Within the dusty town of Konso, kilometres southwest of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and near the Omo Valley River, resides the isolated Hamer people. Reaching this remote territory demands an agonising journey of over two days through damaged and oftentimes washed-out roads. The laborious journey entails passing through lush coffee-growing regions, high plateaus, and remote mountain chains, only to then be faced with arid scrublands bearing thorny bushes, limitless rows of cacti, and threatening termite mounds. Being both a physical and mental test of endurance, this expedition is not for the faint-hearted. The journey to the destination acted as a precursor for the experience that was to follow. My eyes had only just been opened, but my expectations had already been significantly surpassed.
After having made it to the horizon, I was finally presented with the town of Konso. Nestled atop a small mountain, it lends itself as a gateway to the Omo Valley, a locus where fierce warrior people not only strap themselves with threatening Kalashnikovs or AK-47’s, but also embellish their bodies with intricate beading, swirls of body paint, and elaborate scarification patterns denoting their success in battle. It’s a strange dichotomy - threat subdued by delicacy. The whole package of adornments amounts to the tribe being known as “killers” amongst their enemies. This Omotic group is known to be “masters” of body decoration, with most Hamer people sharing the fundamental belief in physical perfection.
The women roll their locks with fat and red ochre (assile) before twisting them into crimson-colored dreds called ’goscha’, a style that garners a lot of attraction from the men of the tribe. When it comes to the men, it is deemed a representation of courage for the men that have killed an enemy or dangerous animal to wear a style of mud cap that lasts anywhere between three to six months. I was taught that as a distinguishing factor, married and engaged women parade two heavy iron rings, called ‘esente’, around their necks. However, if they are the first wife of a man, an additional torque with a phallic protrusion known as ‘binyere’ is added to the existing ornamentation.
The women also accessorise themselves with an assortment of cowrie shells, glass, seed, and metal beads, wearing beaded goat skin frocks to cover their upper bodies. Their unique style serves as a code, communicating their relationship status to the remainder of the tribe. I find it incredible how such delicate details can co-exist in the same space as such brazen weaponry. The complexity of the Hamer people is still not lost on me, and these photos capture a mere fragment of the depth they possess as a community.
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