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Are these the world’s toughest women?

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Incredible photos shed light on Ethiopia’s Hamar tribe females who are beaten with canes and scarred with thorns to prove their strength

  • Ceremonial beatings take place during the male initiation rites but also in the home when the husband chooses
  • Ritual beatings are carried out by a group of men called ‘Maza’, continue until the women’s backs are left bloody
  • Men and women from the Hamar tribe use thorns to create intricate scar patterns which are considered beautiful
  • The Ethiopian tribe were photographed by Eric Lafforgue who travelled to the remote Omo River Valley to meet them

Thick scars coloured dull red and black cover the backs of women belonging to Ethiopia’s Hamar tribe, the legacy of an initiation rite that sees them beaten bloody.

No screaming is permitted by the men wielding the canes but the women don’t care. Instead of fleeing, they beg the men to do it again and again until blood flows, dripping into the gritty red dust of the Omo River Valley.

Now the Hamar and their unique culture that merges the beautiful and the brutal in equal measure are the subject of a series of incredible photographs created by French lensman, Eric Lafforgue.


Lafforgue travelled to Ethiopia after spotting pictures of the Hamar in a vintage book and hopes his photos will provide a record of a culture under threat from encroaching modernity.

His striking images reveal the beauty of Hamar women in their orange ochre make-up and bright beads, their skin scarred into intricate patterns using thorns, resilient as they live a life that’s precarious at best and brutal at worst.

But not everything about the Hamar is troubling. For the Hamar, cattle are everything, and for the men, they form a key part of the rite that turns them from boy to man.

At cattle jumping ceremonies, young men are required to leap across 15 cows, smeared with dung to make them slippery.

If he fails, he cannot marry and will be beaten by the watching women. At the same ceremony, his female relatives are beaten to create a blood debt between the man and his sisters who show off their scars with pride.


‘While the boys walk on cows, Hamar women accompany him: they jump and sing,’ reveals Lafforgue, who witnessed a ceremony.

‘The more abundant and extensive the initiate’s scars are, the deeper the girls’ affection is to the boy who is about to become a man.

‘Totally committed to their initiated sons, the mothers are whipped to blood, in order to prove their courage and accompany their sons during the test.’

But for Hamar women, beatings are not just part of an initiation ritual – they are daily life until at least two children have been born.

Under Hamar rules, a man need not explain why he’s delivering a beating. It is his prerogative to mete out as he sees fit.

Men can also have more than one wife, with junior wives left to do the lion’s share of the planting and water gathering.

‘They do not have really the choice,’ says Lafforgue. ‘As [with] many women in Africa, they carry water, wood, take care of the food and the kids, while the men take care of the cows – the Hamar treasure.

‘Hamar men can have several wives,’ he adds.’The Hamar women who are not a first wife have a really hard life and they are more slaves than wives.

‘[But] seeing those women with their animal skins, their special hairstyles, and their body covered with this orange make up was fascinating.’

Despite the violence, Lafforgue hopes that his photos will provide a record of a way of life that is slowly dying out.

‘ I always take photographs for two reasons,’ he explains. ‘First, providing a testimony as many tribes are starting to disappear but also to show the world how other people live, even if some of the time they have shocking practices.’

He tells the story of meeting a Hamar boy who had walked for several days to a local town, just to see his favourite Premier League football team on television.

‘This guy was wearing a Chelsea T-shirt, but still had to jump over ten bulls to be able to marry a girl in his tribe: a real culture shock.

‘They are all really into Chelsea, Arsenal, like many other Ethiopians, who are just crazy about English football’

With more and more Hamar swapping traditional life for Arsenal shirts, the days of beatings and cattle jumping would appear to be numbered.
Read more: photographs created by French lensman, Eric Lafforgue. Read more

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