“Travel is very subjective. What one person loves, another loathes”.
This stay amongst the Hamer people we enjoyed thoroughly and cannot recommend it strongly enough. African-hardened cynic that I am, I had my doubts that I would enjoy exposure to traditional African lifestyles and customs as much as for instance, someone not born and bred in Africa. We are constantly exposed to this in the Eastern Cape of South Africa where I had spent much of my life living amongst and working with the Xhosa people. They also have their own proud traditions and initiation rites. I was also afraid that the whole experience would be too touristy and artificial for my jaded palate, how wrong I was. At least as far as our experiences with the Hamer people were concerned. They seemed unaffected by all the tourism fuss and although friendly and at times reasonably interested, they largely ignored tourists. You have to pay for most tourist activities in Ethiopia. I look at this commercialisation is as a reasonably good thing. It seems to encourage the maintenance of tribal traditions, coherence and community spirit and hopefully the community itself benefits financially from tourism. However there is a fine line between blatant tourism commercialism and exploitation and on the other hand maintenance and sharing of traditions. I found our experiences with the Hamer to be in good taste unlike those with the Mursi to come later.
To effectively interact with the Hamer I do think that it is necessary to hire a guide. We hired Banco from Mango at Birr 300 (US$15) per day for the whole group. He helped us to change US$ to Birr at a local shop at a slightly exorbitant rate of 18 Birr to 1 Dollar. We decided not to visit a Hamer village and instead headed for the market as Monday is market day in Turmi. This was a very enjoyable outing. The various towns in the Omo area have preset market days. I will report on the market days for some of the towns in the Omo area in the Geeks section. One has to pay an entrance fee of Birr100 (US$5) pp and then Birr 5 per personal portrait photograph. No payment is needed for panoramic general photos. The Hamer market in Turmi is on Mondays and Thursdays in the center of Turmi, anyone will direct you. Even on ordinary days the Hamer people dress traditionally with ocre, traditional bracelets and necklaces, many of which have a specific significance. A guide will explain these. The women in particular are striking with their plaited hairstyles covered in ocre. At the market they trade in many traditional products amongst each other, including cattle and goats, the one photo illustrates the scale from which goats are slung, as they are sold by weight. This market is a thriving local enterprise and not not a circus by any means despite the presence of tourists with their cameras. There is very little harassment of tourists to buy souvenirs or to take photos. What there is, is headed off by your guide. After a couple of hours peacefully browsing around the market and observing the Hamer socializing with each other and trading, it was back to camp and some lunch before setting off for what may well turn out to be one of our most memorable few hours in Ethiopia.
By extreme good fortune there was to be not one but two bull-jumping ceremonies that day. The Hamer are famed for this initiation of a young male into manhood. This ceremony signifies that his father thinks he has reached the maturity to take a wife. These ceremonies are not purely for tourists and are of major significance to the initiate, his family and the community. These only occur sporadically and I cannot believe our good fortune to be on site to see two of these. The other great thing was that these ceremonies were taking place in the Kasse River bed adjacent to the campsite. Already people in traditional dress blowing traditional trumpets were streaming to the event. Initially the women gather and dance and celebrate in a group on the river bed with the men looking on. Being 2 separate ceremonies there were 2 large groups. Initially the men are just onlookers but soon the women urge and taunt them to carry out an extremely macabre part of the custom. The men of the family group arm themselves with an armful of carefully chosen saplings and carry out the traditional whipping of a volunteering woman with a vicious lash across her back. The more scarred a woman is across her back, the higher her status within the community. Anne was horrified at this aspect of the ceremony pointing out that the women actually had no choice in the matter in order to maintain a reasonable community status. The men really lay in with a single lash after repeated targeted taunting from a woman. They do not seem to relish carrying out the lashing but the amazing thing is to witness that the women remain expressionless and try their level best to show no pain. I did notice a few discrete tears trickling down involuntarily. These lashings cut right through the skin of the woman’s backs leaving long bleeding lacerations and they later carry these scars with great pride. I also include a photo of a young girl barely in her teens experiencing her first lash, this gave me the creeps.
After this the young males who are in special attendance to the initiate and handle and position the bulls, undergo traditional facial painting. The initiate with his frizzed up hair now quietly makes his appearance with his proud father in attendance. There is a lot of dignity in what now follows. The bulls have been herded together and are now driven to a nearby clearing where the community (and about 10 tourists) form a large circle around them. The women dance and sing in celebration jingling the little bells attached to their traditional attire. Everything builds up to a climax and then the initiate makes his appearance within the circle. He is stark naked, proud, nervous and solemn at what for him is a highly significant occasion. We were able to witness both bull jumpings and it was fantastic to see this twice as everything happens so quickly that it hardly has time to sink in.
The initiate then moves right in between the bulls where there follows some moments of silence and introspection. The bulls are then bullied into a row parallel and righr next to each other facing in alternate directions, about 8 of them packed closely together side to side. Their sizes are substantial and it requires some man-handling from the special attendants to keep them in position. The initiate then takes a running jump onto their backs running nimbly across their backs before jumping off at the far side. This is repeated on 4 occasions in both directions. It is no mean feat to jump up onto a bull’s back, landing nimbly on your feet and then running across their backs. On many occasions the initiates slip and fall from their poor footholds on the restless bull’s backs. Apparently the risk of impalement on their sweeping horns is not inconsiderable. The look of triumph and relief on the initiate's face and that of his family on successful completion of this rite of passage is witness to the danger involved and the significance of all that is at stake for the young man. Even a cynic like myself was moved and impressed by being able to witness this Hamer tradition. This certainly was no tourist directed stunt!
We each had to pay Birr500 (US$25) to the village elders to witness this. Steep but worth it. You can take as many photos as you like for this payment. However you are going to be asked for Birr 5 for posed photo portraits. Thereafter follows 2 days of feasting and partying for the initiate, family and community members.
Main, Hamer bull jumping.
1. Hamer market scenes in Turmi.
2. Hamer woman.
3. Women dancing in river bed preparing for bull jumping.
4. Initiate preparing.
5. Hamer woman at bull jumping.
6. Woman being whipped.
7. Fresh and old whipping scars.
8. Ritual facial painting.
9, 10 and 11. Bull jumping.