- Ceremonial beatings take place during the male initiation rites but also in the home when the husband chooses
- Ritual beatings are carried out by a group of men called ‘Maza’, continue until the women’s backs are left bloody
- Men and women from the Hamar tribe use thorns to create intricate scar patterns which are considered beautiful
- The Ethiopian tribe were photographed by Eric Lafforgue who travelled to the remote Omo River Valley to meet them
By RUTH STYLES
Thick scars coloured dull red and black cover the backs of women belonging to Ethiopia’s Hamar tribe, the legacy of an initiation rite that sees them beaten bloody.
No screaming is permitted by the men wielding the canes but the women don’t care. Instead of fleeing, they beg the men to do it again and again until blood flows, dripping into the gritty red dust of the Omo River Valley.
Now the Hamar and their unique culture that merges the beautiful and the brutal in equal measure are the subject of a series of incredible photographs created by French lensman, Eric Lafforgue.
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Brutal: Hamar women volunteer to be beaten by ‘Maza’ (initiated men) during their brothers’ coming of age ceremonies. They show off their scars with pride
Tough girl: Like their men, Hamar women are expected to play a role in protecting the family cattle from rustlers and predatory wildlife
Patterned: Both men and women have intricate designs carved into their skin using thorns (left) and share a love of colourful jewellery
Lafforgue travelled to Ethiopia after spotting pictures of the Hamar in a vintage book and hopes his photos will provide a record of a culture under threat from encroaching modernity.
His striking images reveal the beauty of Hamar women in their orange ochre make-up and bright beads, their skin scarred into intricate patterns using thorns, resilient as they live a life that’s precarious at best and brutal at worst.
But not everything about the Hamar is troubling. For the Hamar, cattle are everything, and for the men, they form a key part of the rite that turns them from boy to man.
At cattle jumping ceremonies, young men are required to leap across 15 cows, smeared with dung to make them slippery.
If he fails, he cannot marry and will be beaten by the watching women. At the same ceremony, his female relatives are beaten to create a blood debt between the man and his sisters who show off their scars with pride.
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Homemakers: Women take on all of the domestic chores as well as childcare and the lion’s share of sowing the sorghum crops the tribe needs to survive
Adornment: Both men and women use orange make-up on their faces and bodies, in the men’s case with white paint in order to create a leopard-like effect
Rite: Wonderfully beaded and ochre painted Hamar women dance themselves into a frenzy as they take part in a colourful ritual while their men look on out of shot
Pride: A Hamar woman shows off her scars, including some recently inflicted ones. The three necklaces reveal that she is a high status first wife
‘While the boys walk on cows, Hamar women accompany him: they jump and sing,’ reveals Lafforgue, who witnessed a ceremony.
‘The more abundant and extensive the initiate’s scars are, the deeper the girls’ affection is to the boy who is about to become a man.
‘Totally committed to their initiated sons, the mothers are whipped to blood, in order to prove their courage and accompany their sons during the test.’
But for Hamar women, beatings are not just part of an initiation ritual – they are daily life until at least two children have been born.
Under Hamar rules, a man need not explain why he’s delivering a beating. It is his prerogative to mete out as he sees fit.
Men can also have more than one wife, with junior wives left to do the lion’s share of the planting and water gathering.
‘They do not have really the choice,’ says Lafforgue. ‘As [with] many women in Africa, they carry water, wood, take care of the food and the kids, while the men take care of the cows – the Hamar treasure.
‘Hamar men can have several wives,’ he adds.’The Hamar women who are not a first wife have a really hard life and they are more slaves than wives.
‘[But] seeing those women with their animal skins, their special hairstyles, and their body covered with this orange make up was fascinating.’
Protection: This Hamar girl’s battered old rifle contrasts starkly with her beauty and spectacular beaded necklace and headband
Work: Hamar women are responsible for all domestic duties including fetching water, cooking, cleaning the home and looking after the children
Happy: Two friends take a break from their back-breaking array of chores and farm work to share a joke and a smile together
Intricate: A Hamar woman shows of her carefully braided hair and treasure trove of bright beads, shells and metal bangles
Despite the violence, Lafforgue hopes that his photos will provide a record of a way of life that is slowly dying out.
‘ I always take photographs for two reasons,’ he explains. ‘First, providing a testimony as many tribes are starting to disappear but also to show the world how other people live, even if some of the time they have shocking practices.’
He tells the story of meeting a Hamar boy who had walked for several days to a local town, just to see his favourite Premier League football team on television.
‘This guy was wearing a Chelsea T-shirt, but still had to jump over ten bulls to be able to marry a girl in his tribe: a real culture shock.
‘They are all really into Chelsea, Arsenal, like many other Ethiopians, who are just crazy about English football’
With more and more Hamar swapping traditional life for Arsenal shirts, the days of beatings and cattle jumping would appear to be numbered.
See more of Eric’s work at ericlafforgue.com
FROM BEATINGS TO BEAUTY: ETHIOPIA’S HAMAR PEOPLE AT A GLANCE
The majority of the 20,000 strong Hamar people live in the Omo River Valley, a fertile part of the vast Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region of south-west Ethiopia, which is bordered by Kenya and South Sudan.
Most still live in traditional villages, although growing numbers are migrating to the region’s cities and towns as well as the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Cattle form the axis around which the Hamar’s world revolves, evidenced by the fact that there are 27 different words to describe the colour of a cow in the local language.
Men spend the majority of the time caring for the animals, which are also used to pay bride prices when the man takes a wife – always a woman from the Hamar tribe – and generally amounts to 30 goats and 20 cows.
Cows also form part of the male initiation rite, which involves contenders attempting to leap over a row of 15 cows made extra slippery with dung. At the same ceremony, the man’s sisters and other female relatives are beaten bloody to create a blood debt so the man remembers to help them should they face tough times in the future.
While cattle-leaping is relatively harmless, another practice, known as ‘mingi’ is more troubling. ‘The Hamar tribe still practises ritual infanticide,’ Lafforgue explains.
‘If the first tooth appears in the upper jaw, instead of the lower, the child becomes what they called ‘mingi’ – this applies also to the baby teeth and the adult teeth when the kids are seven or eight.
‘If a ‘mingi’ child is kept in the village by the mother, elders believe droughts, famines and diseases will come in the community, so they kill the babies.
Most ‘mingi’ children are left in the desert alone to die, although local charities now regularly check the area for abandoned children which are then raised in orphanages away from the tribe.