Hamar Tribe

The Hamar are a large agro-pastoralist tribe with a population of around 30,000. They dwell in the south of the province of Gemu Gofa, between Lake Stephanie and Turkana.

The main source of their subsistence is the cultivation of sorghum, millet, vegetables, tobacco, cotton and the herding of cattle, sheep and goat. They also gather wild honey and are fine potters.

They are extremely superstitious and believe that evil and bad luck exist in certain unholy or impure things. The intestines of a goat or cow are read at the birth of each child to determine its fate. In addition, a child born out of wedlock is given away or left to die and one of the mother’s front upper teeth are removed. Otherwise the family would risk crop failure, drought or ill health.

The social structure of the Hamar villages is that of the clans, with each one respecting its own taboos concerning food, sexuality and religion. The tasks of daily life are also assigned according to the clan. One is responsible for general administration, another for magic, a third for festivities and ceremonies, another for the settlement of disputes. There is not a single chief but a council of clan chiefs, which makes all decisions. The shamans or witch doctors all have equal authority. They know how to make it rain on certain dates, how to cure diseases caused by evil forces and how to heal wounds and appease hostile genies.

Cow Jumping Ceremony: The Hamar have an elaborate age-set system marking the periodic rites of passage from one age grade to another. Hairstyles are used to mark the stages. The most important ceremony is the “bullah” or “jumping of the bulls” when a boy becomes engaged and is about to pass into adulthood. This is a complicated ceremony in which the “maz” or recently initiated men participate, several hundred guests are invited, and he must take a running leap onto the back of the first bull, then run across the backs of up to 30 lined up in a row, without falling, back and forth four times. While he is running, his young female cousins and sisters are ritualistically whipped to encourage him. Successfully done, he is then allowed to join the maz. If he falls, he is considered completely unworthy and the embarrassment of failure will stay with him for the rest of his life.

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