The Hamar (also spelled Hamer) are an Omotic community inhabiting southwestern Ethiopia. They live in “Hamer woreda” (or district), a fertile part of the Omo River valley. They are largely pastoralists, so their culture places a high value on cattle. 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.
Hamar men and women
Hamar parents have a lot of control over their sons, who herd the cattle and goats for the family. It’s the parents who give permission for the men to marry, and many don’t get married until their mid-thirties. Girls, on the other hand, tend to marry at about 17.
Marriage requires ‘bride wealth’, a payment made to the woman’s family and generally made up of goats, cattle and guns.
If a man can afford the bride wealth, he can have three or four wives. Women only marry one man.
Hamar cattle-leaping and whipping
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. They have several days of feasting and drinking sorghum beer in prospect.
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 Maza, the ones who will whip them – 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 whipping appears to be consensual; the girls gather round and beg to be whipped on their backs. They don’t show the pain they must feel and they say they’re proud of the scars. They would look down on a woman who refuses to join in, but young girls are discouraged from getting whipped.
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. Her scars are a mark of how she suffered for her brother.
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.
Meanwhile, the Maza and 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 many 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 in goats and cattle.
At the end of the leap, he is blessed and sent off with the Maza who shave his head and make him one of their number. His kinsmen and neighbors 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 neighbors will step in; and after a couple have had two or three children, beating stops.
Today (2014), the road network and local towns are expanding in this part of the Omo Valley. Some Hamar people are moving to town, going to school, forgetting traditions and choosing not to join in whipping rituals. For others, towns are a place to sell surplus produce, and buy goods from outside.
For the last 10 years, tourists have been visiting the Hamar to watch the cattle-leaping ceremonies. The Hamar appear to be confident in the survival of their traditions. Despite increasing contact with town-dwellers, they continue to marry only from within the tribe and scorn those who refuse to take part in tribal ceremonies. Of more concern to them are the tourists who refuse to pay for the privilege of taking photographs.
Some believe this contact will change Hamar society by undermining their cultural values. Others say it is one way that they can be preserved, as the money from tourists helps to pay for the cattle-leaping ceremonies, and the tourists’ attention gives the Hamar pride in their customs. Action Tours recommends to visit the South Omo Tribes soon before their original culture may vanish or amended by modern lifestyle by education and social exchange.