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Old hamar woman Ethiopia | by Eric Lafforgue
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Old hamar woman Ethiopia

Old does not mean anything in this area, as it's very complicated to know or guess the age. Those women work like slaves for the men of the tribe, and cover their skin with clay, butter and animal fat, so they have a really scary look.

South Ethiopia Omo valley


The Hamar is a catlle herder tribe which lives on the Eastern side of the Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia. Honey collection is their major activity and their cattle is the meaning of their life. There are at least 27 words for the subtle variations of colours and textures of a cattle ! And each man has three names: a human, a goat and a cow name.

The Hamar have very unique rituals such as a bull-leaping ceremony, that a young men has to succeed in order to get married. The cow jumping is an initiation rite of passage for boys coming of age in Hamar tribe. Cows are lined up in a row. The initiate, naked, has to leap on the back of the first cow, then from one bull to another, until he finally reaches the end of the row. He must not fall of the row and must repeat successfully the test four times to have the right to become a husband. While the boys walk on cows, Hamar women accompany him: they jump and sing. Totally committed to their initiated sons, the mothers are whipped to blood, in order to prove their courage and accompany their sons during the test.

The Hamar are very preoccupied with their beauty. They have at times spectular haidresses.

Men use a wooden head rest which prevents the hair from touching the ground. You can see them walking with it everywhere ! It is used as head rest to protect the clay wig that some do on the top of the head, but it is also usefulas a seat ! Even if there is a chair close to them, they prefer to use the head rest !

Women know many ways to do their hair. The most famous hair style is when their hair is in short tufts rolled in ochre and fat or in long twisted strands. These coppery coloured strands are called "goscha", it's a sign of health and welfare.

They also wear bead necklaces, iron bracelets around their arms, and decorate their breast with lots of cowry shells, like a natural bra.

Around married women's necks, you can see "esente": torques made of iron wrapped in leather. These are engagement presents; they are worn for life and indicate their husband's wealth. One of the necklaces catch more especially the attention: it is called the "bignere". It's also an iron and leather ring, which has a phallic-shape end. But this jewelry can only be worn by a man's first wife.

I remember a woman I have met. On her neck, there were three necklaces. According to what I just explained about the bignere, the biggest one at the top means she was "First Wife". This is important, as her statut is the higher one in Hamer society. But as she has two more simple necklaces around her neck: that means her husband took two more wives... The Hamar women who are not first wife have a really hard life and they are more slaves than wives... During my trip, I could see some of these women, working like slaves for the men: their skin were covered with clay, butter and animal fat... So they were a little scary ! Another thing to know about these women: the more scars one has on her back, the higher is her status.

The young unmarried girls, for their part, wear a kind of oval shape plate, in metal. It is used like a sunshield, but it tends to be rare in the tribe. Some of them have fund their future husband, but have to wait in their house until the so-called prentender can provide all the money for the ceremony: he has to pay for all the cows the bride-to-be's family asks for. These girls are called "Uta" and have to wait three months, entirely covered with red clay... And no right to take baths or showers ! They cannot go out of the house, let alone the village.That's why it is very rare to see or take a photo of a Uta. A cruel tradition still has currency for some Hamar: unmarried women can have babies to test their fertility, but some of them are just abandonned in the bush. This tradition tends to disapear but NGO still save abandonned new borns. Abandonments are all the more frequent than some Hamar believe that a child born out of formal marriages has "mingi", as to say something abnormal and unclean. For them, it is the expression of the devil, which may cause disasters such as epidemics or drought in the village. So, illegitimate children are abandoned. This kind of beliefs can also be observed in other Ethiopan tribes: many parents prefer to sacrifice their own child rather than risk being affected by the evil eye.

Something left me a really strong impression in Africa: football is of the highest importance, even in the most remote places !

I remember a boy, who was living several days-walk from the Turmi market. But as most of the young Hamar, he came there to watch football on television ! This guy was wearing a Chelsea tee-shirt, but still had to jump over ten bulls to be able to marry a girl in his tribe: a real culture shock! They are all really into Chelsea, Arsenal... such as many Ethiopians, who are just crazy about English football, because the national TV brodcasts every single match ! So, while I was in deep South Ethiopia, I still could ask “did Arsenal win?”, and always had an accurate answer: the score, the name of the scorers, etc...Strange, but true ! Meantime, the world economic crisis was at its high ! Even if you do not speak their language, you can exchange with those guys with few words like “Ribery, Thierry Henry, Drogba", etc. ! Of course, all the tribes do not go into this village, and only the ones who are not too far have this passion.

Other special feature in these tribes: their relation to the photos. I remember a day, in a restaurant in Dimeka -not to say the only one around there. I made a polaroid of a Hamar couple. The man was angry because, as he said, "the colors were not good" ; he threw the picture away. But the lady finally let him go, and took the picture with her ! It' was not the first time those people, from remote areas, do not have any pictures of themselves and so are very demanding about the quality of the picture they are on! For instance, the Mursi do not understand why the picture do not have their own real size !

Besides, it is not so easy to get smiles in this area. First, because people work really hard and second, because it is very difficult to share anything with them as we are seen as walking wallet with cameras !


© Eric Lafforgue


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Taken on October 27, 2008