The members of the Hamer tribe in Southern Ethiopia live traditional pastoral lives in the same way as many past generations of their tribe. As pastoralists, cattle play a significant role in the culture and mores of the tribe. Nowhere is this more evident and central to one of the Hamer’s most well known and epic ancient rites of passage; the bull jumping ceremony.
Usually occuring in Autumn, this is an elaborate three day event in which a teenage boy whom the elders regard as a coming of age adult, undergoes the traditional test which determines whether the young man is ready to own cattle and marry the bride the elders have chosen for him.
The ceremony involves much dancing and celebration as the tribe’s women, dressed in their leather clothing and sporting the traditional butter and ochre hair treatment, dance for hours in large dancing circles.
To accompany their dancing the women blast horns as the bells attached to their legs ring out.
Before the ceremony, female relatives (with the exception of little girls) of the young man meet the Maza, men who have just passed the bull-jumping ceremony and who temporarily live apart from the rest of the tribe.
In what some might consider a brutal tradition, they demand to be whipped with birch branches by these men as a way of showing their dedication and loyalty towards their male relatives. The idea here is to create a strong bond – an obligation – between them.
As they have undergone such pain so stoically on his behalf, he should feel a debt to protect them in the future. This also signals their attractiveness as a future wife, and it becomes a kind of competition, with women refusing to back down and vowing to each endure the most pain.
One of the young men who have already completed the bull jumping task and are supporting the current jumper
As the celebratory day passes the bulls are gathered in preparation for the ritual test.
The men struggle to line up seven to ten bulls so the test can begin
Both ends of the bull are used to exert leverage.
After the bull wrangling is completed and the bulls are lined up, the backs of the bulls are slathered with dung to make them slippery and increase the difficulty of the task. The bull jumper is also slathered in dung and must make four passes across the backs of the bulls without falling. Should he fall short, he will wait a year to attempt the task again.
If successful, he will be eligible to marry the woman chosen by his parents. Bridal payments to the bride’s family are in the range of 30 goats and 20 cattle.
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Thanks Frank for sharing this great article and the amazing photos. This brought back many great memories of that 2 weeks we spent in Ethiopia. Larry Ehemann
Beautiful photos and storytelling!