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Omo Valley Journeys – Hamer

Keri, a Hamer girl in Turmi village

The Hamer, along with the tribal people of the Banna and Tsemay, make up one of the largest ethnic groups living in the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia.

A young Hamer child is cradled by the arms of his morther

They are an Omotic community inhabiting a territory east of the Omo River with their main villages in Turmi and Dimeka. 

A statuesque Hamer woman near Turmi in southern Ethiopia

Considered to be some of the most beautiful people in the Omo Valley, the Hamer are known for their practice of body adornment and wearing a multitude of colourful beads. 

Profile of a striking Hamer girl with a zig-zag pattern shaved in her hair

Women adorn their necks with heavy polished iron jewellery.  The most significant of these heavy metal necklaces is a Binyari which is worn by the first wife of a Hamer husband.  It is essentially a large metal band necklace secured by a “lock” shaped ornament.


For women who are the first of multiple wives, they will wear a Binyari and a more simple metal necklace beneath it, each for the subsequent wives of their husband.

A Binyari will be worn until the death of her husband.  Only then is she allowed to remove it.

Married Hamer women are also easily recognised by their beautiful hair styles that are created from red ochre and animal fat.  These two substances are mixed, then ‘twirled’ with fingers to create long locks of red hair. 

Hamer women twirl strands of hair with red ochre and animal fat

Hamer men adorn themselves with headbands, bracelets and anklets fashioned from strands of multi-coloured beads.

Portrait of Barke, a Hamer man in Turmi

Often families will pool their livestock and labour to herd their cattle together.  In the dry season, whole families go to live in grazing camps with their herds, where they survive on milk and blood from the cattle. Just as for the other tribes in the valley, cattle and goats are at the heart of Hamar life.  They provide the cornerstone of a household’s livelihood. It’s only with cattle and goats to pay as ‘bride wealth’ that a man can marry.  A lot of Hamer culture has now become well known to the outside world.

Hamer children in a village near Turmi

Honey collection is one of their major activities.  They will stay for a few months whenever there is enough grass for grazing, putting up their round huts.  When the grass is finished, they will move on to new pasture grounds.  This is the way they have been living for generations.  Once they hunted, but the wild pigs and small antelope have almost disappeared from the lands in which they live.

Stunning Hamer girl in black and white

Men and boys usually sleep on cots in the centre of the camp, near their livestock.  Camels are used for riding and as pack animals.  Most Hamer plant fields of sorghum at the beginning of the rainy season before leaving on their annual nomadic journey.  Some households also plant sesame and beans.  Because the crops are usually left unattended, the yields are low.  Few households grow enough grain to last throughout the year.

Portrait of a Hamer man near Turmi

There is a division of labour in terms of sex and age in Hamer people.  The women and girls grow crops (sorghum, maize, beans and pumpkins). They’re also responsible for collecting water, doing the cooking and looking after the children, who start helping the family by herding the goats from around the age of eight.  The young men of the village work the crops, defend the herds or go off raiding for livestock from other tribes, while adult men herd the stock, plough with oxen and raise beehives in acacia trees.

Beautiful Hamer women

Sometimes, for a task like raising a new roof or getting the harvest in, a woman will invite her neighbours to join her in a work party in return for beer or a meal of goat, specially slaughtered to feed them.  Relations with neighbouring tribes vary.  Cattle raids and counter-raids are a constant danger.  The Hamer may intermarry with the Banna or Tsemay people but they have nothing against borrowing – songs, hairstyles, even names – from other tribes in the valley like the Nyangatom and the Dassanech.

A Hamer woman and her baby. She is wearing a Binyari to show her status of first wife. Underneath are two plain metal necklaces, each for the second and third wife of her huband

Hamer parents have a lot of control over their sons, who herd 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.  Although it’s paid over time like instalments of a bank loan, it’s so high (30 goats and 20 head of cattle) that it can’t usually be paid back in a lifetime.

Smiling, giggling Woliso

Because men tend to be older than their wives, they often die first.  Lots of Hamer households are headed by women who have survived their husbands. 

A Hamer boy shows up between the skirts of his mother and female relatives

The Hamer have very unique rituals such as a bull leaping ceremony, that a young man has to succeed in order to get married.  A Hamer man comes of age by leaping over a line of cattle as an initiation rite of passage.  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. 

A beautiful Hamer girl arrives at the bull jumping ceremony. She is wearing a simple headband made from vines. These are given to women guests attending the ceremony

On the day of the ceremony, Hamer people will walk for many kilometres to join in the celebration. It commences with the women dancing a “Gola” and blowing horns as a welcome to arriving guests. 

Women dancing a “Gola” at the start of the bull jumping ceremony

The initiate boy will then arrive, surrounded by a group of recently initiated young men called “Maza”.  This group has stayed with him until this important day.  They have fed him and psyched him up for his brave act.  It is the Maza (pictured below) who are welcomed by Hamer women ahead of the arrival of the initiate. 

The Hamer men have a reputation of being less than adoring husbands.  The women submit to the ritual floggings proudly and love to show the deep scars that are regarded as proof of devotion to their husbands.  Shortly after the Maza arrive at the ceremony, women opt to be whipped by them before the rest of the guests arrive. 

A Maza whipping a woman who has chosen to be his subject

In between whipping women, each Maza will have his face painted in the same style so the initiate boy, when he sees them, knows to concentrate on them as he jumps the bulls that the Mazas are holding for him.

Bonko before his initiation jump across the bulls

While this is occurring, women prepare meals of fermented bread, tea and local beer to give to the guests in attendance. 

Geda, one of the Hamer elders attending the bull jumping ceremony

Each guest is asked to walk beneath an archway made of twigs and is given a small sip of alcohol before they are ushered in to the shade to wait for the main event. 

Hamer women burn green wood to make smoke while they make bread. The smoke keeps the bees away from their cooking activities

Finally a group of bulls is brought to the ceremony by the Maza and they are walked to a fire to be blessed before the main event.  They are then lined up and the initiate, naked, has to leap on the back of the first cow, then from one bull to another, until he finally reaches the end of the row.  He must not fall off the row and must repeat the test successfully four times to have the right to become a husband. 

The herd of bulls is taken away to be blessed before the leaping ceremony
Bonko running across the bulls! He made it! (Image by Polly Fenton)
Bonko’s successful run!!! (Image by Polly Fenton)

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