The Ritual Whipping of Hamar Girls and Women as a Tourist Attraction

The Ritual Whipping of Hamar Girls and Women as a Tourist Attraction

Tamirat Tefera[1]


This article examines recent developments in the area of tourism and its impacts on the local communities, taking the perspectives of the ritual whipping of Hamar Women and Girls of Southern Ethiopia who have become one of the most attractive destinations for foreign tourists in the last decade. It includes the views of different stakeholders suchas: tourists, Local Tour Guides (LTGs) and the hosts. To achieve the objective of this research, data was collected in 2012 and 2013 using qualitative research methods: observation, in-depth interviews, and focus group discussions. For analysis and interpretation of the qualitative data from the informants and observations, the research employed constructivist paradigm as a tool.


One of the ‘performing cultures’ of the Hamar community is ukulibula-leap over the cattle. During this ceremony, the Hamar girls and women are whipped to show their love, commitment and courage to young men of their own kin who could not perform the ritual yet. The findings of the study showed that this ritual has been used as a tourist attraction although various tourism stakeholders perceived it differently. On the one hand, some of the stakeholders consider as a necessary cultural practice in order to continue the social fabrics of the Hamar community. On the other hand, stakeholders such as some tourists signifies the negative impacts of whipping upon the health of women and girls without much concern to the insider’s views of the community.

  1. Introduction

Ethiopia is endowed with various cultural, historical and archaeological tourism resources. Due to this so far the country has eleven UNESCO registered world heritage sites. Cultural tourism attracts many visitors that accounts for 37 percent of global tourism and forecasted to grow at 15 percent per year (WTO 2014). Ukuli(initiate)ritual is one of the Hamar cultural practices that attract tourists from all over the world. It is performed in Hamar ‘eyke-pe’[2]where those Hamar[3]who live on the side of Turmi are expected to cross Kaeske as it was decided by the bitta[4]. This is to participate in the ceremonies of the leaps over the cattle that have always been taking place near Kaeske River. The Christensen Fund fenced this place and named it “Hamar Cultural Site”. The Hamar from different villages gather at this site and take part in the ceremony. In the process of undertaking initiation of ukuli, there are three ceremonies prepared by the Hamar: Bara[5], Hatsa and Gati[6], which take place before the leap over the cattle, at the day of the leap over the cattle, and a day after the day of the leap over the cattle, respectively. In the ceremony, every section of the community can participate. After the ukuli leaps across the cattle, the feasts are organized at the home of the ukuli’s parents.

During the leap over the cattle, the ritual whipping of girls and women is one of the ceremonies where tourists are interested to see as a tourist attraction. This has been observed by tourism stakeholders from different perspectives. Thus, I discuss the views of the Hamar[7], the Local Tour Guides, government officials, particularly HamarWereda Culture and Tourism Office, and tourists as follows.

  1. Research Methods

I selected Hamar as my research site, because Hamar is one of the major tourist destinations due to: 1) the presence of some unique cultural practices such as the ukuli (leap over the cattle), the ritual whipping of the women and girls as well as the night dances, 2) the friendly and welcoming behavior of the Hamar towards tourists, and 3) the positive image built about the Hamar by anthropologists, tourists and different travel operators. I finally selected Turmi, Dimeka and the nearby villages (Angudekebele) as research sites of this study.

Description: study_map_final_2

                Figure 1: Map of the Study Area


The qualitative research methods allowed me to establish a prolonged contact with the Hamar, local tour guides, tourists and other stakeholders and thereby to grasp their meanings and experiences related to tourism and their views towards whipping. The qualitative methods used in this study were in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, informal conversation and participant observation. Moderate participant observation helped me to understand the socio-cultural implications of tourism upon the Hamar. Besides, I observed the various activities performed during the leap over the cattle, mainly focusing on the ritual whipping of girls and women. I also conducted in-depth interview with 30 tourists, 10 tour guides, 15 local tour guides from Turmi, 20 elders and 10 youths of the Hamar, 6 informants from NGOs, 10 informants from GOs, 4 Hamar people working in the lodges. In addition, five focus group discussions were conducted with the Hamar and LTGs to see tourism’s impacts, specifically related to whipping practice in relation to the views of various stakeholders.

3.       The Cultural Meaning of Whipping

Whipping is usually done by wand in Hamar, which is often prepared from a branch of the baraza-tree (grewiamollis) (Epple 2012). Lydall (1994) and Epple (2012) have stated different forms of whipping in Hamar, including wife whipping, children and young people as well as whipping during the initiation ceremony. Wife whipping is not prohibited in Hamar and husbands are expected to do so in which the wives also consider it as a good practice if it is for good reason. Otherwise, people get involved to stop the husband from whipping his wife and encourage her to leave him for her relatives. The discussion in this sub-section focuses on the ritual whipping of girls and women during male initiation ceremony that signifies the symbolic use of whipping in various transactions (Strecker 1990). Epple (2010) also explained that girls and women are whipped for the ukuli to demonstrate their affection and courage. In the forthcoming section, I describe the cultural meaning of the ritual whipping of girls and women.

Almost all Hamar informants unanimously claimed that girls and women are whipped during ukulibula[8] by the maz[9]. This is considered to be an expression of respect, love, and commitment to the ukuli and their family. Girls and women are not only whipped for these reasons but also for their own sake of getting respect, treatment and not to be identified as ‘a child or immature’.

Lydall (1994) and Epple (2010) stated that theHaving no scars at the back of Hamar women can raise their dearth of bravery and devotion to men. Consequently, the other women who have scars on their backs tease them. This means, in Hamar if girls and women are not whipped for their brothers, uncles or relatives, they cannot claim support in times of needs. The issue of the scars has considered as a record later for which a woman can demand cattle or help from the ukuli. Thus, from this, one can understand that a lot of interests are revolving around the ritual whipping of girls and women. However, they have different opinions about its effects.

Hamar informants explained that the ritual whipping of girls and women are done without any external pressure. For instance, Sudo, a 32-year-old degree holder Hamar man stated, “The Hamar girls and women are whipped ‘voluntarily’ without any pressure” (Interview, 11th of August 2012, in Dimeka). Similarly, Tuti, a young Hamar girl during an FGD described why she has been whipped during ukulibula:

This is the way our culture works. I was whipped many times for my brothers, uncles and other relatives. ‘Ukulibula’ is one of the opportunities to show respect for the ‘ukuli’. It is also when I am whipped that the ‘ukuli’ respects and helps me at difficult times. The number of times one is whipped matters a lot. This means the more you are whipped, the more you are respected by the ‘ukuli’ and the ‘maz’ (27th of April 2012, at Turmi Primary School in Turmi).


I observed quite a number of ukuli rituals where girls and women demanded the maz to whip them.  If a maz did not whip hard enough, they insulted him. Girls and women are not respected if they show painful or fearful faces to the maz during the whipping. Instead, they are expected to provoke the maz for more slashes. During my fieldwork, I observed that in times girls and women see a maz with many micere wand; they requested him to whip them. They even asked him until all of them get finished. Some days after the slash, their back develops a scar, which is considered as a symbol or testimony of the devotion they pay for the ukuli.

                                                        Tamirat (2012)

Figure 1: The Maz Holding the Micere Wand for Whipping and Hamar Woman Provoking the Maz to be whipped

Description: The results of the whipping are always bloody.

Figure 2: The Scar and Bleed on their back after Ritual whipping of women

4.       Whipping as a Harmful Traditional Practice

As stakeholders of tourism, officials from Culture and Tourism Office at the Wereda and zonal levels as well as HamarWereda administration viewed the ritual whipping of girls and women as one of the ‘Harmful Traditional Practices’/‘HTPs’ in the Wereda. Consequently, they have been trying to stop it. In this aspect, Dido, an official in the Wereda elucidated the efforts made by the Wereda administration:

The government policies and strategies aim at stopping whipping girls and women. We stopped whipping women at least using a single stick because contaminated sticks can be the cause of HIV transmission. The number of tourists’ flowing to Turmi is very high and to prevent whipping is one of the most challenging issues(Interview, 9th of August 2012, at his office, in Dimeka).

The interview reveals the efforts made by the Wereda administrators to halt whipping although it shows its continuity. In my informal conversation with a health extension worker at Boriya village, many women experienced breast infection due to whipping and did not even go to health center for treatment. Even though women do not want to tell the problem they face due to this, I observed a woman who got ill of her breasts after she had been whipped at one of her ukuli relative ceremonies. Moreover, Fasika, a 33-year-old man and head of Turmi health center informed me about his observation of the effects of the ritual whipping on the Hamar girls and women:

Many tourists observe the whole process of the leap over the cattle ceremony including the whipping of girls and women. The Hamar girls and women consider whipping as a gift to the ‘ukuli’. I have seen many Hamar girls and women who came to Turmi health center for treatment. The whipping created infection upon some of them (Interview, 20th of April 2012, at his office, in Turmi health center).

The above informant suggests that whipping is regarded as one of the ‘HTPs’ in the area and several stakeholders of tourism forwarded its negative impacts on the health of girls and women. In support of this view, Turki, a Hamar political representative said the meeting in a meeting:

If tourists are to come to Hamar to see only women and girls receiving slashes, it is better for them not to come with their money to our land. This does not mean to stop you [elders and LTGs] to love tourists as far as your relationship with them is very nice.According to the laws and constitution of Ethiopian government, whipping of women and girls is forbidden. However, elders are still interested in continuing such practice. The government officials’ expect elders to advise the Hamar to condemn the practice of whipping during the ‘ukuli’ ceremony. The Wereda administrators and other stakeholders have tried to stop ‘HTPs’ among the Hamar in collaboration with the elders. Much effort has been made organizing meetings with elders and raising their awareness on various problems facing the Hamar. However, elders could not contribute their part as it is expected because rituals of the Hamar are performed mostly by elders. In this regard, elders are influential to stop or continue any of the traditional practices like whipping. Thus, the commitment of elders is important to avoid practices that brought negative effects against them (Discussion in the meeting held in Turmi primary school on March 11, 2012).

As a result, there are strong arguments against performing whipping to merely entertain tourists.  Concerned bodies of government and elders should intervene in the situation and halt the practice. Related to this, educated Hamar stated that the ritual whipping of Hamar women and girls seems to be allowed to continue simply to make tourists go happy looking at it, and also as a cultural necessity.  Even if some tourists would not appreciate whipping, they are eager to take photo and video from this strange event.

Young Hamar people who are educated and working in different government positions confessed that they don’t support the whipping of girls and women during the leap over the cattle ceremony. For example, Bazo, an educated young Hamar, tried to avoid whipping of girls and women at least during his own leap over the cattle ceremony. However, Bazo’s sister forced the maz to whip her and consequently his sister and relatives were whipped. Suma, a 29-year old LTG stressed that he worked with his association to stop whipping mainly through educating the Hamar about its health impact. Sudo, a degree holder, said, “Whipping hurts the health of the women and girls and must be avoided”. Similarly, girls who live in urban areas and attend school are not interested in whipping. But they dress in traditional ways and join dances and rituals in the villages. They act differently from the girls or women living in the rural villages. This indicates that like the Hamar male educated youth, educated girls tend to leave cultural practices that have been assumed ‘harmful’. This shows that the influence of education upon cultural practices of host communities and their interaction with tourists trigger them to evaluate the negative health effects of whipping mainly looking from some tourists’ disappointment during the whipping scene.

Elderly women and men, and those who are benefited from tourism argue that ignoring the whipping practice is equated with losing one’s ethnic identity and culture. Suma, a LTG, claimed that men would like to stop whipping after they received training on the problems from the zonal and Wereda levels Culture and Tourism Offices. Related to this, Wero, Hamar elder man explained:

The government does not allow whipping of females even if it is still continuing. There was no whipping during the ‘ukuli’ of Awoke Aike and Oita Murso[10]. This is a very good experience. Other ‘ukuli’ must also understand its problems. Thus, we elders of the Hamar must evaluate ourselves regarding the whipping of women and other problems related to tourism. Hence, we elders must take the lead before the Wereda administrators in stopping whipping practice (Discussion in the meeting held in Turmi Primary school on March 11, 2012).

From the statements above, it appears that, on the one hand, the elder suggested the need to stop whipping of females. On the other hand, they were not fully committed to stop whipping. Interestingly, it shows the concern of educated Hamar to stop whipping by being exemplary to their community. Regardless of the efforts made by some educated Hamar to stop whipping, Mukko and Aybela described the resistance from elders. Moreover, Mukko, deputy head of Evangadi[11] LTGs association and a LTG expressed the following in a meeting:

When we tried to discuss with elders at Kaeske River representing Evangadi LTGs association to stop whipping, they warned us and were not willing to stop it. The issue of ‘HTPs’ like ‘mingi’, whipping, abduction, etc… have always been the discussion of the Wereda with the elders of the villages. Why don’t the Wereda administrators sometimes discuss the issue with the youths and the children? Because the elders do not do anything at the grassroots/villages level after they returned back from any meeting (Discussion in the meeting held in Turmi Primary school on March 11, 2012).

Similarly, Lemma, a policeman in Turmi town stated this in the same meeting:

It is only elders who attended different meetings to conduct discussions on different issues related to the Hamar community. Women were not allowed to participate in the meeting though the participation of women is useful on issues pertaining to women since their roles in alleviating problems is of great importance (Discussion in the meeting held in Turmi Primary school on March 11, 2012).

Thus, from the above statements, it can be said that what elders speak in the meeting and the reality on the ground were different and still shows their loose commitment to stop whipping. It also calls for the participation of the youth and women in alleviating several problems that concern them. Overall, the discussion shows that educated Hamar who work in various GOs and NGOs, students and LTGs were convinced with the negative effects of the ritual whipping of girls and women as well as they made some efforts to stop it while elders (men and women), young people in the village (male and female) argued its relevance as a cultural requirements and therefore shows their loose commitment to stop it. 

5.      Perception of Tourists on the Ritual Whipping of Girls and Women

As stakeholders of tourism, tourists do also have diverse views regarding the ritual whipping of girls and women during the ukuli ceremony. For outsiders, whipping practice may be ‘shocking’, ‘surprising’, ‘painful’ and ‘strange’ especially when the girls and women are being whipped without fearful facial expression and by their own interests. In my observation during the fieldwork, girls and women were not only whipped but also they gathered together, sung, danced, and begged for the maz to whip them. This occasion put me in a sort of ‘culture shock’, as such practice is very different from the culture I grew up in. Similarly, some tourists wanted to see the ritual whipping of girls and women in Hamar while other tourists feel uncomfortable and are against it.

Some tourists revealed that they would like to see the way how whipping of girls and women looks like. For example, a tourist from Italy during interview explained, “I was eager to see in person how females are whipped in the twenty first century by male and for male. I was also interested in recording the actions showed by those who are whipped” (12th of May 2012, at Evangadi lodge, near Turmi). LTGs also explained that unless such tourists see whipping of girls and women in the ceremony, they would ask LTGs to return the money they paid. The Wereda official, Dido, narrated the efforts he made and the obstacles he encountered while he tried to stop whipping of girls and women during the ukuli ceremony of his nephew as follows:

There was leap over the cattle ceremony for my nephew and I decided to stop whipping in the program by informing the negative effects facing girls and women. There were tourists that came to watch the ceremony and asked where is whipping. We informed them that we trained the Hamar about its negative impacts. Then, the tourists insisted to go to Turmi where there is whipping. At that time, it touched me a lot and I told tourists to leave the place where they get whipping. But the Hamar entered conflict with me. The reason was clear; they need to get money from the tourists. At that time, I asked the Hamar how much money they need; they said to me ‘1000 ETB’ and I promised them to give them by selling cattle. I told them some of you have 500 cattle and why you allow your women to be whipped for only 1000 ETB (Interview, 9th of August 2012, at his office in Dimeka).

Likewise, Kedir[12], a NGO worker added:

Tourists enjoy watching girls and women of the Hamar getting whipped during the ‘ukuli’. I saw tourists’ enjoying the photos and films they made while the women's of the Hamar were whipped. Tourists pay money when they take part in the whipping scene. This initiates women to be whipped continually rather than to stop it. In this regard, tourists play their role for the perpetuation of whipping (Interview, 15th of August 2012, at his office in Dimeka).

The above two views demonstrate that tourists are interested to see the ritual whipping of Hamar girls and women. It also reveals that the money incurred from tourists has become source of conflicts of interest. Moreover, it shows that tourists have a particular interest in whipping and demand the continuity of the practice.

Conversely, some tourists were not happy when they observed the ritual whipping of Hamar girls and women. In this regard, I observed tourists crying in times they saw this practice. Similarly, Suma, a 29-year-old Hamar man, LTG, stated that when girls and women whipped by maz, some tourists were unhappy and felt shocked. With respect to this, a male tourist from England expressed his feeling:

It is unusual practice for the Westerners to see the ritual whipping of girls and women. You never see somebody forcing girls and women for whipping in Hamar. It is the girls and women themselves who liked to be whipped even sometimes they provoke and fight with the ‘maz’ when the ‘maz’ do not want to whip them. This is the complex part of the culture. I would not perhaps like my child to be whipped (Interview, 9th of April 2012, at Turmi Primary School in Turmi).

In support of the above opinion, a 35-year-old female tourist from Germany said:

The whipping of girls and women is bad. I do not like to see such whipping and bleeding that affect girls and women physically. I do not want to see while a human is being whipped. I felt regret to see whipping and I did not want to stay longer. Thus, I returned soon since I was not interested with the whipping that I consider inhuman act though I would feel that is their way of doing things (Interview, 28th of September 2012, at SORC in Jinka).

In a similar way, Aybela, head of Evangadi LTGs association explained:

In my brother leap over the cattle ceremony, I decided to stop whipping of girls and women though there were more than 100 tourists. I told the ‘maz’ not to whip them. This is because I took the responsibility to teach the Hamar about the negative effects of whipping representing Evangadi LTGs association. The tourists could not ask me to see whipping practice. However, they saw the leap over the cattle, the dances and other cultural events even if they asked me as there was whipping in the past and why it was halted in the ceremony. I responded to them as whipping affects the health of the girls and women. In response, tourists agreed with me and they said you are right (Interview, 20th of May 2012, at ‘Green hotel’ in Turmi).

The aforementioned quotations imply that tourists are surprised by the ritual whipping of Hamar girls and women especially when they willingly provoke the maz to be whipped. They strongly opposed whipping from the Universal Human rights point of views and consider it “immoral”. 

  1. . Discussion

The overall discussion of the ritual whipping of girls and women showed that men and women elders, young girls and boys living in the villages viewed the practice of whipping as part of cultural requirements that symbolizes their courage, commitment and respect to the ukuli and they need its continuity. Anthropologically, this can be seen from the ‘cultural relativist’ points of view. On the other hand, LTGs, educated male and female Hamar, government officials and some tourists viewed it as one of the ‘HTPs’ and against principles of the Universal Human Rights. 

It has been suggested that  tourism is a contributing factor for the divided views of stakeholders on whipping practice where it is seen, on the one hand, as the most attracting ‘wild savage’ feeling for tourists and as part of their entertainment. It also continues to pose the Hamar for whipping though concerned bodies of GOs and NGOs exerted some efforts to block the practice under the ‘HTPs’. At the same time, this practice is considered a cohesive element of Hamar culture as a requirement. On the other hand, government officials, some tourists and educated Hamar claim the negative health impacts of whipping.

Based on the above diverse views on whipping, I believe the need to compromise the interests of stakeholders looking a middle ground to reach at a consensus. This may well underway by putting some efforts to convince the Hamar about the negative health effects of whipping through well-known personalities of the Hamar. This can be done by carrying out continuous discussions among all age groups of the community and tourism stakeholders. For those who consider whipping practice only from Universal Human Rights point of view, it may be regarded as imposing their own interest to block long existing practice ‘overnight’ than at least for why the community is interested to practice whipping. Understanding the views of the community may reconcile the divergent views of cultural relativists and the universal human rights activists in the context of tourism stakeholders in Hamar.

Despite all these, almost all of the stakeholders of tourism have common understanding on the very objective of why women and girls are interested to be whipped by the maz. Therefore, the ritual whipping is believed to be contributing to the ritual well-being of the community. This clearly shows difference of meanings and implications for the Hamar and other tourism stakeholders, in which whipping is culturally accepted very well by both the whipper and the whipped and there is no sense of embarrassment related to it. Whipping as part of tourist attraction, brings economic benefits to the local people, which partly contributes to its persistence. I personally believe that whipping girls and women adversely affects their health, and I suggest the need to maximize on other tourism resources primarily the leap over the cattle, which is a very fascinating and attracting cultural practice for the Hamar community and for the tourists too.

6.      Conclusion

From the discussion it can be concluded that some Hamar men and women, particularly elders support the ritual whipping of girls and women during the ukuli ceremony, since they think that the practice is used to show respect, love, courage and commitment for the ukuli as a cultural requirement. However, the ritual whipping of girls and women has been perceived as ‘harmful traditional practice’ by government officials, LTGs, educated Hamar and some tourists arguing that it hurts the health of women and girls. Tourists perceive whipping ambivalently as an attraction and disruptive act. Therefore, it is important to educate the Hamar what is ‘useful’ and ‘harmful’ practices by creating awareness. The implication of tourism should also be accounted from the intent of benefiting the community in terms of creating respect and pride to the cultural practices.




Epple, Susanne. 2010. The Bashada of Southern Ethiopia: A Study of Age, Gender and Social Discourse.Koeln: RuedigerKoeppeVerlag.


Epple, Susanne. 2012. “Local Responses to Externally Induced Cultural Change, the Introduction of Formal Education in Bashada (Southern Ethiopia).” Paideuma58:197–211.


Lydall, Jean. 1994. “Beating Around the Bush.” Pp. 205-225 in Proceedings of the XIth International Conference of Ethiopian studies,Vol. II.edited by B. Zewde, R. Pankhust and T. Beyene. Addis Ababa: Institute of Ethiopian studies.


Strecker, Ivo. 1990. “Political Discourse among the Hamar of Southern Ethiopia.” Pp. 39-47 in Proceedings of the First National Conference of Ethiopian Studies,April 11-12, 1990, edited by R. Pankhurst, A. Zekaria and T. Beyene. Addis Ababa University: Institute of Ethiopian Studies.



[1] PhD, Assistant Professor of Tourism Development and Management at Tourism Development and Management Program, Center for Environment and Development Studies, College of Development Studies, Addis Ababa University. Mobile: +251 0911114567, +2510922106026. Email:,,


[2] Literally, eyke-pe refers to the land of grandfathers in Hamar.

[3]The Hamar who are expected to cross KaeskeRiver are those who are residing to the side of Turmisuch as Gamballa, Angude, Kola Kaja, Dambaitti, Simbele, Tsiya, Aria Umbulle, AriaKisa and Kulumba while those who live in Wongabayno, Minogalti, Assile, etc. do not cross KaeskeRiver because the bittahas decided for the leap overthe cattle to take place within the territory of the Hamarsaying “KaeskeisaMaaleenee” literally means ‘Kaeske is my boundary’. Those who live to the Turmi side are not considered within the bitta’sterritory of Hamar. Thus, they must cross the Kaeske River.

[4]Ritual leader of the Hamar

  1. The term Bara came from the shademostly erected for celebrations to welcome guests in front of the home of ukuli’s family. Bara is also an indication for an ukuliwho is going to perform his leap.

[6] At these days several cattle and goats are slaughtered for the guests. In the meantime, relatives of the ukuli either his mother’s or father’s line can present their gifts based on their wealth status. These mean those who are ‘rich’ can give goats or sheep or honey while those who are supposed ‘poor’ can present gaw, shekeni, butter or honey. The ukuli and his shia/best friend can go around the ceremony and collect the gifts from his relatives.

  1. It includes the views of Hamar elder men and women, educated or non-educated young Hamar male and female. In order to get the views of the Hamar about the ritual whipping of girls and women, I attempted to include Hamar informants of different sex, age, and level of education.


[8]Leap over the cattle (male initiation)

[9]Initiated male who has successfully completed his leap over the cattle but is not yet married; responsible to assist other initiates to perform the ritual.


[10]After the meeting, I asked about AowkeAike and Oita Murso and informants told me that both of them were officials from the Hamar community and stopped whipping of girls and women during their ukuli ceremony. They did that in order to be a reference and a means through which the community learns from the negative effectsof whipping.

[11]Night dance


[12] He worked as HamarWereda education office project coordinator of Save the Children Norway. 

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