Sunday, 4 March 2007

Beyond The Frame: Whipping of the Hamar

Whipping of the Hamar - Image Copyright Tewfic El-Sawy

One of the most interesting tribes of the Omo Valley of south western Ethiopia are the Hamar, who have unique rituals such as a cattle-leaping ceremony that men go through in order to reach adulthood, during which young Hamar women get whipped to prove their love for their kinsmen.

Not far from Turmi, I attended the jumping of the bulls ceremony, which was preceded by a couple of hours during which the Hamar women are whipped by the men of their tribal families. This was unlike any ritual I had ever seen. I still cringe at the memory of the whipping, at the sound of the switches landing on bare flesh and at seeing the wounds and bloody welts on the backs of Hamar young women. I've photographed open heart surgeries in Vietnam's hospitals, so I don't shy from seeing wounds and such, but the whipping of the Hamar women disturbed me a great deal. I accept that it's their culture, but I really wish this custom would change.

I have some images that are quite graphic, but I've chosen for this week's BTF an image showing a Hamar woman insisting in being whipped, shoving a switch into the reluctant hands of the young tribesman.

According to custom, the Hamar man comes of age by leaping over a line of cattle. It’s the ceremony which qualifies him to marry, own cattle and have children. The timing of the ceremony is up to the man’s parents and happens after harvest. On the afternoon of the leap, the man’s female relatives demand to be whipped as part of the ceremony. The whipping was done when the women jump up to a few chosen men, marked by feathers behind either ear. They handed the men a green thin stick (a switch) and while continuing to jump, the men would whip them, drawing blood. As the blows reined, the girls, without flinching, would bow their heads and jump away only to return in a matter of moments with another green stick, to repeat the whole procedure. The whipping seems to be totally consensual; the girls gather round and beg to be whipped on their backs. They don’t show the pain and claim they’re proud of the scars. One effect of this ritual whipping is to create a strong debt between the young man about to be married and his sisters. If they face hard times in the future, he’ll remember them because of the pain they went through at his initiation.

EXIF: shutter speed 1/180 sec.- fstop 6.7 - iso 100 - focal length 30mm - no flash fired.