The Hamar of southern Ethiopia not only gain a living from their cattle, but they also live together with them. The management of their herds calls for constant
attention and daily care, especially because of the environmental conditions of their territory. Their semi-nomadic way of life is an attempt to secure sufficient
healthy pastures at all times of the year. Much of Hamar social life revolves around their cattle. The domestication of cattle provides the basis for the expression of
relationships between humans and cattle, which are based on pastoral knowledge and techniques, as well as beliefs, representations, values, feelings, and effects. The fact that the relationship between humans and animals has become ‘domestic,’ that cattle are domesticated and controlled in their reproduction for the benefit of
humans, who enter into new relations of intimacy with them, strengthens the bonds and blurs the boundaries between human and animal.
Up until the end of the nineteenth century, the South Omo region was relatively unaffected by the historical, economic, and political events that shaped Ethiopia. At the turn of the century, however, the region was conquered by Menelik’s troops and forcefully incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire. Besides some early explorations into the region and two German research expeditions in the first half of the twentieth century, it is only since the late 1960s that anthropologists and linguists have done intensive research in the region, for example Strecker and Lydall among the Hamar, Turton among the Mursi, Tornay among the Nyangatom. Two major linguistic families have been identified: Nilo-Saharan which includes Nyangatom, Mursi, and Surma languages, is found on both sides of the lower Omo Valley, and stretches out to the Southwest, where it meets the Nilotic speaking people of Sudan and Uganda; and Afro-Asiatic with its two branches that are spoken locally today, the Omotic languages spoken by the Kara, Banna, Bashada, Hamar, and Dizi, and the eastern Cushitic languages of the Dassanech, Arbore, and Tsamako.
There are sixteen ethnic groups living in the South Omo zone, which has a complex topography and a great variety of climates and natural resources. Most of these groups are agro-pastoralists practicing a mixed economy. They depend, to varying degrees, on cultivation but still consider cattle their most important material possession. They show different modes of cattle raising, from nomadism to sedentary livelihoods, depending on the environment they live in. Some groups also practice fishing and/or beekeeping, and most of them do some hunting and gathering to supplement their diet.
The agro-pastoral Hamar number more than 46,000 persons living in small communities scattered across their territory in the south of the South Omo Zone. The territory they occupy stretches from the Rift Valley of the Woito River in the East to the hills and plains of the Lower Omo in the West. Its southern boundary goes as far as the Kenyan border. In the north and northwest, it meets the Banna and Bashada territories. These three groups form a kind of cultural entity, i.e. they speak the same language, practice intermarriage, and have many institutions and rituals in common. In Hamar land, rain-fall is low, unreliable, and usually unevenly distributed across the country. In this environment, people exploit all available forms of food production. They herd cattle, goats, and sheep, and cultivate sorghum, maize, beans, or pumpkins. They also produce honey, gather wild produce, and hunt wild animals. It is mainly girls and women who undertake cultivation in fields relatively close to their permanent homesteads. The responsibility for livestock falls primarily to boys and men, who herd partly in the cultivation areas, and partly in distant grazing areas, where they have temporary camps. During the course of his life, a herder develops close bonds with a particular bovine. This bovine is known as his errawak – his favourite animal. The word derives from the word erra, which means ‘decorated,’ and the word waki, which means ‘cattle.’ As we will see below, the errawak undergoes permanent body markings that distinguish it from the other animals of the herd, and strengthen its aesthetic and symbolic value.
The phenomenon of the favourite animal is known in many different cultures, although it is not found in all pastoral and agro-pastoral societies of East Africa. In the Sudan, it exists among, the Dinka, the Mandari, the Murle, and the Nuer; in Uganda, the Dodoth, the Jie, and the Karimojong ; in Kenya, the Pokot, the Samburu and the Turkana ; in Ethiopia, the Bodi , the Dassanech, the Hamar, the Mursi, the Nyangatom, and the Suri. This phenomenon generally involves men who develop special bonds with particular bovines, which become ‘objects of prestige’ because of their personality and appearance, and are partners in a complex relationship. Women do not usually have the opportunity to have a ‘favourite animal,’ except among the Bodi and Mursi.
In Hamar land, an individual grows up in an environment closely connected to cattle. This relation of intimacy becomes evident every day and in diverse ways.
It is perceptible in the spatial organisation of the settlements (the cattle enclosures are inside the village, just next to the owners’ houses), in material culture (people sit, rest, and sleep on cowhides; cattle horns are used as containers for ostrich feathers, butter, or tobacco), in dances and songs that conjure up cattle, etc. The relationship is established from early childhood onwards. Soon after birth, children are fed with butter and later also goat and cow milk, and their skin is smeared with butter. They sleep on a cowhide, and day and night they hear the sounds of the bells and voices of the domestic animals. They live surrounded by the animals’ presence, which puts their five senses on the alert. As they grow up they learn about pastoral knowledge and how to observe and understand nature.
The children start to imitate their peers by playing with flint stones collected along the paths.
They draw enclosures, rivers, houses, waterholes, etc. on the ground.
They familiarise themselves with the animals by herding them with other herders, by calling the animals by their personal names, by feeding them in the bush, by
watering them at the river, by taking care of their well-being. All these interactions with cattle have significant effects on the human self.
In analysing this complex social relationship and its consequences, I start from the observation that pastoral techniques are applied to living animals – complex,
endowed with sensitivity and comprehension – and these techniques lead the herders to become emotionally involved in domestication. Animals see, smell, feel, taste, and hear the world they live in with the senses they have and within their own frame of reference, which are certainly different to those of humans. To establish a relationship with cattle, the herders achieve an understanding of the animals’ characteristics (behaviours, physiology, diet, etc.), which allows appropriate husbandry. This understanding is based on precise knowledge, learnt from others and/or acquired through observation. The herders need to know their cattle, not just as the gregarious animals that they are, but also as individual personalities with distinctive features. Thanks to this knowledge, a harmonious living together becomes possible. Herders and cattle become profoundly used to each other and mutually dependent, the herders benefiting from the products of their animals (milk, blood, hide, etc.), only as long as they provide them with food, water, shelter, and care.
The high level of familiarity with, and personalised knowledge of animals, contribute to effective interactions and communications with them. The relation between herder and animal finally emerges as a sincere intimacy, which is at the heart of interactions between self and other. Intimacy is here understood as “a two-way relationship, implying a degree of affective mutuality, even if this is unequal and asymmetrical” .
Cattle are the most valuable possession of the Hamar, and important for their sense of self. This is especially true for the young boys and men who are primarily
responsible for husbandry and who often define themselves as ‘cattlemen’ . Domestication engenders an attachment, both functional and emotional to bovines, and according to the anthropological literature, the phenomenon of the favourite animal is also considered as a form of identification. This concept, which is drawn from psychoanalysis, describes the process of identifying with others, either through lack of awareness of difference or separation, or as a result of perceived similarities. It is here understood as a construction lodged in contingency, a never-ending process dependent on the milieu where it emerges and on the material and symbolic resources which sustain it. This process lies at the basis of identity, insofar as the latter is “a junction of identifications by self-conscious actors who make sense of their relationships with other people by constructing an identity, both to distinguish themselves from others, to categorize other people as Other and to identify self as Self”. According to this definition, identity seems to be dynamic, multidimensional, relational, contextual, and actually dependent on the relationships between self and other.
The favorite animal in Hamar
Hamar men and women share their life, their space, and their time with domestic animals. However only young boys and men enter, step by step, into an intimate relationship with one of their animals, one that pleases them very much, and is responsive to them. This relationship becomes important when they start herding
with their peers and have the responsibility for the livestock around the villages and, later, in the more distant cattle camps. When they are herding they take time
to see how animals walk, behave, eat, drink, and moo. They observe certain parts of the body that are culturally appreciated: the ears, horns, hump, tail, and coat.
If one animal pleases a man greatly, he thinks about this ‘other’ as a possible errawak. The choice of the ‘favourite animal’ is up to the herder himself. It is a personal choice, by which he manifests his difference and their preference in front of the others.
Nevertheless, he can also be advised by elders or a soothsayer, who may say if this animal will bring him good fortune during his life or not.
Chosen for its visual and apotropaic characteristics, an animal is turned into an errawak when it successfully endures permanent bodily modifications, which
are prescribed by tradition and which sometimes jeopardise its life. These practices occur during the first years of its life. They are meaningful for those who participate, but also for those who will then see the animal with its new appearance. The practices contribute to framing and strengthening the socio-political relations between herders, because they can only be done together with others. At each step in the beautification process, the owner of the errawak will give a goat or a cow to the specialist who does the modification, and will slaughter a goat or two for the elders, his age-mates and other attendees.
The first modification consists of the animal’s castration when it is still a calf. This practice, which is used mainly to control breeding, also helps to lessen the aggressiveness of the animal, and thus an unnecessary waste of energy for its owner. A further effect is the promotion of fat accumulation in the body. Although
some errawak are bulls, especially those of married men, most animals are castrated oxen, which are distinguished by a more harmonious appearance, according to Hamar perception, by reason of their stoutness. Their finely proportioned forms and their noticeable fatness are seen as signs of good health by the herders, and as
such are especially appreciated. It’s also evidence of a herder’s pastoral knowledge, for it shows that he knows where the rains have fallen and has herded his cattle into healthy pastures.
The second modification consists in cutting two different parts of the animal with a knife when it is still a calf. First, notches are cut around the edge of the ears. A Hamar who sees an animal with this notched pattern understands immediately that it is an errawak. Second, the dewlap is cut in such a way that a piece of skin hangs down like a pendant, and space is made for the leather collar and the bell the animal wears later on after the other modifications have been completed.
A third modification concerns the animal’s coat, which is generally appreciated for its visual appearance (color pattern) and its sheen. The hide may be superficially
burnt with a heated spear in order to produce different lines (guio). The design may represent the family sign of the animal’s owner. However, some are purely decorative motifs, which only a few specialists are able to make. These motifs are ornaments, called matchar, that personalise the animal more deeply. It can also be for the purpose of beautifying.
The fourth modification concerns the horns, which are an important element of cattle aesthetics. In southwest Ethiopia, horns show a great diversity of natural shapes, but herders can also artificially deform them. The technique for shape modification varies according to ethnic group. The Bodi, Dassanech,
Hamar, Mursi, Nyangatom, and Suri of Ethiopia, as well as the Dodoth of Uganda the Pokot and Samburu of Kenya, and the Longarim of Sudan use a stone to break the horn sheath. The Murle, Dinka, and Nuer of Sudan use a spear to cut the horn sheath. In every case, the horns then grow against the fracture or the cut. The direction of the deformed horns depends on cultural norms, on aesthetic criteria and on their significance. In Hamar, young men prefer the shape called kamara where the left horn is deformed to point downward and the right one is left to grow naturally upward.
This shape resembles the way a man holds his fighting sticks, the left one lowered to ward off hits and the right one raised to deliver blows. Senior married men prefer a shape of horns where both horns are bent upwards and towards each other, in a sign of peace.
The deformation of horns is always a social event, which brings people together. It should always involve the owner’s age-mates, but may take place at a
big public meeting involving senior age sets as well. Horn deformation is the last bodily modification in the embellishment process. Typically, this ritualised event
occurs during the dry season, in a riverbed close to a village or a cattle camp. The owner of the ‘favourite animal’ invites his male relatives, friends, neighbours, and
age-mates (anamo) to come to the site and eat the animals (goats or cattle) slaughtered for the occasion. If the occasion is used as an opportunity to discuss matters of importance, an elder will open the meeting with a blessing. The elders (donza) are the ones who bless by calling forth good fortune .Thus, they call
for rain, abundance, and health both for humans and their livestock . In this way the elders ensure that the ritual is done under auspicious conditions. Next, the ‘favourite animal’ is held lying on its side by the age-mates, while an expert deals about a dozen blows to the base of the horn sheath with a smooth stone. The blows free the sheath from its bony base and the expert can thus twist the horn downward. During this procedure, the owner feels great anxiety, for the deformation of horns can be fatal for the errawak. He gets worked up, shouting and running around his animal, and in his distress he may take a spear and spear other cattle.
Once the horn is loosened, a piece of twine is affixed to the tip of the horn and then fastened to the muzzle of the animal. The expert cuts two parallel lines on the
animal’s muzzle in order to insert a stick that holds the twine connected to the horn, which has previously been incised to make a groove around the tip. This technique produces the tension needed for the desired alignment of the horn and keeps it stable during the time of recovery (approximately one month). Before freeing the animal and letting it re-join the herd, the expert applies fresh cow dung, which is used as a disinfectant and painkiller, to the wounds. Additional stripes of dung are smeared on the sides and back of the animal, by others in attendance.
They are said to be adornment (gomoxo). Then, the age-mates (anamo) shoot their guns into the air and start singing war songs (raega). The owner of the errawak
provides animals (goats or cattle) which his agemates slaughter and roast. While his age-mates sit together to eat they choose his errawak-name. Once he has
received his new name from them, the owner of the errawak has to go to the elders and to introduce himself. Ayke, a young man from Dambaiti/Hamar explained it
thus: “Who are you? says an elder. I am the father of such and such an ox! answers the owner. Who are you? says another elder. I am the father of such and such an ox! answers the owner. And so on.” From now on, his age-mates will call him by his errawak-name, which will be known all around, as people will go back to their
homesteads announcing that the ritual has been successfully performed.
Social significance of the errawak-name
The ‘favourite animal’ contributes to the identity of an individual through the beautifying process and the naming system. Throughout his life, a herder is given different names, “each name signifying some specific aspect of [his] persona”. Giving a name to someone implies the recognition of his/her social value, but the name also invokes social aspects of the one or ones who bestow it. Thus, an individual acquires a name that is not only personal but also social and cultural. In Hamar, the importance of cattle means that some names given are inspired by their cattle. This does not serve to ‘bestialise’ individuals, but rather to ‘humanise’ them.
A herder receives a name derived from the animal he has the most intimate relationship with, that is to say, his errawak. This errawak-name refers to his identity and/or status with regard to this other and to the perception of its colour pattern. He is called ‘imba of such and such colour pattern.’ The term imba means both father and owner. The errawak-name is in the Bume (Nyangatom) language. For example, my Hamar friend Sago is called Lossiaro: ‘father of the ox with
black and white speckles.’ The ‘favourite animal’ also acquires his own special name which refers to its colour pattern and that is generally in the Hamar or Nyangatom language, but also in the Dassanech language. The elder explained that names can be chosen among these three languages but that no Mursi names exist, for “originally, we were not friends with the Mursi, we were only at war with them, only now we have made peace.” Therefore, the errawak-name and the name of the favourite animal testify to interethnic relations and modes of communication. The Hamar have alternately been at war and peace with the Dassanech and Nyangatom for over one hundred years.
The manifold interactions between an individual and his ‘favourite animal’ engender mutual recognition. In order to call his errawak, a herder says its name or whistles in a specific manner. My friend told me that cattle respond to their call and that each errawak recognises its owner. For example, Sago explained that
“if you are away a few days and come back to the cattle camp, your errawak will see you when you enter the enclosure. He will cry like a child. Then he will come
close to you and start rubbing against you, like against a tree. You will stroke him and, like a child, he will stay next to you for a long time.”
A man’s errawak-name evokes not only his errawak by way of its colour pattern, but also expectations of how the ‘owner’ should act towards his errawak.
That’s to say, a man should act like a father toward his animal and perceives it like his child. All the elders said: “My errawak is my child.” A man’s errawak name indicates the colour pattern of his errawak, and his relationship to the errawak as father/owner. Thus, the name both identifies and differentiates the partners in
the human-animal relationship. This is also the case with the name a man acquires when he is initiated, and he is called father/owner of his garo calf, which is identified by her colour pattern. A man identifies closely with his errawak when he sings for him, raising his arms in the shape of his horns. Then he is said to become his errawak.
The identification of a man with his errawak goes even further, for his fate and fortune (barjo) is said to be equivalent to that of his errawak and vice versa. Hence
a man’s errawak is said to be his barjo (personal communication).
Once the natural features of a ‘favourite animal’ have been modified, the owner composes a song for it, in which he glorifies its qualities. Through his song he also
honours his relatives and age-mates (anamo), who usually herd with him and help him to ‘create’ his errawak. The age-mates take an active part in the beautifying
process, contributing by making the leather collar or assisting in modifying the physical appearance of the animal, especially if he has no expertise. By singing for this ‘other’ a herder builds up his ‘social self’ and gains recognition from his agemates. My friend explained to me: “I sing so that everybody will get to know me. If you do not have an errawak, you cannot sing. If you sing, people will wonder what animal you are singing for, and they will come to see whether you really have one
or not.” The singer goes to dances in order to be known by the other men, women, and girls whom he tries to impress with his voice, gestures, ornaments, and good
looks, as well as the poetry of his song. Thus, the glorification of the errawak is a great opportunity for a herder to boast in front of others.
The errawak-name is the preferential term of address between age-mates, thereby expressing solidarity and equality between them. Men who share the same
errawak-name may, in a sense, share the same pastoral identity, as fathers of such and such cattle. Their errawak-name stresses similarities between themselves,
rather than differences. Besides, as the same errawak-name is given to different men, it does not highlight the uniqueness of the individuals but emphasises social
membership. Through this shared symbol, individuals assert their membership in the group of people who have ‘favourite animals.’ It is inappropriate for people
other than age-mates to use the errawak-name. The elder explained to me that the anamo should address each other with their errawak-name, and that the married
women and the young girls should address the men with their garro-name. Thus the cattle are one of the mediums through which humans express and define their relations to each other.
Interpretation of errawak aesthetics and symbolism
Its true, cattle are an essential element of Hamar aesthetic experience. Through domestication, humans exert their power over their cattle by taming them and modifying the animal’s body. The animal’s body is ‘modifiable material,’ which can be adjusted according to human desires and social demands. The markings result from a desire for control, but they are also an expression of aesthetics. This is especially evident in the case of the ‘favourite animals’ which herders personalize by modifying their appearance and by decorating them with special collars and bells, called ‘ornaments’ (gomoxo). Such animals have permanent body markings that are highly visible and said to be good (paya). These markings, which are often painfully acquired, authenticate a new identity.
They denote a categorical shift, for the animals no longer fall into the category of domestic animals along with the other members of the herd (cattle, goats,
sheep), but are henceforth errawak, and belong more to the human world. They are like people. Indeed, they are considered as the owner’s children and treated with great care and tamed with loving gestures, songs, and terms of endearment. They are also the owner’s best friends, for he takes them into his confidence. A herder speaks spontaneously to his errawak as if it was a human being able to understand his thoughts, feelings, and dreams.
The embellishment process differentiates the ‘favourite animals’ from the herd, and also one errawak from another. The resulting bodily modifications and decorations are said to be poramo, the pride of the errawak and of its ‘owner.’ The herders do all this for their own pride, and to make other people jealous. Each herder can increase the beauty of his errawak by increasing the number of its decorations. Actually, only a few individuals know how to burn an ox’s coat with rich and original motifs (guyio). Such experts apply their skill in order to display their own aesthetic expression. The embellishment process stimulates competition to possess the most beautiful animal. The herders compare their errawak, each one convinced he has the best. For example, when two bovines provoke each other in the bush, the young herders let them fight, and the owner of the victorious errawak will then be able to boast about the very high qualities of his errawak, as well as his own talent as a herder for having raised such an animal.
The interactions between human and animal produce a live and loving relationship that contributes to the herder’s self-image. The permanent bodily modifications are meaningful for those who participate in the embellishment process and for those who then see the animal. The modifications correspond to certain ideas of how the body of a favourite ‘other’ should be, which in turn represents a living image of the owner’s ‘self.’ Indeed, each errawak is known by its particular appearance (its colour pattern, the design of its coat, the shape of its horns, etc.), which gives identity to its owner, giving him a certain presence even in his absence. Whoever looks at an errawak will think of its owner, or will ask who the owner is. The elder explained: “Do you see this errawak? To whom does it belong?
It belongs to this man. Eh! It belongs to this man!” Similarly, My friend said that when you meet an age-mate and address him with his errawak-name, you define his animal, because this errawak-name is derived from its colour pattern. The colour pattern is used as a metonym to denote the errawak, probably because it is highly visible and recognisable by everyone. Thus, the colour pattern and, by extension, the errawak, are symbols by way of which a herdsman is recognised by his fellows.
‘Favourite animals’ participate in the self, insofar as the herders say that they are their siti (hair). The siti are animals that are recognized as ‘outright property,’
and are primarily acquired as gifts made to a man’s wife, or as inheritance. This means that young unmarried men and married men who have not yet brought their wives in do not possess their own livestock, and this makes them economically dependent on their parents, relatives, and neighbours, for whom they herd the animals. The only exception to this is a man’s errawak, which he receives and owns outright before he gets married. Actually the word siti expresses two
different things. On the one hand, it refers to a part of the body (hair), and on the other hand to a category of livestock (those owned outright). Thus, when herders
say that their errawak are their siti, they express the idea that these animals belong to them as personal outright property, just as their hair belongs to their head. A
human element (hair) is used as a metaphor to denote the cattle that individuals possess in their own right. In addition, the errawak-name refers to the colour pattern of the siti (hair) of the man’s favourite animal, of which he is the father/owner. A natural feature of the animal (colour pattern) becomes a social feature of a human, providing him with identity (name).
A man chooses his errawak on the basis of its colour pattern. The ‘favourite animals’ are companions that provide protection for their owners. The Hamar can turn an animal into an errawak only if it has a ‘good’ colour pattern. They say that the animal will bring good fortune (barjo) to its owner. During daily activities, but especially during incursions into enemy territory, the herders feel protected by their errawak. Before a war or a raid, the men draw lines of cow dung on the coat of their errawak, shout the animals’ names, and sing for them. Sago told me that the errawak is his strength and bravery, and that it protects him. His animal-other enhances his sense of personal power. When the animal becomes old and weak, it can be exchanged with other cattle in order to get a rifle. As my freind said, “the rifle, like your ox, protects you.” The animal can also be ritually slaughtered by the age-mates in the dry season. At that time, the Hamar show their grief by shooting into the air, as they do for humans when they die. The elder explained to me that for the owner, who raised the animal and watched it grow up, the grief is similar to that which he feels for a person. The age-mates try to calm the owner’s emotions. They will consume the meat of the animal, but the owner refuses to do so. As my friend said: “I do not eat my errawak. It is my child. My age-mates, they should eat it. If I eat it, my barjo will turn bad.” The Hamar decorate and take
such good care of their errawak, because they believe that ‘favourite animals’ incorporate or are their barjo.
If cattle represent figures of otherness, domestication makes them no longer unknown and threatening living creatures, but brings them into the sphere of human society. Otherness is not self-produced but arises from a relationship. The control of and the personalised knowledge about cattle create an intimate relationship between humans and animals. Their daily interactions generate a high level of mutual familiarity, which inspire humans to confer attributes of personhood on their cattle. However, such a blurring of the demarcation line between human and animal, known among many Nilotic and Afro-Asiatic speakers, is not a common trait of every agro pastoral and pastoral society in East Africa. The relationships between herders and their cattle have specific cultural expressions and significances. Among the Hamar, a herder designates livestock which is his personal property as his siti (hair). As the owner of an animal, he has the right to modify its natural features according to personal and cultural preferences. Long-term interactions with the animals he herds makes a man perceive each animal as unique, each with its own particular physical features and character. The greater the control he exercises over this ‘other,’ the more this ‘other’ helps him to develop a sense of ‘self’ and the more closely the ‘other’ is incorporated into his ‘self.’ This is especially true in the case of his errawak, which shapes his very identity. He is named after the appearance of his ‘favourite animal,’ because this ‘other’ has the qualities desired in a bovine, and his interactions with the ‘other’ are emblematic of those he generally has with all his livestock (care, protection, attachment), but in a more intense way.
The daily experience of intimate relationships with cattle not only shapes Hamar identity, but also related aesthetics and practices. Livestock are the most highly valued possession, a focal point of perception in the context of pastoral life. Domestic animals are in a sense the main aesthetic locus of Hamar society. The permanent body marking of the errawak expresses the idea that they are a “feast for the eyes” before being a “feast for the stomach”. The Hamar not only glorify, but also attribute apotropaic functions and other symbolic values to the physical and aesthetic qualities of their errawak. These are supposed to contribute to the owners’ good fortune (barjo), identity, and socio-cultural position.
Thus, the phenomenon of the ‘favourite animal’ attests to the importance of cattle as a medium through which humans can express and define their ‘self,’ as well as
their relationships to each ‘other.’
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