In the far south of Ethiopia is a region called the Omo Valley. It’s home to several tribes, which have remained isolated until recently. To get to Omo Valley, I flew from Addis Ababa to the main city of the south, Arba Minch. Unfortunately, Arba Minch had only one functioning gas station, and we had to wait several hours for the tanker to deliver the diesel. A handful of trucks were in line ahead of us. From Arba Minch it’s several hours to the town of Konso, where we spent the night. From there, it’s another couple of hours to the Hamer town of Turmi, where they were due to hold the famous bull-jumping ceremony. On the way there, our vehicle had broken the leg of a goat belonging to a member of the Ts’amai tribe (who inhabit much of the area between Konso and Hamer territory. The driver got out to negotiate compensation and, after a while, I realized things weren’t going very well. So I got out too, and offered 500 Birr to smooth things over. For a while, it appeared as if we may have to load the goat on the vehicle and proceed to the police station – which would have taken all day, and cost us additional bribe money as well. In the end, the herdsman (who claimed the goat was pregnant – they always say that, I was told) settled for 1,500 Birr (about $75). He made off like a bandit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had intentionally pushed his goat in front of the wheel. My driver said we were lucky; further down, such matters are often settled with guns.
As we continued on our trek, we encountered various other tribesmen tending their herds:
Eventually, we reached the village of Turmi, and I got to wander about the marketplace. It was a somewhat festive atmosphere, and I was able to photograph freely, though if I wanted to photograph individuals, they’d ask for a small fee.
Many of the men mat their hair with mud, leaving a hole (or several) for feathers and who knows what else:
I visited a covered courtyard where a group of villagers were imbibing a local beer. Among them was a British man who had lived with the Hamer for several months. Apparently, he was trying to become an honorary member. He handed me the gourd/bowl they were drinking from, and I tried a little beer. It was warm and lumpy; I didn’t understand the appeal. Of course, without electricity, it would be difficult to have cold beer…
After a while, we were told that the ceremony was to begin. I paid 500 Birr (about $25) for the privilege of taking as many photos and videos as I wanted, and we headed off to another location outside the village. For the next hour or so, we watched the whipping ceremony, where women and girls taunt the men, and demand to be whipped.
Some of them dance, holler and blow horns – then hand the man a stick, with which he whips her back. She doesn’t flinch, but carries on as before. Meanwhile, other women sit by the side:
The whippings leave bloody welts, and these are treated with oil by other women.
One woman was taunting one of the men so severely that he was on the verge of tears. I gathered that he wasn’t whipping the women with enough vigor. My impression was that the Hamer don’t change their customs, or their rituals, on account of tourists; they don’t have these activities so that they can make extra money from us. As far as I could tell, the only concession they make, to the outside world, is that now most of the women cover their breasts during the ceremonies. In the village, many of them go about bare-breasted. Those men who were not actively whipping sat under a tree, preparing themselves mentally for what was to come next.
Next was the face-painting ceremony. Using pigment gathered by grinding two rocks together with water, a couple of young men had their faces painted. I suppose there’s a significance to the designs.
The culmination is, of course, the famous bull-jumping ceremony, which you can see here:
The whipping ceremony is brutal, and one tourist was in tears. It’s not something outsiders can understand, and I won’t even try. Oddly enough, other than that one odd custom, I found the Hamer to be well-mannered and hospitable. They handle tourism in a very responsible way, not letting it distort their way of life too much. The same cannot be said of the Mursi, at least the ones I encountered the very next day. Stay tuned for that.