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Origins and movements

Many of the myths of creation that have been collected from all over the world assert that the people who live in particular habitats have fallen from the sky, have popped up from the earth, have materialised as part of some extraordinary metamorphosis, and the like. So one might expect to find similar myths in southern Ethiopia. But neither the Hamar nor the Mursi have recourse to any extravagant myth making when it comes to these topics. On the contrary, all the stories they tell about their origins seem sober and plausible to a contemporary western mind, even though they are at times quite colourful and not necessarily true.

The Mursi and Hamar live in the rugged terrain of the South Ethiopian Rift Valley. The mountains rise to the North until they vanish almost completely in the clouds that cover the cool highlands of Gofa and Gamo, and to the South they slope down to seemingly endless plains that vanish from view in the haze that hovers over the hot Omo valley.

Like the proverbial grass that is always greener on the other side, people have found both the mountains and the plains alluring and worth exploring as possible new habitats. So it is not surprising that population movements towards the mountains (north) and towards the plains (south) have characterised the history of the region. The Mursi provide an example of northward movement "in search of cool ground" as David Turton has called it. The Hamar on the other side exemplify a movement towards the South; they chose their mountains as a stronghold from which they could use the lowlands that extend southward for grazing, hunting and raiding deep into what is now Kenyan territory. Baldambe - Balambaras Aike Berinas – has recalled this as follows:

Long ago, in the time of the ancestors, the Hamar had two bitta (ritual leaders). One was Banki Maro, one was Elto. The first ancestor of Banki Maro came from Ari and settled in the Hamar mountains. He, the bitta, made fire, and seeing this fire people came, many from Ari, others from Male, others from Tsamai, others from Konso, others from Kara, others from Bume and others from Ale which lies beyond Konso. Many came from Ale. The bitta was the first to make fire in Hamar and he said: 'I am the bitta, the owner of the land am I, the first to take hold of the land. Now may you become my subjects, may you be my dependents, may you be the ones I command'  - (Lydall and Strecker 1979: 2).

According to Baldambe, at this time the bitta categorized the Mursi (Mursu) as enemies saying: "I will keep away your enemies; your enemies the Borana, your enemies the Korre, your enemies the Bume, your enemies the Mursu, your enemies the Male, your enemies the Karmit. If war comes I will quell it. My name Banki Maro means ‘the one who stops war’" (Lydall and Streecker 1979: 5). Baldambe went on,

The country of the Mursu is far and lies across a river, so our ancestors did not know them. It was my father Berinas who started the war with the Mursu. Dedjasmatch Biru who was governor at Bako called Berinas, “Berinas!” “Woi!” “The Mursu are Menelik’s enemies, fight them! When the police come to them they kill them. When the Hamar come to them they kill them. When the Amhara come they kill them. Fight them!” Then Berinas showed Biru the way to Mursu. In olden times the Hamar would only look at the fires on the mountains of Mursu. It was Berinas who started the fighting and it was Dedjasmatch Biru who ordered him to do so"  - (Lydall and Strecker 1979: 25-26).

The southward movement that led to the constitution of Hamar was enhanced by the Ethiopian conquest, which drove the Hamar into the lowlands and caused them to raid deep into Kenya. I have summarized these dramatic events elsewhere as follows.

The Hamar past lies in the dark. Mythical traditions indicate that they originated as an amalgamation of immigrants from northern, eastern and western tribes (Banna, Kara, Bume, Ari, Male, Tsamai, Konso) but we do not know when they developed their distinctive cultural features. It is certain, however, that by the middle of the nineteenth century the Hamar had taken possession of the fortress-like mountains north of Lake Turkana (Lake Rudolph). They lived from agriculture (sorghum, beans, gourds, salads), stock-raising (cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys), apiculture, hunting and gathering.

The first Europeans (big game hunters, explorers) arrived at the turn of the century. They brought with them smallpox and rinderpest, and consequently, along with other tribes in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, the Hamar lost a number of their human and animal populations.

After the Europeans the Ethiopian army arrived. Emperor Menelik II occupied the whole of the South and West of contemporary Ethiopia in order to counteract the colonial ambitions of Italy and England in the area. The Hamar did not submit freely and fighting ensued in which many Hamar lost their lives or were enslaved. Those who escaped fled to the impenetrable forests along the rivers in the lowlands and at the shores of Lake Turkana and Lake Stephanie (Chew Bahir).

As a result of the conquest the Hamar lost some of their traditional institutions, and while they were in exile they adopted some customs of their hosts, but they never lost their identity. Some of the most determined and strong-willed soon began to establish themselves in a no-man’s-land that extended between the (unhealthy) lowlands where the independent tribes lived and the (healthy) highlands where Menelik’s troops had established themselves. They lived a semi-nomadic life there, which was free from the degradations of exile or enslavement. From then on the community with its institutions (e.g. the age-set system) did not count much but rather each man was for himself. Each made up his mind about what was best for him to do, where and when. He decided which rites he had to perform in order to ensure the good luck of his family and his herds, and he lived his life without subordinating himself to anyone. He concentrated on stock-raising but did not engage in agriculture, as this would have made his whereabouts predictable and would have exposed him to the Ethiopian slave raiders. In order to replenish his herds he raided the Gabare and Borana in Kenya.

The heroic and successful determination of a powerful personality became the basis of an individualistic view of society, which is characteristic of contemporary Hamar. Today, men still recall the admirable deeds of their fathers, and until today, the raiding of livestock has remained the highest societal goal and the most convincing expression of personal achievement" (Strecker 1979: 1).

Flood irrigation and rain fed agriculture

Like the Mursi, the Hamar use the floods that rush down during the rainy season from the highlands into the South Ethiopian Rift Valleys and saturate the banks of both the Omo and the Woito rivers. However, the Hamar have only limited access to these precious field sites. At the Omo it is mainly at Diba where they cultivate fields side by side with the Kara, and where on occasion they also meet Mursi who have come in search of grain. Along the Woito it is only at Tulae that the Hamar cultivate fields, often side by side with the Arbore, but there are stretches further up the valley where in earlier days – and hopefully also in the future – the Hamar would make fields close to the Tsamai.

Having their home in the mountains the Hamar rely more than the Mursi on rain fed agriculture. Let us listen again at length to Baldambe, to share his knowledge and savor his lively exposition of Hamar economy and ecology:

Hamar country is dry, its people are rooks, they are tough. Living between the rocks, and drying up, they dig fields and make beehives. That’s Hamar. The maz used to strum the lyre together with the elders: “Our father’s land, Bitta, Banki Maro’s land, when the rain will fail it is not told. Our father’s land has no enemy, only the wombo tree is our enemy.”

So the lyre used to be strummed kurr, kurr, kurr! The sorghum may get lost, but the Borana don’t climb up the mountains, the Korre don’t climb up into the mountains. The Korre kill men at Sambala, they kill down at the Kaeske. The Male kill men in the open plains. They kill men at Sabin Turrin. They kill men at Bapho. They kill men over at Dimeka. No one climbs into the mountains. No one climbs into the mountains to kill. In the mountains, however, there is a tree called wombo (Ficus sp.) which has a trunk which reaches high up. When the fruits ripen at the top, when one’s stomach is grabbed with hunger, then one climbs up the ripe tree. Having climbed up one eats, eats, eats, eats, eats, eats, until one is swollen with food, and one’s arms and legs are shortened. The way down is lost. So one sits in the branches and sleeps, and as one sleeps one falls wurrp! dosh! one is dead. “Our fathers’ land, you have no enemies, only the wombo tree is your enemy.”

For us Hamar the wombo is our enemy. Our father’s land, Sabots land, Elto’s land, Banki Maro’’s land, Kotsa’s land. In Garsho’s land, rain never used to fail. Our bitta never told of its failure. Our grandfathers did not tell, our forefathers did not tell. There was rain. Nowadays the months when your fail are many. In the month of kile kila you left us dry, in the month of dalba you left us dry, in the two months of mingi you left us dry, in the two months of shulal you left us dry. Altogether that’s seven months when you left us dry. Then in barre you made us crazy and drove men to Galeba, and drove men to Ari, and drove men to Ulde. Barre means being crazy. Men getting crazy are lost. It was not told that you would pass by our fatherland. You will come. So in the month of surr it rains a little. Down at the borders there are rains kurr, kurr, kurr! It rains just for the gazelle, just for the oryx, just for the gerenuk, just for the zebra, just for the buffalo, it rains just for the warthog, the father of the tusk bracelets.

“Let us plant! When will you fall? Come to plant our sorghum! Plant it!” Saying which, the rain comes and plants the sorghum into the ground. The wet season. Then when it has rained in that month there comes the month of puta when the sorghum flowers. When puta finishes there comes zako. Then the country is held by cloud, the blanketing cloud and the black clouds, which bring no rain, and the clouds which drizzle. It is simply cold everywhere. There is no cloth, so having put on skin capes, everyone sits at the fire and shivers. Zako means hugging the fire thus, that’s the month of zako. The clouds are all clouds, the sun is not seen. The rain drip drip dripping brings only sickness. Hugging, hugging, hugging the fire your thighs get cooked and blotched like the spotted leopard. While you hug the fire the baboons eat the field clean. The pigeons eat the sorghum clean. That’s zako. After zako come two months of alati when the country dries, the plants turn yellow, some ripen, and the grass dies off; kai and naja and gorrin are the first plants to lose their leaves. One month of alati is karna-agai when the sorghum down in the lowlands is ripe, up in the mountains it has yet to ripen. In the next month, agai-phana, the sorghum is ripe in the mountains. Then again come the months of no rain, shulal, mingi, dalba, kile kila and barre. These are the Hamar months" (Lydall and Strecker 1979: 157-159).

Glorification of cattle and goats

The dry and stony terrain between the two branches of the South Ethiopian Rift Valley is particularly well suited for goats. So it is not surprising that the Hamar possess and skillfully manage large herds of goats. Kuli edi zani ne, they say: "Goat herders are ropes", their life will not snap, they will not die of starvation because the goats will tide them over the most difficult times of the year. As in Mursi, cattle play also an important role in the economy and social life of Hamar. This is why cattle are adorned and glorified in many ways. However, the Hamar glorify not only their cattle but also their goats. Here is how Baldambe has described this curious custom.

When a Hamar boy has become a fully-grown youth he will say: “I will sing about the goat, and singing about the goat, because of the goat, I will kill a lion. Because of the goat, I will kill a rhinoceros. Because of the goat I will kill a leopard. When I really know the words I will go and dance on the boaka and the girl who likes me, if she is a tsangaza, I will marry her; if she is of my moiety, I will make love with her.” So the goat is sung about. The goat is glorified. Another youth does not know how to sing. In his case the appearance of the goat will be praised only when it goes down to the waterhole. “Kai! whose kamara goat is that?” “It belongs to so-and-so.”

The kamara goat is his child. If it is red he will be called father of the red, if it is grey he will be called father of the grey. These are then his names: Tilazia if his goat is white, Lopado if it is black and white like the stork. This is now his new name, signifying that he has become a youth. Later, when he jumps over the cattle he gets his garo name and after that when children are born to him he will be called after his children’s names. But before this he is called after his goat or after his ox, for these are his children" (Lydall and Strecker 1979: 104).

Ritual characteristics

The ingenuity with which the peoples of southern Ethiopia create their rituals have made them famous all over the world so that tourists come in ever growing numbers to witness, photograph and occasionally even take part in them. In Mursi the donga – competitive stick dueling of men - and the ula – competitive bracelet dueling of women – are the most dramatic events and have been documented both in writing and in film. In Hamar the ukuli – male initiation rite – is the most outstanding and widely known. It has also been documented in writing and film.

The ukuli rite is extremely complex and comprises more that fifty episodes, which accomplish the symbolic metamorphosis of the initiate from a 'defiled' state of youth to a 'pure' state of adulthood in which a man may marry and legitimately beget children. Baldambe has given us a very detailed account of the performance and meanings of the various episodes. As there is not enough room here I select only two passages where Baldambe describes first the motivation of the initiate and second the climax of this rite of passage, the ‘leap over the cattle’. Note that the ritual potentially reaches out to the Mursi because they are – or rather were - counted among those groups whom the Hamar youths were encouraged to attack and kill in order to show their prowess and legitimize their claim to adulthood. First, then, the motivation of the initiate.

That man has killed an elephant. That one has killed a lion. That one has killed a rhinoceros. That one has killed a man, maybe a Borana, maybe a Korre, maybe a Mursu, maybe a Male, maybe a Karmit. After he has killed some fierce animal or a man, then: “Take the boko stick” (short staff with a rounded head symbolizing the ukuli, initiate, literally 'donkey'). Otherwise: “A, a! I have not killed a hyena, I have not killed a lion, so I will not marry a woman. Only when I have killed a hyena will I marry. Only when I have killed a lion will I marry. Only when I have killed a leopard will I marry. Only when I kill an elephant will I marry.” So saying he will seek a wild animal, buffalo or elephant, or leopard or rhinoceros, and when he has killed one, then he will take the boko (Lydall and Strecker 1979: 74-75).

After many days – often even months – of preparation in which the young man is stripped of all his possessions, has his forehead shaved, is given certain paraphernalia that signify his status as ululi and has announced when he will leap over the cattle, eventually the day comes when relatives arrive from all over Hamar bringing some of their cattle with them.

The people gather on the ridge and the girls dance around the cattle. The men keep the cattle from running away. “Ukuli, come and enter the cattle.” So the ukuli comes and stands among the cattle, naked like a dead man. The cows bellow and the father’s son stands there like a dead man and the father’s cattle stand there as at a burial. “The inventors of this ordeal are the maz (the initiates who have already leapt over the cattle and have the task to "beget" new initiates), let us kick them, let us punch them so that they may whip us” say the girls. They dance and sing: “The father of the spotted cow is standing up. This is our father’s son’s kalma (oxen standing at both ends of the row of cattle).” Singing they push the maz and the elders point out if they push the wrong maz. “Eh, eh! This maz is your relative, he should not hit you. The one who may hit you is this one, he is your tsangaza, the one whom you can marry.”

Tsangaza means the homestead into which our women marry. When our ukuli jumps, our girls are whipped by those maz whose girls we whipped before. This is the whipping of the girls by the maz. They whip, whip, whip.

“Stop girls, stop, so that the maz can walk around the cattle.” First the maz squat down and sing: “Now here are the cattle bought by our forefather of BA (clan name). The debt he has to pay now is eight. The wild dog has crossed the outskirts of his forefather’s settlement. Weo, weo, walane, walane, wobero wobero” (the meaning of all this is obscure).

Then the maz encircle the cattle. First in line walks a maz smeared with charcoal, he has just become a maz. Throwing a gali (ipumea spathulata) leaf towards the cattle he goes ahead. After him follows the senior-most maz and behind him follows another, after him another and after him another. They walk once around the cattle and then the one in front is told to go at the end and now the senior-most maz leads them and they encircle the cattle four times. Then: “Take hold of the cattle!” When this is said the maz-father of the ukuli grabs the garo calf (It will stand at the front of the row of cattle, and its color pattern will provide the new name for the initiate). The senior-most maz grabs an ox to put at the beginning of the row, and then other cattle, male and female, are caught and pulled into line. Cows who have served as garo calves before are not allowed. Also big bulls are separated and driven away… At the end of the row of cattle stands another ox called kalma. Before the cattle are caught and put into line the ukuli leaves them and stands aside at some distance. Then: “Ukuli, come, come, come!”

Upon this he runs towards the cattle. First he steps up on to the back of the garo calf, then he steps on the back of the first kalma, then stepping on the backs of all the cattle in the row he jumps down on the other end. He returns again stepping first on the kalma at the other end and stepping, stepping across the cattle he comes down on this side, the side of the garo. Again he returns and crosses the cattle, all in all four times, twice from this side, twice from the other side. When he has finished jumping, his mansange (ritual assistant) grabs him and another maz bites off the baraza (grewia mollis) bark straps, which he is wearing across his chest.

Having cut the bark, the maz takes the phallus from the ukuli and two bracelets which the ukuli’s unmarried younger sister hands him. She has been standing by and holding the ear of the garo calf while her older brother was jumping. First the maz lets the baraza bark fall to the ground, then he inserts the phallus into the cleft of the hoof of the garo’s right foreleg. When he gets up he throws the two bracelets skywards and lets the people pick them up when they come down. While he was jumping, the ukuli’s mother’s brothers and his mother’s sisters were holding their staffs horizontally above their heads, so that he may not fall, that he may cross the backs of the cattle well, that if he should fall no stick should jab into him, that he may not hurt himself on a stone. For this reason they hold their sticks up horizontally.

After the jumping, the maz bless the ukuli and the cattle with a spraying of their lips. When the cattle have left, the mother’s brothers and the mother’s sisters also bless him while he looks towards the mountains of Hamar. They bless him and call barjo (wellbeing, luck, good fortune) and when they have done this and left, the women and girls of the village also bless the ukuli. This is all" (Lydall and Strecker 1979: 84-87).

Invitation to comparison

This brief sketch of contrasting cultural features is meant to renew my old call for comparative anthropological work in southern Ethiopia. In the past decades, several masterly ethnographies of individual groups like the Mursi, Hamar, Maale, Tsamai, Arbore, Konso, Borana, Dassanech and others were produced. However, comparative studies have been conspicuously missing. This is why some twenty years ago - together with others - I founded the South Omo Research Center (SORC) in Jinka. Yet, after initial efforts, which involved several workshops on topics like cultural contact, gender, local history and material culture, comparative research on basic anthropological topics has ground to a halt. I think this is sad and does not need to be so. But where are the young scholars who will infuse SORC with new life and new comparative research agendas?

IVO STRECKER, Emeritus Professor, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz



Lydall, Jean and Ivo Strecker 1979: Baldambe Explains. The Hamar of Southern Ethiopia. Vol. II. Renner Verlag, Hohenschaeftlarn

Strecker, Ivo 1979: Music of the Hamar. Commentary. Museum Collection. Berlin

More information

See the following from Ivo Strecker's collected essays, Ethnographic Chiasmus: Essays on Culture, Conflict and Rhetoric. Lit Verlag 2010

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