provoke the Maza (those that have already achieved the feat) to whip them on their bare backs.  This is extremely painful and causes severe scaring on the women.  If a man really likes a woman he will whip her harder than anyone else and the girl is proud of her scars because they are a symbol of devotion to the man.
Unfortunately we didn't get to see this ritual but we did see plenty of deep scars on the women's backs.

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