IT’S ROUGHLY FOUR-HUNDRED dusty and bone-jarring miles southwest from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to the Omo River Valley. But on these broken and often washed-out roads the journey takes twenty hours and two agonizing days. Passing through lush coffee growing regions, then high plateaus and remote mountain chains, and eventually arid scrublands of thorny bushes, cactus rows, and towering termite mounds, children traveling these roadways wave and scream for a few birr coins to be dropped out of each passenger window. And if they are not pleased with their “catch” they often launch stones in the hope of making contact with your passing Landcruiser. Stopping to confront these little vagabonds is a waste of time and energy, since as soon as you step out of your 4 X 4 they vanish into thickets or rocky escarpments lining the roads as quickly as they released their projectiles.
But just over the horizon is the town of Konso. Nestled on the top of a small mountain, it’s the gateway to the Omo Valley where fierce warrior peoples not only ornament themselves with Kalashnikovs or AK-47s strapped to their bodies, but also beads, body paint, and elaborate scarification patterns that prove their success in battle and make them known as “killers” to their enemies.
THE “POISONED PARADISE”
The Omo Valley has been described as Ethiopia’s “poisoned paradise” because although its landscape is at times extremely beautiful, especially after the rainy season when the verdant valley is filled with plant life, the rest of the year it sizzles in extreme heat much like the Arizona desert. Of course, you’re not going to find much electricity, running water, or even medical clinics here, and with the reality of armed conflict not too far off in any one direction, plus malaria and African sleeping sickness after the rains come, most people rarely live beyond 40 years. However, for many ethnic groups like the Hamar people and their sworn enemies the Bume and Galeb, this territory has been called home for hundreds of years. Largely undisturbed and little visited until the recent influx of tourism development, it is in this harsh environment that exotic tribes with animistic religions and ancient customs have remained relatively intact.
One of these traditions is cattle-raiding. Cattle-raiding is a part of life and culture, and it is also a means for survival in one of the wildest and most inaccessible regions of the earth. For the Hamar, a family’s wealth is measured by how many cattle they own and most young men spend the year far from their villages in distant grazing camps near the Omo River lowlands which mark the boundary of their enemy’s lands. From time to time, whether in search of fresh meat, extra cattle for a wedding dowry, or new armaments a man will go on raids alone or with a “hunting friend” called misso to augment his stomach, herd, or to take the weapons and ammunition of those men he kills. More importantly, a man can solidify his high status in the Hamar community by killing a man from another tribe on a raid. One man from the Banna tribe, a group that lives to the north of the Hamar, said “I used to go kill people, I killed people in order to be famous. It was part of [our] belief that a man should not marry until he has killed either another man, or an elephant, a lion or a buffalo; and it is much easier to kill a man than a lion.”
But the Arbore, enemies to the east of the Hamar who compete for natural resources and grazing land, seldom go to war with them. This is on account that the two tribes have not only developed trading partnerships and bond-friendships (bel), but there is another reason which is due to “bad magic.” One warrior recalled, “As soon as I killed a Hamar, I lost weight. I had over a hundred goats. After I killed Hamar the number of my goats will not grow at all. Once they get ill, the disease will not leave them. I hate Hamar blood.”
Battling the enemy in the bush is one thing, but a Hamar cattleman must also survive the natural elements. The Omo is the only river in the region that flows year round and when the dry season comes its crocodile infested waters are as precious as gold. But a man’s cattle are also his lifeblood, because when his bush food (e.g., grains and tubers) runs out, he survives on a diet of cow’s milk and blood taken from its neck. Survival is always a constant test in this unforgiving land, and if a man does not defend his family’s prized cattle herd from enemies or wild animals like bone-crushing hyenas and packs of jackals his reputation in the Hamar community will be shattered. This is the story of life, death, and dishonor in the Omo Valley and it plays itself out every single day.
A HERO RETURNS HOME
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.
After a Hamar man has killed an enemy he struts back to his home village with his misso 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 father greets his son by lifting up his right hand in which he already holds the gun and genitals (scrotum and penis if he can get them) of the slain enemy. These are then placed atop the gateway, and then 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.
Depending on the number of enemies he has slain, the Hamar warrior is also allowed to have his chest scarified with vertical rows of pala or “hero scars.”
Typically, a man has to wait some time before he can receive his skin-cuts. One man told me that he waited over one year to get his pala because he had to raise enough money to purchase six goats: his local scarmaster’s fee. Another Hamar man stated that he had to wait three years for his marks, because at the time he was the only male old enough to herd his family’s cattle and he couldn’t leave them to let his scars heal so he had to wait for his younger brother to grow up and take over his responsibilities. Of course, if a man who kills does not get scarred he will be insulted by his peers for not honoring tradition, and he will also have a difficult time finding a wife because he has shamed his family. Even worse, however, if a Hamar man gets scarred and it is proven that he did not make a kill, he will not be able to live in the village of his family because of the shame he has brought upon them.
Hamar women also wear intricately beautiful scars like their male counterparts. In some villages I was told that if a man has no more room on his body to tally his “kills” through scarification, then one of his wives (the Hamar are polygamous) can signal this information on her skin; each line of scars is said to represent one enemy killed. One Hamar woman named Gule from Bitta village near the tourist town Turmi reported “some women get scarred before marriage. Others do it after marriage, but I wanted to attract a husband so I had my upper arms and shoulders cut. All Hamar women do this to make themselves beautiful, just like we knock out our bottom two teeth for similar reasons.” Some women joke that they can take the pain of the pala better than men, and I wasn’t surprised when a Hamar elder named Argama told me that “women with scars are as strong as lions!”
ETHIOPIAN MASTERS OF BODY DECORATION
But scarification is only one aspect of Hamar adornment. After all, the Hamar people are considered to be “masters” of body decoration and it would be an understatement to say that most Hamar men and women share a fundamental belief in physical perfection.
Hair grooming is paramount to Hamar concepts of beauty. Women roll their locks with fat and red ochre (assile) and then twist them into crimson-colored dreds called goscha, a style that men find attractive. There is a ritual word in Hamar called dansho which evokes abundance and overflowing growth of the fields, and some say dansho is also like the red buttery ringlets of a young woman’s hair because they evoke a similar meaning. On the other hand, courageous men that have killed an enemy or dangerous animal wear a style of mud cap that lasts from three to six months.
The hair is teased, then flattened with mud and water and painted with red ochre and lime. Goat vertebrae are added to the back or front of the bun so that one or more white ostrich feathers (tuti) can be attached to it; these feathers are symbols of hunting and the domain of nature. To protect their prized hairdos, Hamar men at all times carry with them a borkoto or carved stool which they use as a headrest.
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. Women also decorate themselves with cowrie shells, glass, seed and metal beads, and wear beaded goat skin frocks that cover their upper body. Elder women adorn themselves with thick iron rings (zau) stacked on their arms and legs. Traditionally, arm rings could only be purchased with cattle (twenty-five rings for one cow). One woman I met said her eight heavy leg bands cost one bull, and they represent the number of brothers she has. Among the neighboring Banna, a woman may wear over one-hundred pounds of steel rings on her body. If she dies before her husband the rings are cut off, but if this proves too difficult her feet, head, or hands are sometimes severed from her corpse because the rings are the property of her husband and are given to his next wife.
HAMAR BLACKSMITHS AND SCARMASTERS
Iron rings, necklaces, tools, weapons, and ritual objects are considered to be precious items and the only person skilled in the art of creating them is the blacksmith (gito). Not surprisingly, the Hamar refer to the blacksmith as someone who is inflamed (edi nu) meaning “one with creative energy and imagination.” Blacksmiths are mystical figures who are always men and they learn the profession from their fathers. In some villages, it is believed that the gito has the power of “The Eye”; a dangerous power like the evil eye (chaki) which can make someone sick (even a friend) and eventually kill them if they are not quickly treated with bush medicine. For precautionary measures, blacksmiths that have such power live in exile several miles away from their communities even though their work is eagerly sought after. These men are so revered that their home community provides them with food and water throughout their lifetimes which is typically brought by an intermediary who will never look at “the man of fire.” At death, blacksmiths are not buried in the earth with their people, “we just throw him down a crevice in the rocks.” Today, this dark mysticism and belief is only followed in a few communities and most blacksmiths, realizing that they can make more money by moving into tourist towns like Turmi and Dimeka, are no longer feared because the power of The Eye has left them.
In some sense, however, Hamar blacksmiths continue to be, like their counterparts in other African cultures, the “makers” of men and women through the scarification tools (hade) they create. “Real” Hamar men are warriors who have defeated their enemies and wear the scars of their ancestors, just as girls only become women once they have received scars and marry because most Hamar men prefer scarified women to those who are not.
The process of Hamar scarification is very painful and I can tell you from personal experience that it verges on the inhumane! 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 (“the food of dead spirits”), which resemble small yellow tomatoes, are used to make a liquid. I was told by several old warriors that this concoction hurts far worse than the actual cutting itself and many Hamar now refuse it altogether.
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, although as noted previously some men may have more rows of scars than others.
For example, 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. But then again, young men also get beauty marks like the women, and these consist of a series of cuts directly above the knees, on the arms, or on the lower back. Such markings only take a few minutes to complete.
Gru, a Hamar warrior who has a full-set of chest scars, told me, “We’re always encouraging our young men to go and kill our enemies, but nowadays the boys usually settle for beauty marks on their arms and legs. But deep down inside, our women are really attracted to those men who have killed because they bring honor to their wives and families. Scarification is one of our customs, like the bullah rite, that defines us as Hamar and we would be nothing without it.”
HAMAR BLOODSPORT AND THE BULLAH
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 in the Hamar universe, there has been the bull-jumping ceremony called the bullah.
Failure to jump and then run across the backs of a dozen or more dung-laden bulls is one thing, but when there is a crowd of several hundred family members cheering you on (and who will whip the living HELL out of you if you don’t succeed!) that is another. 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. Even young men who are crippled or blind can participate, and in such cases they are either lifted over the backs of the cattle or are allowed to run under their necks.
Of course the bullah rite is no simple ritual. It is extremely complex, laden with enormous symbolism, and then you have to bear witness to your female relatives getting their bodies lashed until rivers of blood flow into the dry earth. Such sacrifices are performed in the name of love, and if your sisters, female cousins, or aunties need your assistance in the future you’re debt to them is sealed. You can’t ignore their requests period. After all, they nearly died for you!
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 metal horns called gola, and sing the praises of their man who they will not let go without a bloody fight: “Lingu, the son of Aike. A descendent of the famous Baldambe. He is our son. A child of a brave family,” they chant.
Lingu quickly became one of my closest friends in the village. He was also one of my house-hosts, although we slept outside under the stars which is customary for Hamar men. Lingu had to complete the bullah rite before he could marry. And if a boy or man’s family is wealthy he may participate in the ritual at a very young age. But in the case of my friend Lingu, who lost both his parents as a child, he had to wait until his twenties for his relatives to save enough money and cattle to pay for his bride’s dowry.
At dawn two days after they arrived, a scout comes into the village to report that the maza will be arriving in a matter of minutes. Excitement soon fills the air, but the women also seem a bit nervous and even agitated. Will their man Lingu display cat-like agility and cross the backs of the bulls six times without falling? Will he honor his ancestors by proving that this ritual is something that men can do and children cannot?
But before I make my way to meet the maza, I must first participate in a ritual with perhaps the most powerful elder in Bitta village, Argama. Everyday in Hamar a mouthful of morning coffee is sprayed as a fine mist, like rain, towards the door of the hut (oni), the animal corral (dele), and those gathered around. This blessing called bifa is meant to bring barjo, a term related to good fortune and fate of both a place and its people which is believed to be innate in every human being, in nature, and even inanimate objects. Barjo can be interpreted as a kind of fundamental principle, the primal condition of the existence and harmony of the universe. And without barjo, the sorghum plants would not grow, the rain would not fall, the cattle would die, and the heavens would precipitate into chaos. Only by repeatedly and insistently calling forth the desired state of “Being” every morning can the Hamar and their habitat coexist.
After the bifa, I offer a “barjo e may” or “thank you!” to Argama and the others in the hut and head down to a dry river bed where the maza are preparing their facial paint and wooden miceres that will lay deep cuts into the backs of the women they meet. All events before the bullah take place in a dry riverbed because this space symbolizes new life, since when the waters of the rainy season come they will cleanse its sands. Grouped around a large shady tree, I greet these colorful men with a “nagaia,” or form of “hello” that translates to “well” in every respect, both physically and morally.
The maza (meaning “accomplished one”) are like an exiled nomadic tribe, a group of men who have completed the bull-jump but have not married because their relatives have not yet found them a bride or the money with which to pay her dowry. Most initiates remain a maz for a few months; a few for up to two years, and very occasionally an individual decides to remain a maz for the rest of his life. They travel from jump to jump and receive village gifts of food and drink for their services, but when there are no forthcoming bullahs for a period of time they live off the land by collecting honey and drinking cow’s milk and blood.
By this time, the women up in the village have worked themselves into a frenzy. Passing around more gourds of sorghum beer and wine to the cacophony of their metal horns, they form a single line and start making their way down to the riverbed to incite the maza. Upon arrival, they immediately confront the somewhat timid and reticent men in their midst, and shout insults or taunt the maza into whipping them.
One by one, the maza begin to unleash their five foot long switches (micere) on the bare flesh of their victims. These whipping wands can be made of several types of wood like that from the dongo orbaraza tree, and the Hamar say that at the top of the micere there is “butter and honey” meaning that the use of the micere leads to abundance, well-being, and barjo. The Hamar also use dongo wood (cordial ovalis) to make drilling sticks with which they make new fires. Because fire is associated with ritual cleansing, as it is in many indigenous cultures, miceres made from dongo are believed to have similar properties.
During the whipping scene, the women and girls involved seem to reach a sort of ecstasy through their dance, songs, and continual horn blowing and only after serious provocation and continual harassment do the maza fire off another barrage of their whips which break in half with their forceful blows. Round after bloody round the girls beg and plead to be whipped and say repeatedly, “I want to be whipped by this maz until his miceres have been finished off! I will finish all his miceres!” And soon enough foot-long cuts that are more than one-inch deep open up into still more gashes. Flesh is now literally hanging off of these women’s backs, and it seems to have no effect on these courageous women. The whipping clearly demonstrates their toughness, but it is much more than that. It brings them closer to Lingu, revealing their strong love for him. And through their suffering comes a permanent, lasting reminder of his debt to these women – if they ever need him to help them with anything, he will!
The elders now step in and tell the women to leave because they have taken too much punishment. If it weren’t for the elders, these women would stay here all day and night getting beaten and demonstrating their incredible strength and endurance. Still, for hours, the women keep goading the maza, angrily challenging them to lash their bloody, welted backs. Some of them are so emotionally involved that groups of elders have to forcefully restrain them and ultimately carry them back to the village.
Now that the carnage is over, Lingu begins to prepare himself for a couple of rituals in his family’s corral that will bring him closer to manhood. But first, his family must sacrifice a goat to honor the spirit of one of his deceased brothers who was not able to jump before he died. A fire is built and the goat’s liver is roasted. Lingu’s closest relatives are handed chunks of the cooked meat which they soon eat while other portions are broadcast to the wind to appease the ancestors.
Lingu is then circled by some of the maza who have come up from the river bed to help him complete two more rituals, both connected to fertility and procreation. But before he leaves the family compound, his aide (shia) pours handfuls of sand over his crouched naked body. This he does “to wash away all that was bad in childhood. May all go away with the flood of the gully.” Lingu immediately darts away from the area completely naked except for two strips of tree bark placed across his chest bandolier style. He heads towards a clearing where the cattle for the bullah are being gathered.
All of the attendees also move to this spot, including Lingu’s female relatives who once again implore the maza to flog them: “Our boy will come and stand naked like a dead man in the middle of the cattle. The inventors of this ordeal are the maz. Let us kick them, let us punch them, so that they may whip us!”
Just before Lingu is about to enter the large herd of cattle that has been brought by his male relatives for him to jump, he is involved in a new set of rituals in which one maz ritually gives birth to him. This maz, sitting on a cowhide mat with legs spread apart, mimics childbirth and even wears a cowrie-shell belt (kalshi) which is only worn by women who have given birth to their first child.
Hamar elders say that the bullah ritual is necessary because young unmarried men lack barjo and are immature, deficient, generally no good, and above all sexually unclean. The Hamar use the term mingi to characterize this metaphysical state and say that it is a source of bad luck and pollution. Thus, if a Hamar man wants to become an acceptable member of society, he must purify himself by performing this rite of passage.
As Lingu readies for the jump, his female relatives attempt to prevent him from leaving them by frightening the cattle, but this act is more theatrical than a real attempt at disruption. The maza form a group and as they move closer to the cattle several men break off and start lining them up. Tensions begin building, and Lingu shouts to me over his shoulder, “This is going to be the biggest battle of my life. Wish me luck!”
Lingu’s family members face the east with their backs to the west where the Hamar believe all things evil should go. Then suddenly, Lingu makes his first leap across the backs of the cattle and he meets with success. After each pass, the crowd roars and sings his praises. Everyone is feeling the moment now, as if something they have never seen before is unfolding in front of them. Lingu continues his dexterous assault and after six passes he completes his test. Before I even have time to congratulate him, Lingu is led off into the bush by the maza to have his head shaved; because only then will he have achieved their status.
But there are still several questions to be answered. Will Lingu’s relatives be able to find him a wife and pay for her? How long will he have to survive in the bush until his family makes all of the arrangements? One week, one month, one year? Who will his wife be? Someone he may have met at an evangadi dance, a girl that he told his relatives struck his interest, or a woman he has never met, yet alone seen? I never did learn the answer.
“WITH THE ROAD, COMES EVERYTHING!”
Ten miles down the road from the bull jump in Turmi, governmental authorities have recently decided that they are no longer interested in tribal conflicts and have begun to prosecute men who attempt to get the traditional scars of a killer. Fewer and fewer men are risking it nowadays and they face up to a year in prison if caught. Not only will the individual who receives pala be incarcerated, but so too will any scarmaster that assists him. If that wasn’t enough of a threat, the government will also take several cattle from the family herd as additional punishment.
Because the Omo valley is large and difficult to police, the Ethiopian government has begun to recruit boys and young men with money to become informants. Since they come from the villages, they know when a kill has been made and inform the police when a scarring session has been scheduled or performed. But this hasn’t stopped the bloodshed, and now there are many Hamar men out there who have killed but have not yet been scarred.
The Ethiopian government has also discussed with the Hamar elders that they should abandon “all hurtful and harmful traditions,” namely the whipping of women during the bullah ceremonies. Many elders agree that the flogging should stop, but it continues to occur because as one elder statesman said: “we will stop when we are good and ready. The women are proud of their scars because it shows their respect and love for their male family members.”
Today, the Omo Valley and its peoples face other challenges in the form of development. The tourist mecca of Turmi boasts several new bars, a clinic, telecommunications center, hostels, motels and campgrounds for foreign tourists. And with more exposure to the West, many Hamar youth have begun to abandon their villages on most days in pursuit of tourist dollars through crafting and selling curios, posing for photographs, and even selling themselves through prostitution. A new paved road is currently under construction that will replace its often washed-out gravel counterpart, and with it will bring much more tourism traffic. Also, a new cell-phone tower is being erected and will not only bring mobile service to the area for the first time, but more contact with the outside world. One elder has said: “With the road, comes everything.”
As Omo youth spend more time in town and drink heavier alcohol than the traditional sorghum beer and honey wine beverages served back in the village, they also fall prey – willingly or unwillingly – to townspeople, tourists, their schoolteachers, and Ethiopians from the north. One Hamar man exclaimed, “The people from northern Ethiopia (gal) like our girls. Just like our boys like to flirt and lie with the gal women.”
Cases of the “clap” and HIV have been reported in Turmi and other places and while clinics have been established in these tourist hubs, the risks of transmitting these diseases through scarification instruments like the hade are apparent. But many Hamar continue to believe that serious illnesses or misfortunes are brought about by deceased relatives who need to be appeased with sacrifices or offerings. And when someone does die, it is simply stated that it was that person’s fate or barjo to do so.
Today, the Hamar of the Omo Valley face many challenges, and these new rites of passage are perhaps even more important than the bullah ritual itself. In an ever-shrinking world, where competition for land, resources, and even their culture (e.g., tourism) increases with every passing day, the Hamar keep one foot at the door of tradition and another at the threshold of a complicated future.
Of course the Hamar have always been successful at adapting to new cultural situations, otherwise they would have disappeared from the rugged landscape of what is Ethiopia’s last frontier hundreds of years ago. But will the government’s decision to outlaw pala scarification signal the beginning of the end for a practice that is at the very source of Hamar identity? Time will only tell.
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Strecker, Ivo (1999). “The Temptation of War and the Struggle for Peace among the Hamar of Southern Ethiopia.” Sociologus [Beifert/Supplement] 1: 219-259.
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