It is a trip within a trip. A journey from nowhere to even further beyond.....
The town of Turmi lies deep in the Omo Region of southern Ethiopia. Two streets wrapped in their own heat and dust and a major terminus for the Hamer Tribe. Known for their unique style of dress and culture, the Hamer are probably most famous for their bull-jumping ceremony - a rite of initiation into manhood for all Hamer boys.
The rock-strewn path we travel along and which passes for a road in these parts is 28 kilometers long we are told. I have also been reassured that there will not be any trekking required to reach our location. After an hour of bumping along I am beginning to wonder if the advice we received in Turmi earlier is somehow wrong. But soon enough we approach a dry riverbed and an oddly out of place collection of SUV's. Apparently we are not the only ones who have been invited to witness this event.
I have been coming to Ethiopia for almost ten years and have never seen the Bull-Jumping Ceremony. Time and circumstance have always seemed to intervene and I have often left this amazing country having felt somehow cheated. This year was to be different and it was with great anticipation that I jumped out of our vehicle and approached the gathering Hamer clans. Women were huddled under a great lean-to, their leather skirts and dark skin making them almost invisible in the shadows beneath, only the shine of their cowry shells giving away their presence. Smoking fires surrounded the area as preparations were underway to cook the local brew know as Fersi. The Hamer women moved back and forth, with their distinctive coiled hair coated in red earth and butter. Their necks adorned with brass rings, they are both fierce and attractive at the same time. I drifted in and out among the Hamer, some of whom welcomed me with curious smiles while others had no time or interest for a nosy Ferengi (foreigner).
The bull-jumping initiation actually consists of two parts- the jumping of the bull and the whipping of the women. It was the latter that soon began as we followed the excited crowds to another side of the compound. Male relatives (known as Maz) from the mother's side of the initiate first have their faces painted before they are taunted and teased into whipping these women with a branch. (I am told that branches from the acacia tree make the best whips.) The men take turns refusing to use their whips while the women egg them on. The more scars the woman receives the more pride she earns for herself and the family. As if in a fever the women are jumping around, chasing the boys as they become more animated. Some blow on horns while others ululate and yell encouragement. This part of the day soon becomes too much and I eventually depart to prepare for the main event.
Approaching the top of a nearby hill I am told this is where the bull jumping will take place. Soon enough the bulls begin to make their way to the dusty square in front of us. Some are complacent as if having been part of this ritual before, while others snort and stomp the earth. I move closer and watch through my camera lens as a rather long-horned bull lunges in my direction before being yanked back into the herd. As the crowd thickens voices begin to rise as the boy who will jump makes his way into the circle of cattle. One by one he goes around feeling each of the bulls, almost talking to them as if to see if they will cooperate in his upcoming test. When he is satisfied he steps back and waits to be called.
The bulls are then placed in a row while being firmly held by the tail and horns. The crowd moves in closer in anticipation. The Hamer women, also sensing the ceremony will begin, move in, their bodies as one, rising up and down to their own cadence. They are surrounded by a patina of red dust as the bangles on their arms and ankles chime with every step they take.
The boy steps forward. It is now his time. Naked except for two slim straps of vines criss-crossed over his chest he approaches the wall of bulls. Picking up speed he leaps upon the back of the first bull as the crowd erupts. The roar of the crowd, the calls of the Hamer women and the cries of the bulls all compete with one another. Quickly the boy runs across the other bulls to reach the safety of the other side. One jump done, 3 or 4 more return trips to go.
The second time around the boy is not so fortunate as he slips between the first and second bull. Kicking the dirt he backs up and attempts a second try. Again he falls short, practically enveloped in a sea of bovine backs. A man steps forward and proffers encouragement. It is time to jump again. One large stride sees him reach the top before he slides down again. Someone calls out in Amharic that the boy cannot be Hamer as he jumps like a Konso (another tribe in Southern Ethiopia). With set determination the boy approaches the bulls and with the aid of some helping hands makes it across. He has only a few more jumps to go before he is gathered up by his fellow bull-jumpers, the Maz, who will escort him back to his village for a celebration lasting deep into the night. In the morning he will have his hair shaved off and then he will be sent even further into the bush to spend a couple of weeks with some other boys from his village before returning home ready to choose a wife.
The Hamer Bull-Jumping ceremony has proven to be worth the wait for me. It is a fascinating glimpse into a unique tribal custom. And in this day of mass-marketed tourism it is reassuring to know that this practice still continues, with or without our presence.