The bull jumping ceremony in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is a rite of passage for every young man in the Hamar tribe. The young man must strip naked, and run across the backs of bulls in front of his village. It is an indisputable test of bravery. However, it is not the most impressive part of the ceremony, or the most intense trial of courage of the day.
As people finish their chores, and the mid-day heat dissipates, villagers start appearing from the bushes into a clearing, and sitting together on the sandy banks of the Kaske river. The women have tied bunches of small bells to their calves which jingle with each step. Their hair is matted red with ochre like the muddy waters of river, and each one carries a brass horn (called a gola) that looks like a relic from the American civil war. The men look regal with long ostrich feathers stuck into their hair. They sit quietly together snorting snuff, and waiting.
More women arrive, trumpeting their horns, chanting and dancing in circles. The sounds flow up and down the river valley like a magnetic force, drawing more people out of the bush. The mood of everyone becomes very playful. The only one who seems solemn is the boy who is to jump across the bulls. He is surrounded by a handful of male relatives, and left alone with his thoughts. He is 18, but you can see the stress on this face, making him appear younger and timid — maybe 16.
The energy starts increasing. The women’s horns get louder, their jumping higher, and their smiles wider. Yet every time someone is spotted approaching the river valley, all the women charge over in a frenzy to see who it is. They are waiting for men to arrive carrying meter and a half long whips made from young vine-like branches.
Two young men are finally spotted trying to slink closer undetected, but the women ambush them. The men have an armful of switches. Carrying them like a football, they dodge women who scream and grab for them. Arriving in the clearing where the boy is sitting, the women finally surround them, wrenching the switches from their hands, and then fighting each other for control of them.
The women grasping switches form a disorderly crowd in front of either men, viciously taunting them. The men stand stone faced for a while, and then finally accept a switch from a woman. The other women move back forming an audience, and the selected woman continues viciously insulting the man. She is purposefully provoking him.
Facing him, she holds her horn proudly above her head with one hand, and starts jumping up and down. Her eyes glaze over and bulge out as she goes into a trance, the bells jingle rhythmically from her calves. The man raises the whip high over his head.
He strikes hard, curling the whip over her shoulder, and around to her back. The tip of the whip makes a piercing crack as it breaks the sound barrier, splitting open her skin. Rivulets of blood flow down her back, and onto her kudu skin skirt. She shows no pain. He shows no joy. I am stunned.
I had not realized what was going to happen until it did. We had been told there would be “weeping” before the bull jumping ceremony, and now I understand the cross cultural miscommunication. They meant a whipping ceremony. It is brutal and raw, and I feel uncomfortable witnessing such violence, especially to a woman. I feel like I have been transported to the Sparta of Ethiopia.
The battered woman is almost instantly pushed aside as other women jostle to take her place. It is not only their chance to show their courage to the village, but also their opportunity to show how loved the boy is by the village. The more women that are willing to be whipped at his ceremony, the greater the level of respect he has from them. It is a ceremony that is designed to state that before you can show us you are strong, the women must first demonstrate that you are loved.
As the whipping ends, cattle are brought out from the bush and lined up side-by-side by men. The boy appears from the bush wearing just a thin reed across his chest. The village gathers around, and the boy leaps across the backs of the bulls, landing barefoot on the ground and turning to repeat the feat. The women cheer in support, and the men struggle to hold the cattle as they try to escape. However, it all seems a little anti-climactic after the performance of the women.
The boy is now a man. He can now seek a wife. The bull jumping ceremony is a testament not only to his courage, but his kindness. Ironically, in proving his kindness, the women of the village demonstrate the greatest courage of all. The boy smiles, unburdened of the pressure of his performance. The women walk confidently with the children, bleeding and chatting. They still have a 25 kilometer walk back to the village, and it is obvious that just like in most villages around the world, the real strength comes from the women.
Author’s Note: Visiting the Hamar tribe in the Omo Valley on your own is certainly possible for the adventurous. The major issue is it is near nowhere, so there is a lot of driving. After it has been raining, be sure to check on the road conditions in the Omo Valley.
Everyone is required to hire a local guide, which can be done easily from the local guide association in Turmi. The guide is mostly there in case something goes wrong (generally just a misunderstanding), but can also help explain some of the cultural basics. The Hamar also charge about $US 25 to watch their ceremony. We camped at Mangoes, which has spartan but acceptable facilities. For more reading on the culture of the Hamar tribe, I enjoyed this article by Lars Krutak.