Hamer Tribes

Bull Jumping and Whipping Rituals of Ethiopia's Hamer Tribe

Hamer Tribes of The Omo Valley

The Hamar (or Hamer) Tribe - population about 50,000 - in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region are pastural semi-nomadic people living in the Omo River Valley. The rites of passage to adulthood of the Hamar Tribe Rituals include cattle leaping and young Hamar women getting whipped to prove their love for their kinsmen.

The entire life of the Hamar turns around their cattle, which marks the wealth of its owner-family, provides food during times of hardship and plays an important role in the tribal rituals, like dowry for weddings.

The women cultivate sorghum, beans, maize and pumpkins, fetch water, cooking and looking after the children - who start herding the goats by age eight. Men herd the cattle, plough the fields and keep bees. Young men live in grazing camps near the Omo River plains. When bush food runs out, they survive on cow’s milk and blood taken from its neck. If a man loses a family’s cattle herd his reputation will be ruined.

Appearance is extremely important to the Hamar People, having spectacular hairstyles, for both men and women, and grooming ones hair is essential to the Hamar's sense of beauty. Women paint their locks with fat and red ochre and then twist them into dreads, while often ostrich feathers and other ornaments are attached. Men who have killed an enemy or dangerous animal wear a mud cap that lasts for months. To protect their hairdos, the men always carry a borkoto, a wooden headrest for a pillow. Married women wear iron rings around their necks and they also decorate themselves with shells, glass, seed and metal beads, and they wear beaded goat skins that cover their bodies.

Iron rings, necklaces, tools, weapons, and ritual objects are made by the blacksmith (gito), who are shaman-like figures believed to have the power of the evil eye. They also are the “makers” of men and women through the scarification tools and ornaments they make.

Hamar Tribe Rituals

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.when a man wants to marry he has to give a ‘bride wealth’ which is 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. on the contrary Women are alowed to 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 leap 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 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

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