Volunteering with Ethiopia’s Hamar tribe gives Guy Needham an experience that satisfies his soul.

"Don't worry 'bout a thing, cause every little thing, gonna be al-riiight"

It seemed only appropriate that Bob Marley blared out the front of the pick-up as we bounced along the dirt road.

After all, this was the country of Emperor Haile Selassie, recognised by Rastafarians as the Messiah of African Redemption and head of their religion. Not that any of that mattered as we dodged goats and dug into ruts.

I was on my way to the Lower Valley of the Omo, a great swathe of land in Southern Ethiopia, to spend time volunteering with the Hamar tribe. Our driver had taken a "short cut" as he'd heard that one of their most important rituals was taking place: the Jumping of the Bulls.

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Ukuli is a three day coming-of-age ceremony that every Hamar boy must go through in order to prove himself a man. We arrived just in time for the whipping.

"Aiii, Aiiiiii!", a young woman was screaming as she struggled against her mother, pleading to be let go. She broke away and ran to the half-naked man holding an acacia branch. Crack! The whip came down and her skin opened.

The young woman smiled with pleasure - showing her dedication and love to the boy. It was an eye-opening introduction to the Hamar tribe.

Scampering naked across their backs he made it to the far end and back six times. He was now maza (an unmarried man who had jumped bulls). Photo / Guy Needham
Scampering naked across their backs he made it to the far end and back six times. He was now maza (an unmarried man who had jumped bulls). Photo / Guy Needham

As the bleeding women created a bell-ringing frenzy, the men tugged the beasts into place. Tails were held, horns were gripped. The boy jumper looked nervous. He dropped his modest goatskin and leapt up on the first bull.

Scampering naked across their backs he made it to the far end and back six times. He was now maza (an unmarried man who had jumped bulls), and was ready to go bush while his family selected a bride for him. It made our version of proposing seem a little easy.

Going to Ethiopia is like going back in time. For a start they use a different calendar with 13 months in a year, so right now it's 2008 - I lost 7 years just by getting off the plane. Not only are the years different but so are the hours. The clock starts at 6am.

The Hamar, like many subsistence tribes, still have traditional roles for men and women. Photo / Guy Needham
The Hamar, like many subsistence tribes, still have traditional roles for men and women. Photo / Guy Needham

Four hours after 6am it's 4 o'clock. Two hours before 6am is 10 o'clock. But they use both their clock and the farangi (foreigner) clock. Confusing as hell when you want to arrange a meeting time.

Most of what we've heard about Ethiopia is shaped by images of the 1984 famine. Civil war, a drought and crop shortages all combined to make the situation so dire Bob Geldof put together BandAid - a concert of the world's biggest singers to raise funds for the suffering.

Unfortunately that legacy lives on, with many today thinking the country is not much more than a dust-bowl. Although it does have serious drought in places, our camp looked on to lush green bush speckled with brown paths.

I was volunteering with an organisation called Big Beyond, an accredited NGO in Britain, Uganda and Ethiopia. It appealed because of its belief more can be achieved through sharing knowledge than with handouts, and I also liked that projects were tailored to suit a person's skills.

My job was to document the lifestyles of the Hamar for a future cultural centre. Fellow volunteer Luke, a lawyer from the UK, was running business sessions and helping set up a cottage honey industry.

Jilly, a researcher for UK Statistics, was surveying the Hamar and tourists to see what both wanted when it comes to tourism.

"T.I.A," said Fiona, the manager, when I arrived. "Huh?" "T.I.A. This is Africa. Oh and watch out for the scorpions" she added cheerily.

We were considered part of the village and it was not unusual to find two strangers outside your ornay (hut) in the morning chatting away in Hamar. Photo / Guy Needham
We were considered part of the village and it was not unusual to find two strangers outside your ornay (hut) in the morning chatting away in Hamar. Photo / Guy Needham

What she meant was that if you don't like flies and dirt and bugs and dust and heat then you're better off staying at home.There was no electricity, no cellphone coverage, no internet, no running water.

Our camp was next to Shele village, on land that had been gifted to Big Beyond by the head donza (elder).

Shele is all you imagine an African village to be: thatched roof huts, goat pens, cows wandering around, a boca where the donza sit, fields of maize and a water pump in the distance.

We were considered part of the village and it was not unusual to find two strangers outside your ornay (hut) in the morning chatting away in Hamar.

The camp was still being finished when I arrived, although it already had the luxury of our own personal huts, an outdoor shower, loo-with-a-view, paraffin lamps, a dinning-cum-talking table under the cool shade and an outdoor kitchen. We also had a lame three-legged goat and two resident crows.

"Rise up this mornin', smile with the risin' sun, three little birds, pitch by my doorstep"

The days began with an orchestral warm-up of cowbells, birdsong, baying goats, the crack of whips and the occasional gunshot bringing them all into line. Breakfast was cooked by our resident chef, Miley, and usually consisted of porridge or eggs: then it was off to do our projects with the nearby Hamar.

The women are responsible for raising the children, cooking and looking after the household. Photo / Guy Needham
The women are responsible for raising the children, cooking and looking after the household. Photo / Guy Needham

The Hamar, like many subsistence tribes, still have traditional roles for men and women. The men protect and decide; looking after the livestock and managing the crops.

The women are the heavy lifters; carrying back-bending loads of firewood and sorghum - a type of maize - as well as being responsible for raising the children, cooking and looking after the household.

Hamar men often have more than one wife, and the first is chosen as young as 7 so the marriage doesn't take place until she reaches child-bearing age.

Part of my project was spending time with a second wife, Hayto, so it was off to her hut I went.

"Fiyo" I called out, contorting myself through the small, low, entrance. "Fiyene" came the reply from everyone inside - Hayto, the other wife, the husband, a younger brother, three sons, four babies and a neighbouring teacher.

Shele is all you imagine an African village to be: thatched roof huts, goat pens and cows wandering around. Photo / Guy Needham
Shele is all you imagine an African village to be: thatched roof huts, goat pens and cows wandering around. Photo / Guy Needham

Everyone had squeezed in for morning buno, the local version of coffee made of dried-up coffee husks, ladled into a half calabash shell. All eyes were on this farangi as I sat cross-legged and took the first sip. It wasn't as bad as it sounds.

After breakfast we started the 17km walk to the nearest town. An occasional tree gave respite from the vicious sun. Vultures circled in the distance. At the edge of a dry river bed a head emerged from a deep hole and called out, offering water. The market was still an hour away.

Turmi is a small speck of a town, a wide dirt road pimpled with concrete-walled shops. It smells of goat and sweat.

The only reason to visit is the markets, where Hamar from all over the woreda, or district, gather to buy and sell - be it coffee, sorghum or tempo (a snuff tobacco). This is where the Hamar also make money by having tourists take their photographs.

Hamar women are extremely photogenic, their beautiful black skin topped with copper-coloured goscha dreadlocks, a twisted mix of ochre, water and hand-shaken butter.

The men's showpiece is their hair; they take great pride in shaping their locks and often accessorise with hairpins, feathers or clay-moulded hairpieces. Photo / Guy Needham
The men's showpiece is their hair; they take great pride in shaping their locks and often accessorise with hairpins, feathers or clay-moulded hairpieces. Photo / Guy Needham

For 5 birr (35c) you can photograph them in all their finery: colourful chickeny necklaces, brass coils around their wrists, kashe goat skin loosely draped over their bare breasts and, unique to first wives, a leather necklace with a metallic protrusion symbolising fertility.

The men's showpiece is their hair; they take great pride in shaping their locks and often accessorise with hairpins, feathers or clay-moulded hairpieces.

In the villages Hamar men usually walk around bare-chested or wrapped in a sheet called a kardi when it's cold, in the town they wear more Westernised tops.

The Hamar have no pockets - it's said because they have nothing to hide - so one thing men carry is their borkoto, a wooden seat no more than 15cm high.

You can purchase your own intricately carved one from the market, as well as wooden dolls adorned with skins to take home and the ubiquitous patterned gourds. Plus, of course, enough food for dinner that night.

Back at the volunteer camp cooking was done over an open fire. There were always root vegetables and on special occasions we ate goat, although it was a little disconcerting having lunch tied up next to you.

The main Ethiopian food is injera, a type of spongy thin bread that forms the base of a dish piled with food such as chicken wat, a kind of spicy curry. You tear off a piece of injera, scoop up some wat and eat with your hand. If you're lucky you can wash it down with some of the local areke liquor.

The main Ethiopian food is injera, a type of spongy thin bread that forms the base of a dish piled with food such as chicken wat, a kind of spicy curry. Photo / Guy Needham
The main Ethiopian food is injera, a type of spongy thin bread that forms the base of a dish piled with food such as chicken wat, a kind of spicy curry. Photo / Guy Needham

At dinner each night we exchanged stories, listened to some battery powered music and laughed at our First World problems. The setting sun was slowly replaced by a spectacular moonrise. Under the Milky Way it was easy to appreciate the simplicity of Hamar life.

Sitting around the table we all agreed that volunteering had opened our eyes to a part of Africa we would never have seen.

Being in an unspoilt land and immersing yourself in another culture is not for everyone, but to see first hand the good you can do was reward in itself. It was worth that long, bumpy, reggae-filled ride down the dirt road.

"Sayin', this is my message to you-ou-ou."

Checklist: Ethiopia

Getting there:Emirates flies from Auckland to Addis Ababa, via Australia and Dubai with return Economy Class fares starting from $2615. A local flight from Addis Ababa to Arba Minch takes two hours.

Details: A visa to enter Ethiopia can be purchased at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Volunteers need a one-month business visa and a passport valid for six months. The projects last for a minimum of three weeks. For information on the programme, go to bigbeyond.org. A three-week programme including meals, accommodation and local transport costs about $2800.

Planning Tip: Best things to have in your pocket at all times in rural Ethiopia: a torch, a pocketknife, hand disinfectant and travel wipes. You never know how long it'll take to get somewhere and back, and what you'll need once you get there.