In today’s world of technology and modernization it doesn’t make sense that there’s a place which lives virtually oblivious to that world. A place where ancient customs are still upheld strictly and where people walk around half-naked, with the little clothes that they wear being mostly those, which they designed hundreds of years ago. A place like that does exist and it’s called the Omo Valley. I had the opportunity to visit the area and to have a glimpse into the lives of the Hamer people by spending a few days in their village.
The Omo Valley is home to close to 20 tribes, a lot of whom live in what seems to be a different dimension to most who are reading this blog post on their computers. What amazed me was that they don’t dress up in traditional attire and don’t do their customs for the tourist dollar, they do it because they don’t know how life could be lived otherwise. Riding through the African bush and seeing the half-naked locals along the roads, with sometimes beautiful decorations in their hair, on their arms or legs can only be described as surreal. It’s like I was in one of those National Geographic documentaries, which were what actually made me want to travel.
Despite the Omo Valley being an amazing place I was really concerned about coming here, because, to be honest, it doesn’t have the best reputation. Many travelers have called it a “circus” or even worse, a “human zoo.” A standard tour to the Omo includes visits to villages where locals put on their fanciest decorations for the tourists and count every click of the camera shutter, demanding monetary compensation for each. This is not what I wanted to see, and thankfully, I haven’t. The closest I came to that kind of atmosphere was a visit to one of the tribal markets. I tried to photograph some women from up close – they didn’t like it and demanded money. I tried two more times with different people and got the same response – point taken, time to move on.
What we decided to do was a sort of a home-stay in one of the smaller villages not far from the small town of Turmi, with one of the local guides. This would give me the opportunity to get the kinds of photos I wanted – not the posing smiling children or disinterested adults during one of the tour-group visits. It wasn’t all perfect, but in general, I have nothing but positive things to say about the Hamer. To a Westerner, they can come across as somewhat child-like – curious, moody, excitable and sometimes cunning, in a child-like way, but at the same time genuine and affectionate.
Every morning in the village would begin with coffee. The coffee in Hamer land is different to coffee in the rest of Ethiopia. It’s made from coffee bean shells and tastes a little like kava – the Vanuatu drink with “relaxing” qualities. Those who have tried kava know that it tastes awful and the only reason people drink it is to get high, different case here, the coffee is considered to have a good taste. After I told one of the local men about kava, he got really excited and wished that their coffee had the same kind of effect.
Once everyone has had their dose of coffee, the milking of the cows and goats begins. Cattle are everything to the Hamer and taking care of them involves the entire family. The teenage son’s are usually in charge of overlooking everything and the younger ones usually assist.
As I said, the whole family is involved in taking care of the animals. The little ones help drive the goats out of the family compound, but the adults call the shots.
Aike is a biy of about 17 (the Hamers don’t count their age.) He is in charge of overseeing that only the animals that need to go out for the day go. In this case, the little calf wanted to go with the goats and Aike had to catch it and put it back into its enclosure.
The standard procedure is that one of the older men will take one of the younger boys and will give him the instructions for the day – which route to take and so on. After the instructions are given, the boy is solely responsible for the family’s animals.
The women’s jobs mostly revolve around house-chores and pleasing their men. If they are mothers of new-borns, as Karri is, they stay inside the house, closely tending to the baby for about 40 days. The various rituals that the Hamer have in relation to babies are a human-rights activist’s nightmare. If a baby is born outside of marriage he/she is thrown away. If the baby’s first teeth come from the bottom – the baby is thrown away too. Rituals like these are a very sombre reminder that no matter how much we want to exoticize orromantisize the world’s tribes – there are some serious issues in some communities, which are outright insane for most of us from the so called civilized world.
The Hamer men can have up to three wives. It wasn’t clear to me whether they could have more, if they were rich enough, since the family of the girl must get quite a lot of cattle in return for their daughter. The decoration just under the chin of Karri signifies that she is her husband’s first wife – Yes, Hamer customs are a women’s right’s activists nightmare too.
Women and young children spend a lot of time indoors. This time together helps the children to develop stronger bonds with their mothers. For me the indoor situations provided some wonderful photographic opportunities, since I love photographing in this kind of diffused, directional light.
Once the more crucial tasks are finished, the women have some time to do something for themselves. Above one of the family’s younger women is fixing her belt. I was told that the decorative shells are actually brought from Djibouti (pretty far away) and the beads – from Kenya.
It was interesting that once their main house-chores were done, most women would start working on their goat-skin “dresses” or on beautifying themselves in some way.
Kradja is the name of this woman “kradja” means the cold breeze. The Hamer often give their children names in accordance to what happened at their time of their birth. If there was some important person around, they sometimes give the baby the same name as that person. That was the case with the man whose photo is at the top of the blog post. His name is Girma, which is not usual for Hamers and he was named that because an important Girma (probably a non-tribal Ethiopian) was around at the time of his birth.
The women don’t only stay at home all day. Occasionally they accompany their male relatives or husbands at the farms. During one of the days Kradja accompanied her brother-in-law. Her duty was to make coffee and to brew traditional alcohol and while that was happening, she sorted through the sorghum seeds.
The Hamer land can be struck by spells of drought. The last rainy season did not see much rain at all and the bullock almost forgot their job, not wanting to have the wooden plough attached to them.
Luckily for the Hamers, and not so luckily for us, the rains came when the rainy season was meant to be over. Rains mean life or death for people from traditional societies and the Hamer are no exception.
It’s fascinating that most of the things the Hamers use they make by themselves. Even the ropes which hold together the lough are made from local plants. Here one of the men is making that kind of rope.
A rainy afternoon brings everyone who remained in the village indoors. Above Aike is watching his younger and very mischievous brother Bali make a run for it.
I like to shoot in situations that others might not usually photograph in, so rainy weather was just fine to me. I was sitting just outside the house, under the roof while the rain was still drizzling when I heard the mother shout out to Aike. It probably meant something like “Aike, we have water – go and wash Orna (the little one)” The scene of Aike washing Orna was a moment of care and tenderness, which was a little surprising, considering that moments earlier the older brother had been absolutely torturing the little one in the way he played with him – picking him up, making him do backflips while holding him and then, dropping him, almost flat on his face.
Rainy weather equals more time indoors, which in turn equals more time to beautify yourself. The young lady on the left is a relative of Karri who came from another village to help her during the 40 days that she has to stay mostly indoors with the baby. With all the chores finished, she was making traditional arm-bands and trying them on.
Something I heard of and read about a lot before coming to Ethiopia are the ubiquitous guns. I actually didn’t see too many of them in the North and I only saw a gun inside one of the houses in the village (not really on the shoulders of most men.) The Hamer are one of the larger tribes in the Omo Valley and their neighbours are mostly their own brethren. If anyone messes with them, they basically realize that they will be outnumbered. Hence there is relative peace and the main reasons the Hamers use guns is for protecting themselves from wild animals when they go far from home to heard their cattle or, when they hunt.
If there are no rains, the rivers remain virtually dry. There was not much water in the village we stayed in. The cattle had to be taken to what appeared like nothing more than a puddle to have their daily dose of water.
There were more children in the second family compound that we stayed at than I could count. Most of them super cute and very mischievous. This little girl is called Lalo. Tanya and I nicknamed her Princess Lalo because, while being mischievous she also had this royal, graceful way about her. The little goat-skin cape you see is something she chose out of her “wardrobe” herself, right after waking up.
Another cute Hamer child. I never got her name, but she was probably the only one in the entire village who wasn’t even a bit mischievous. She just looked at us with these curious eyes, not knowing whether to run away or cry, or whether to come up and say hello.
I absolutely could not resist taking this photo. It pretty much sums up the role that the fathers have in the lives of the babies. I’m not saying they’re not affectionate, this father tried to console his daughter in various ways, but the little one was unconsolable once her mother was not around.
Gonko is the head of the family. He has two children so far – Lalo and the little one in the photo above. When I asked his approximate age, he said, let’s say I’m about 26, which of course is not even close. Gonko was one of the first folks I communicated with in the village and he was the one who I told about Vanuatu kava being like their coffee, but with a more “pleasant” effect. He was so inspired by this thought that he made his wife brew traditional drink for him a day later.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, most Hamers don’t wear much and when they do, it’s the stuff they’ve had since as long as they remember, which is pre-Made-in-China t-shirt era. The women’s dresses are usually made of goat-skin, but when the Hamer go to more (only slightly more) modern villages and interact with non-tribal Ethiopians, it is common to see them in t-shirts, still with all the traditional stuff on top, but with t-shirts nevertheless.
The men’s (young and old) outfits usually consist of a simple, colorful cloth, some necklaces, arm-bands, earrings and in some cases – some very fancy hairstyles.
Late in the afternoons the madness of bleating goats and running children begins again.
The goats have their enclosures where they stay when they aren’t feeding. This prevents anyone from straying away and getting eaten by a coyote.
The amount of goats that the Hamer families usually have tend to make quite a mess. The women regularly sweep the grounds of the family compound to keep things relatively clean.
Part of the evening activities includes the milking of the goats. The little containers the girl and the woman are holding will be more than sufficient for the milk which they gather, which means there’s not very much of it.
The milking procedure for cows is pretty standard. First the calf is brought to the mother to make the milk flow, then it is taken away. This one was putting up a bit of a fight.
This little dude kept following me around, wanting to have his photo taken, though not in a pushy way. That’s why I eventually gave in.
Goats are eaten on special occasions, or whenever anyone with enough money wants to buy one. It made me feel very sad to be responsible for the killing of this goat, but, we wanted to make a good gesture to our hosts and to create a good impression on the villagers by sharing the meal. Whether the plan worked or not is hard to say, but the meat did taste very good.
The Hamer men drink blood from the animals they slaughter. Here Ibo, the chief’s son is stirring the blood and getting read of all the hard clots. Yes, I did drink the blood and no, it’s not something I want to do again.
Goat barbecue — Hamer style. Ibo is the village expert at cooking goat. I can attest to the fact that the man knows what he’s doing. The meat was a little chewy, but fried just the right amount.
When not eating barbecued goats, the Hamer women prepare meals inside their huts with no modern light systems, just the light from the fire.
Night-time arrives. Right from the first evening, when we arrived in the village I felt that the huts with fire inside would make for a great photo opportunity, so, I made it happen with the help of a tripod and a remote timer.
I’m very thankful for my time with the Hamers. It is incredible to have had an opportunity such as this one. I was planning on having visits like this for at least half a month, but I am now not sure if it’ll be possible, thanks to a guide that was meant to take me around the area. The dude has gone AWOL with a LOT of my money, and I guess this is another reminder of why Ethiopia is such a challenging place to travel. I’ve learnt to take things for what they are and to make the most of my photographic opportunities, no matter what the outside circumstances may be. However, this is hardly an ideal way to work, the stress is further wearing me down and on top of that, it seems that the delayed rains have come. They will make the dirt roads into mud roads and will become virtually impassible on a motorbike.
Despite all the negatives it seems to me that the Omo Valley is still a very, very special region. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a place quite like it. It’s a different world, you feel even more like you’re back in time then anywhere else in Ethiopia. I also don’t think that the tribes will transform and modernize quite as quickly as some predict, for this reason I hope that perhaps, even if I don’t see much more here on this trip, I will still be able to see these things if I come back in the future.