Hamar boy with Kalashnikov I
Hamar settlement in southern Ethiopia's lower Omo Valley.
The Hamar are semi-nomadic herders and farmers who live in small settlements scattered across the hills, plains and dry thorny bush terrain in the remote southwest corner of Ethiopia.
Armed conflict over access to scarce natural resources (water and grazing land for cattle) is endemic and entwined with a “culture of heroism” that encourages cattle raids and revenge attacks on neighbouring tribes. The initiation and passage of young men to adulthood involves demonstrations of fearlessness and bravery not only to protect the community but also to enhance status and acquire cattle-wealth needed to pay the brideprice or dowry for a wife.
The Kalashnikov (AK-47) automatic assault rifle symbolizes wealth, status and power in the region and often figures into the bridewealth or payment made by the husband’s family to the bride's family.
Above all, the Kalashnikov provides protection during cattle drives to water and grazing land, security in the sorghum gardens and fire-power during retaliatory raids between neighbouring tribes. The value of a Kalashnikov can range from five to thirty-five cows depending on the changing conditions of supply and demand.
Spears and other traditional weapons in the region were replaced with automatic rifles in the 1980s when they became more readily accessible during the decades-long civil war in neighbouring Sudan.
A surplus of automatic weapons is also in circulation in the Horn today through other channels, including the flow of small arms and ammunition from the longstanding wars across the border in Somalia and nearby northern Uganda. SKS and AK-47 assault rifles were easily available, relatively cheap and easy to use.
Large numbers of automatic weapons were also imported from the USSR to Communist allies around the world during the Cold War, including Ethiopia. Russian-made Kalashnikovs like the one in this photograph were widely available after the fall of the Derg, the Communist military junta that ruled Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam from 1974 to 1987.
The consequent disbanding of the army and police force likely produced a flood of automatic weapons on the market. They became accessible in part through established tribal links with arms dealers in the Ethiopian highlands further to the east of the Omo Basin and elsewhere.