The New Face of Hamer

The Hamer people are an Omotic community inhabiting southwestern Ethiopia, east of the Omo River and live in villages like Turmi and Dimeka. The Hamer have very unique rituals such as evangadi and a bull-leaping ceremony in which a young man has to succeed in order to get married. They are also known for their practice of body adornment and wearing a multitude of colorful beads. Although most of their culture and practices still exist, the Hamer people are now embracing the fruits of the modern world. For instance, they have become familiarized with paper money over the past five years. EBR’s Kiya Ali visited the Hamer people recently to observe their changing lives.

Gadi is a member of the Hamer tribe, an Omotic community inhabiting southwestern Ethiopia, and is in his early 20s. He is a stylish man, who wears a clay cap and brightly coloured necklaces made of beads. He usually carries a headrest, which is normally used as a pillow to protect his hairdo, but is also useful as a seat. He was introduced to paper money recently. “I don’t remember the exact day and place where I saw paper money for the first time but it was recently,” Gadi told EBR.

A few years ago, things like paper money, clothes, shops and motorcycles had no value among Hamer people. Now, when the sun comes up, the streets teem with students carrying school bags, women wearing skirts and t-shirts, men wearing trousers. Cafeterias that sell beer open their doors, and shop keepers who sell body lotions, soft drinks, bottled water, salt, needles and the like start their day in the urban areas. Seeing motorcycles scattered here and there within a few meters of each other is common in Turmi, a village in Hamer Wereda.

On the journey from Konso to Hamer, seeing groups of women walking on the roadsides with yellow jerry-cans, partially naked boys herding goats, girls carrying wood for fuel, and men in shorts herding oxen and cows is common. Even in the darkness of the early hours, residents around the Omo Valley area are not afraid of moving around alone, or in groups, to perform their day to day activities.

The area is next to a graceful mountain range that makes for a unique view. 266 kilometres from Konso, there is a small village called Kay Afer. Traditionally, many of the areas people eat raw meat for breakfast. 58 kilometres away is Hamer, along a deserted and barren-looking road.

The Hamer people live in Hamer woreda, 683 kilometres southwest of Addis Ababa, on the Ethio-Kenya corridor. The city covers an area of 5989.85 square kilometres. The Hamar people are known for their unique culture and customs such as a tradition of leaping over eight bulls in order to be allowed to get married. Those who achieve the feat will then be allowed to marry as many women as they want, but only within their own tribes.

Evangadi is another widely known Hamer tradition, and is a courtship dance. Both the men and women of Hamer have unique hair-dressing styles. The men wear a clay cap decorated with paint, feathers and other jewellery. The women are known for their rolled ochre hair.

The Hamer society is pastoralist and semi agrarian. They plant fields of sorghum, sesame and beans at the beginning of the rainy season. However, since they don’t take care of their crops after plantation, the yields are low. They also rear cattle. In Hamer woreda, there are 655,126 sheep, 137,201 goats, 15,246 donkeys, 1323 camels, 49,175 poultries and 465,126 cattle, according to the South Omo zone financial economic development department’s 2017 report. Camels are used for riding and as pack animals.

The 2007 national census puts the population of Hamer people at 46,532, of whom 957 were urban inhabitants. The vast majority (99Pct) live in rural areas. Yet, it seems that the days when the gorgeous people of Hamer would barter and wander naked around their village are gone.

Five years ago, many of the Hamer used bartering as a means of trading. They exchanged sorghum for livestock with nearby villages like Konso. However, during the past five years the society’s livelihood has changed. Most have become familiar with paper money, and have started planting and selling vegetables, as well as using modern financial institutions for saving money and getting loans. They also gather information about the climate from FM radio stations.

“There is still no investment around the area,” said Amsalu Amane, project coordinator for Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) project. Although the unique culture of the Hamer has the potential to attract tourists, the hotel and tourism industry is still underdeveloped. There are only ten hotels and lodges around Hamer. There are also 13 primary schools, two high schools and one technical and vocational school. But there are no industries and factories within Hamer.

“Currently there is enough land for investment in Hamer. The people are getting educated. The Hamer youth could be a good source of labour if investors would invest in the area. In addition, the area has fertile land that is suitable for agriculture. However the attention given to investment in this area is not satisfactory,” Melesew Girma, a community development facilitator, explained. Annually above ETB11 million tax revenue is collected from Hammer.

In the past five years, there have been projects implemented by NGOs in collaboration with the government to empower the community, including BRACED. “As a result of climate change, Hamer has been repeatedly affected by drought. The main objective of BRACED project is to help the society build climate resilience and adaptation mechanisms,” Amsalu states.

In Hamer, the project is mainly focused on the development of financial services, access to climate information and natural resource management as a means of climate resilience and adaptation mechanisms. Until recently since the means of trade was bartering, so there was no culture of saving at financial institutions, or at home.

“Since the people didn’t know paper money, when tourists gave them dollars or euros after visiting the area, they used to post it on the wall of their small round huts as ornaments. Now they are familiar with money. Even to take pictures with them, you pay five to ten birr.” Mesfin Leulseged, a girl’s education expert in the area, tells EBR.

Under the BRACED project, 36 village savings and loan associations (VSLAs) have been formed within the past four years, with 590 members saving ETB10-15 every week. Currently their total capital reaches ETB114,342. Omo Microfinance Institution and Commercial Bank of Ethiopia is the only financial institution operating in Hamer. In order to get loans from Omo Microfinance, they have to save 20Pct of the loan amount and can borrow a maximum of ETB5,000.

Although Hamer’s staple foods are sorghum and meat, they have started communally growing vegetables for sale and household consumption. Turmi is an elderly woman who lives in Hamer. An elegant, red haired woman, Turmi, who is in her late 50s, has lived in Hamer for most of her life.

Her day starts early in the morning and goes until night. She spends her morning tending to 1.13 hectares of farm land used to plant vegetables like tomato, onion and chilli with her team members. “After we got technical assistance and training, we started growing vegetables. Our plan is to sell the vegetables and earn money to save for use during drought seasons,” Turmi explains.

Besides vegetables, a few young people are also involved in providing tour guidance and motorcycle transportation service. They are also involved in trade, including at a market called Demeka, where traditional jewelleries are found in abundance. The market place is colourful. A single traditional bracelet made of metal is sold for ETB50. A ring costs around ETB25, and a beaded necklace can cost as high as ETB200.

One of the jewellery sellers at Demeka sells her wares while wearing goat skin attire and adorns her necks with heavy polished iron jewellery. “Years ago I didn’t know the use of money. Since I understand the use of money, now I have started selling earrings, bracelets, necklace and sculptures to earn money. If my children or I get sick we can go to the clinic and get treated, or during drought season we can buy food from other areas,” she says.

According to Mesfin, Hamer people conduct cross border trade with Kenya. They sell their livestock and buy garments. Then they bring the garment to the market place and sell it with profit. “In one word, their livelihood is changing,” concludes Mesfin.

8th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2019 • No. 70


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