Ethiopia: Introduction to a Hamar village in the Omo Valley

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I wipe the sweat from my forehead as I continue along the road, leaving a trail of dust behind me. Small trees with vibrant pink flowers dot the landscape, as acacia trees line the horizon beneath the strong African sun. A local man and his herd of goats walk by and we shake hands, leaning in to touch right shoulder to right shoulder – the traditional Hamar handshake I’ve been greeted with on a regular basis by this friendly and welcoming tribe.

I continue along the road, discussing our plans for the afternoon with one of the project co-ordinators from Big Beyond, the organisation I am volunteering with for the next three months. Lost in conversation, I almost miss the woman who is lying on the road in obvious discomfort as three men sit on their borcato’s beside her.

Translating from Hamar to English, the Project Co-ordinator explains that the woman is pregnant and has been feeling unwell. Her husband and his brothers are walking with her to visit the Predictor, hoping a traditional remedy will help her feel better. If this long walk fails to produce a solution, they will continue to Turmi tomorrow to seek a medical solution from the town’s health clinic. But for them, this is the last resort – traditional methods are always their first and preferred option.

It’s only my second week with the Hamar tribe in the Omo Valley and I have to keep pinching myself to confirm I’m not dreaming – I feel like I’m in a different world.

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Time has been both flying by and standing still this week as I’ve become more accustomed to an unpredictable daily routine, learned more about the vision and goals of Big Beyond, met more of the fascinating and friendly Hamar community and explored the village we will be working.

This is the first Hamar village that Big Beyond has partnered with and the location of our camp. It is a few hours walk from the small town of Turmi – close enough to visit for basic supplies but far enough that the village has not yet been touched by the tourism that is starting to appear in the area.

It is a village with no power, no running water, one water pump and few outside influences. The landscape is scattered with huts made of sticks and grass that families share for eating, cooking and sleeping. Men dress in colourful sarong-like skirts, adorning their chest, arms, legs and heads with beads, bracelets and feathers. Married women wear silver bands around their necks, have red braided hair plastered in animal fat and ochre and wear animal skins.  Cows and goats are herded through the bush, outnumbering people.

Body scars are not uncommon and are a symbol of strength for both sexes: scars on the chest of men symbolise the killing of a strong animal or member of an enemy tribe. Scars on the backs of women are the result of the whipping that takes place during bull jumping ceremonies, the most important event in a male Hamar’s life. More about this in a future post…

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On the surface, the village is an African community untouched by time. Traditional beliefs and customs remain intact, influencing daily life and shaping the roles of men and woman. The Hamar language exists in speech only, with many locals unable to read and write. Communities are self-governed by elders and century old rivalries with bordering tribes continue.

From the outside looking in, the Hamar tribe live a simple but rewarding life. They support themselves with a pastoral and farming lifestyle. They have clearly defined roles within family and community, with a strong support network. They have shunned modern technology and the information overload that comes with it. And they have maintained the culture they are fiercely proud of.

They appear ‘non-progressive but happy’. But are they?

Whilst their culture and history is undoubtedly fascinating, it’s this ‘non-progressive but happy’ image that often captivates tourists who come to Ethiopia and visit some of the Hamar villages located  closer to Turmi. But is it an image that is romanticised by foreigners who are disillusioned with their busy and over-complicated lifestyles? Is it a perception that borders on being patronising, influencing the behaviour of some tourists? Can progression be measured in different ways? Can happiness be measured in different ways? It’s one of many thought-provoking topics I look forward to exploring whilst I’m here.

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So what am I doing here?

As mentioned earlier, I am here as a volunteer for the next three months with Big Beyond, an organisation that has been supporting sustainable grassroots development and conservation projects in Uganda for the past three years. After a number of years researching the potential for a similar project within the sensitive cultural boundaries of the Hamar community in Ethiopia, the ‘pioneer phase’ of the project began in June this year.

It’s an incredibly unique and exciting opportunity to be one of the first volunteers on the project, to live in a remote village and interact on a daily basis with a Hamar community that has not yet been touched by tourism and to learn and share more about this incredibly fascinating and unique culture.

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What will I be doing?

The aim of Big Beyond is to partner the Hamar community in developing sustainable education and empowerment initiatives, to help them look beyond today for a better quality of life, especially amidst a changing natural environment. Some really interesting projects have started, longer term plans are being strategized and on-going research unearthing some fascinating insights. I’m so excited to be a part of it.

Being a pioneer phase, my role will evolve over the coming months, but I’ll be focusing on supporting economic empowerment and small business initiatives, assisting cultural research and, something I am very passionate about, creating some ‘photography ethics’ guidelines for tourists and future volunteers. I’m also hoping to find the time to enjoy some walking in the region, as we head out with a GPS to attempt to create some maps.

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A typical day as a volunteer

There is no typical day as a volunteer!

Our day is very much influenced by the remoteness of the area we are living in, the lack of power, the scarcity of water and the availability of the Hamar people we are working with.

Today started at a water pump near Turmi, filling fifteen jerry cans of water to be taken out to the village for work to continue on our camp (which is still being constructed). The phone network has been down in the region for more than a week now, making communication between the village and Turmi challenging – in fact, two of our team spent last week passing notes between each other via one of our drivers. Lack of power equates to lack of refrigeration, creating a non-varied and vegetarian diet. Charging of electronics at camp is only possible via the small solar panels we’ve brought with us. Turmi is a small town stocking basic food and toiletries and not much more, so our project resources are limited.

Another challenge is the Hamar’s concept of time – or rather, lack of it.   The full moon signals the start of a new month; invitations to bull jumping ceremonies are via a string of bark from a tree tied into knots (with the number of knots signalling the number of days until the ceremony begins); no one knows their age; no one wears a watch; everyone is late, things always take longer than planned.

Our remoteness creates challenges, but it also creates rewarding opportunities. Unexpected invitations into local’s homes, sharing coffee, honey, parsey and conversation; long walks through the stunning African landscape; the elimination of the external distractions and the information overload of modern life; opening our minds to the fascinating culture and history of a part of the world that is so different to ours.

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Each day last week was different. I met a local woman who sells pots in the market and is keen to learn to basic business skills; learned that as her fiancée died when they were engaged, she is now under the care of his brother, whom we had to gain permission from to teach her these skills; I shook more hands in the last week than I have in the last ten years; I walked through the bush to a nearby village; I learned to count to ten in Hamar, including the hand signals used for each number.

I sat on animal skin mats in locals’ huts, whilst sipping parsey (local brew) from a kalabash (large oval shaped bowl used for drinking and eating); I’ve been asked – on more than one occasion – if it is acceptable in my culture for females to travel to foreign countries on their own; I’ve been asked – on more than one occasion – why I’m not married and who will remember me when I die if I don’t have children; I’ve eaten more injera in the attempt to train my taste buds to like the healthy alternative to bread; I’ve visited the market of nearby Demake, watching Hamars from nearby villages sell livestock, honey, tobacco and vegetables to each other.

I’ve attended the bull jumping ceremony of a young boy from the village, feeling intrigued about the most famous and important ceremony in Hamar culture, but uncomfortable with the human zoo behaviour of some tourists and local guides who joined; I’ve photographed the milky way; I’ve sipped a beer whilst watching a beautiful lightening display in the sky; I’ve watched water flow down the Kaske River after an hour of rain, only to see it dry again within 48 hours; I’ve heard myself say “we better close the kitchen door so we don’t find goats and sheep in there when we return”.

There is no typical day here with the Hamar!

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5 Things I’ve Learned About the Hamar This Week

  • Cash is considered ‘cooked meat’ and spent immediately. The concept of ‘saving’ is a difficult concept to grasp for many Hamar
  • Hamar is not a written language and the majority of locals cannot read or write, but many have a thirst for knowledge
  • A male comes of age when he completes the bull jumping (or ukuli) ceremony, a rite of passage requiring him to leap naked, four times without falling, over a line of 10-30 bulls. It is a very symbolic and powerful tradition of the Hamar.
  • Married woman are identified by the two silver bands worn around their neck. A third band with a cylinder shape at the front is worn by first wives only.
  • A daughter symbolises future wealth for a family, as a dowry in the form of cattle, goats, honey or guns will be paid by her future husband’s family.

 

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

Comments

  1. Take me there now, looks like such an amazing destination!

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