The fascination of Ethiopia’s Karo people in decorating their faces and bodies with chalk and ochre serves various purposes, including enhancing the chance of finding love, intimidating rivals and for aesthetics. The rituals might have originated with the Hamar Group, with which they share the same lineage.
Their unique substance is used to create intricate designs on faces and bodies of both males and females. While the women use this technique to be more visually appealing, the men also paint their faces and bodies to boost their sex appeal. They paint themselves with colored ochre, white chalk, yellow mineral rock, charcoal, and pulverized iron ore, all natural resources local to the area.
There’s no end to the designs the individuals living on the East Bank of the Omo River come up with. Women create intricate circle, spiral and cross-hatched designs in full splendor of their tribal make-up. The styles range from simple stars or lines to animal motifs, such as guinea fowl plumage or a myriad of handprints covering the torso and legs.
Their hair is not spared as it’s also mixed with red ochre and cut in a bowl-like fashion. The Karo men cover their body and face with white chalk mixed with fat to celebrate important festivities and show off during guest visits.
Aside decorating themselves in the white markings, scarifications are a big part of the Karo culture. Men inflict lacerations and cuts on themselves to produce scars and markings as a mark of courage.
By way of work, the Karo engage in agriculture and fishing. Their meals stem from maize, sorghum and beans supplemented with fish, as well as, goats and cattle.
Due to conflicts with other ethnic groupings and attacks from wild animals, the Karo males carry weapons to protect their cattle. The Karo male hairstyle is very elaborate. “A man wearing a grey and red-ochre clay hair bun with an Ostrich feather indicates that he has bravely killed an enemy from another tribe or a dangerous animal, such as a lion or a leopard. This clay hair bun often takes up to three days to construct. It is usually remade every three to six months, and can be worn for a period of up to one year after the kill.”
Large beads worn around the neck of a man also signify a big game kill. The Karo men cover their body and face with ashes mixed with fat, a symbol of virility for important festivities and the ritual combats. Cinders also protect them from mosquitoes and tsetse fly.
Karo women usually wear only a skin loincloth, decorated with beads and cowries. Their hair is greased with red clay and cut into a short skullcap.
“The scarification of the man’s chest indicates that he has killed enemies from other tribes, and he is highly respected within his community. Each line on his chest represents one killing, and complete chest scarification is not rare. The Karo women are considered particularly sensual and attractive if cuts are made deep into their chests and torsos and ash is rubbed in, creating a raised effect over time and thereby enhancing sexual beauty.”
The Karo, like the Hamar, perform the Bula or Pilla initiation rite, which signifies the coming of age for young men. The initiate must demonstrate that he is ready to “become a man” by leaping over rows of cattle six times consecutively without falling.