Oromo Fashion by Dr Peri Klemm / go back to Issue 5 

Qarma: Headband

Oromo dress has been subject to an array of imported trade goods including textiles, jewelry, and cosmetics that come into the markets in and around Harar from India and the Middle East and more recently from Taiwan and China.  In the 18th century, Harar was a strategic trading center situated between the Gulf of Aden and the interior of present-day Ethiopia.  Under the Egyptian Occupation of Harar from 1875 to 1886, caravans from the east intensified, bringing a number of Indian, Turkish, and Yemeni merchants.  Under Egyptian law, the Oromo were compulsorily confronted with a new religion and taxation system and a new administration that essentially banned their traditional socio-political age grade system, RabaDori.  Further changes in the first decades of the 20th century when Harar became part of the Ethiopian empire under Emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I created closer alliances between Oromo and neighboring Argobba, Harari and Somali groups due to their common experience with imposed feudalism, Orthodox Christianity, and growing poverty.

Approximately fifty years ago when they could afford to do so, Oromo women in both farming and herding villages began replacing their leather skirts with cotton dresses and their leather headbands, or madiicha, with metal forehead bands known collectively as qarma.  The most common qarma, called qarma loti, or chain headband, consists of a silver metal forehead piece made from silver beads or filigree fashioned into five triangles.  Both Harari and Oromo women wear these metal forehead bands today on special occasions.  They are created by Harari smiths in Harar and sold in the gold and silver shops inside the walled city in the old horse market, Faras Magala.  The wealthier Harari wear a kind of qarma loti made out of gold instead of the aluminum, tin, or nickel alloys created for the Oromo.  The Harari headpiece also consists of seven triangles instead of five and displays more intricate filigree work.  However, during the time of the Egyptian Occupation, the qarma loti worn by both Oromo and Harari women was identical in appearance and was created from silver by Harari smiths.  The Maria Theresa dollar, a silver coin first minted in 1780 with the portrait of the Austro-Hungarian Queen, was then the main source of silver for jewelry and other decorations throughout Eastern Ethiopia and accounts for the similarity in design and use between Oromo and Harari headgear.  However, when the Egyptians pulled out of Harar in 1886, they are believed to have taken countless sacks of Maria Theresa coins with them, thus depleting the local supply.  Since many of these coins left Harar between 1875 and the turn of the century, silverwork has almost come to a complete halt.

In the 1970’s, spools of low grade, metal chain began arriving in the marketplace and local Oromo recreated qarma loti with this new readymade material.  This industrial chain was cheap and plentiful and most importantly, its presence meant that Oromo women no longer had to enter affluent Harari jewelry shops where they were often made to feel like second-class citizens.  In the last twenty years this metal headpiece has been transformed again through a network of colorful seed beads that are either worn with the spool qarma loti or have replaced it entirely.  This modern beaded band is called challee qarma, or ‘beaded headpiece’.  Challee qarma refers to both open interlaced strands of multicolored seed beads and horizontal strands of white seed beads connected with plastic, colored buttons.

This recent change in material can be viewed, first and foremost, as a political move by Oromo women to create new dress forms that no longer resemble Harari qarma as a means of creating distance from their Harari neighbors, an ethnic group with which they have growing tension over land and demographic representation.  A headband is also one of the few ornaments shared by all divisions of the great Oromo confederacy throughout Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya although materials and form vary widely.  While women infrequently travel great distances, many of them express a desire to want to connect with the other groups that make up the thirty million Oromo population outside their own lineages with whom they share a language.  Distinguishing themselves through forehead decorations is one way to create visual participation in emerging Oromo nationalism.  Lastly, these new beads that flood the market are considered fashionable and young female traders spend their free time scouring bead kiosks for the latest colors and sizes with which to make their hairline most attractive and stylish.

Ambarka: Beaded Necklace

For young, unmarried Oromo women, living in and around the town of Fedis south of Harar, the ambarka necklace is their most prized possession.  These women are born into generations of traders.  Like their ancestors, they spend a great deal of their lives in transit collecting necessities like wood kindling in the rural areas which they then sell in towns and along the main road that links Harar to Addis Ababa and the commercial railway town Dire Dawa.  A bundle of wood sticks for cooking, a scarcity in the almost completely deforested region, will fetch the equivalent of fifty U.S. cents and take up to a week to collect and deliver.  Economically these young women and their families are trapped within a system of poverty, due to their limited, if not nonexistent access to education, high rates of malnutrition and disease, and a low life expectancy.  Within this system, the beaded ambarka, invented within the last fifteen years, has come to find a prominent place around the necks of young women.  The ambarka distinguish these women as traders, but more importantly, it is encoded with notions of modernity and nationalism.

In the areas east and south of Harar, the ambarka is regularly worn by young women who belong to the Ala and Baabile subgroups of the Afran Qallo.  Slight variations in ambarka design are also worn in other Afran Qallo areas but are given different names.  An ambarka is constructed either of two thick, single beaded bands joined at the bottom in a series of beaded rows ending with fringed beaded strands or two double beaded bands connected at the bottom and fringed.  In both cases, the necklaces, which are four to eight centimeters in diameter, rest flat on the chest, reaching to the breastbone. 

The young women who make these necklaces string imported seed beads onto twine in diamond shaped patterns framed within broad registers of a single color.  The unused twine at the top is further braided into two strands to secure the ambarka at the neck.  The seed beads which come from the Czech Republic and more recently China, are purchased in single-color strands and have been sold since 1990 in the markets of Harar, Fedis, and Baabile.  They are most readily available in white, green, yellow, blue, and red.

Ambarka and challee qarma are most commonly worn together by unmarried girls who are taught to bead in seclusion during menses as a way to pass the time.  Young Oromo women generally wear only beaded items that they themselves have assembled and pride themselves in never creating the same pattern twice nor wearing the pattern of fellow Oromo traders.  For this reason, beadwork provides a relatively recent avenue for personal creativity.  Women who can afford the spectrum of bead colors can create a variety of looks as long as they follow the prescribed stylistic code.  This code requires a series of diamond shapes dissected by two diagonal lines situated within a sequence of horizontal bands.  To create variety, a woman may vary the thickness, number of bands and diamonds, and color in each necklace. 

It may at first appear odd that necklaces only a decade and a half old would possess such rigid stylistic conventions.  These necklaces are, however, actually very close in style and production to a long-standing tradition of basket making.  Woven fiber baskets were used until fairly recently in almost every household activity and they served as the main decoration in the home, for both Oromo and Harari women, as Belle Tarsitani explores in her contribution to this issue.   While baskets still play a role as household containers and make up part of a woman's dowry, the laborious task of fine basket making is now less often practiced.  As is true throughout Africa, in the last half century the introduction of plastic buckets and dishes, tin platters, and cast-iron cooking pots has slowed the production of pottery and basketry.  Afran Qallo women have largely given up the personal control they once had in producing their own household and ceremonial wares.  A woman’s financial resources and her desire for foreign manufactured goods now dictate the materials she uses in her home.  In addition, the cement walls that are currently replacing traditional thatch or mud walls are not suited to display hand-made baskets or even modern metal-stenciled platters.  Many women with whom I have spoken also state that the major famines since the 1980's coupled with the current political climate have created situations for migration and displacement among the Afran Qallo.  Women do not pass time preparing beautiful houses as they once did in the past and notions of home are no longer rooted geographically.  Instead, the creative energy previously spent in the decoration of interior spaces is now focused on the production of body art.  Women hang beautifully patterned bead necklaces on themselves just as they once placed baskets on the walls of their homes.  Expressions of an Afran Qallo identity are today located within the frame of the self.

Challee qarma worn with ambarka create a complete set of upper body jewelry.  While earrings made of seed bead loops and other necklaces may be added and exposed arms may be decorated with tin bracelets, these serve as secondary items to the crucial placement of beaded forehead and necklace bands.  Each woman takes great pride in the purchase, production, and wearing of these materials.  Women explained that it takes hundreds of hours to complete their challee (beadwork).  Since the beadwork itself is not difficult, women are able to produce their challee themselves.  While they may work in groups when they have a free moment in the day, most women try to differentiate their own challee from others through individual choices in patterning and color.   It is considered a shameful offense to copy the designs of others or to sell or trade one’s necklace.  When a woman dies her daughters will cut and unravel her necklaces and headbands and distribute the beads for future jewelry rather than wear the challee or save it as a memento.  Beaded bands, then, have a lifecycle dependent on the life length of their owner.  When I asked why challee could not be exchanged (hoping to buy one myself) women laughed and I was told, “When the body dies it goes back to the earth.  When the challee dies it goes back to other challee.”

Challee worn at the forehead and at the neck functions as a statement about a woman’s financial position, her capacity as a skilled artisan and weaver, and her desire to accentuate and draw attention to her torso and head, the area that attracts the gaze.   By extension, unmarried women further advertise their skills and mark their interest in future mates through the necklaces they bead for young men.  The distinctive diamond-shaped patterns and primary colors of beaded headbands and necklaces also signal a more personal transformation of the wearer herself.  While girls may wear a single beaded strand, young Afran Qallo women begin wearing complete beaded sets after their excision ceremonies.  At the onset of menses which usually follows this earlier rite, young women receive strands of beads from their relatives and are encouraged to bead while they sit in seclusion.

Lastly, Oromo women describe the strands of the fashionable beads that flood the market as progressive and worldly.  They point out that women all over Africa wear jewelry made of these beads and even visitors from outside Africa seem to want them.  Thus, women use these new plastic and glass beads from India, China, and the Czech Republic to create global allegiances to notions of Africa and the world beyond.  Like the qarma, a necklace is one of these ornaments shared by all Oromo throughout eastern Africa, although, as with the headband, materials and forms vary widely.  

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Dr. Peri Klemm is an African art historian at California State University, Northridge.  She is currently working on a book about dress throughout Oromia.  Any information or suggestions you would like to share are welcome at