Coming of Age in Ethiopia

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.

Dancing during the Bull Jumping tradition
Accompanying Bells

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.

With her Birch Stick
Decorated for the Ceremony
A Maza

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.

Gathering of the Bulls

The men struggle to line up seven to ten bulls so the test can begin

Wrangling the Bulls

Both ends of the bull are used to exert leverage.

Heads or Tails?

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.

The First Pass

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.

The Last Pass

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Frank Binder

Ethiopia is such a remarkable country….a land of astonishing physical beauty, the only place on Earth with the spectacular Gelada baboon, a country where our earliest ancestors roamed, a place with ties to King Solomon and events in the Old Testament, and home to some of the most colorful ancient tribes on Earth.

Lucy, one of our earliest hominid ancestors, was discovered in 1974 in northeastern Ethiopia by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson. Named after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” Lucy was dated to be 3.2 million years old (that’s a lot of candles on her birthday!), stood about 3 1/2 ft. tall and weighed about 65 pounds. Subsequently other older ancestors dating back almost 7 million years have been found in Ethiopia but none is as renowned as Lucy.

Morning in the Omo
Morning in the Omo

In the country’s Omo valley, indigenous tribes have been painting their bodies with pulverized minerals for millenia. In the Lower Omo Valley of southwest Ethiopia, eastern South Sudan and around Lake Turkana in north Kenya reside over 500,000 indigenous, tribal people. Many are agro-pastoralists who live close to the river or lake during the dry season but return to the grasslands when the rains come. The young men have the responsibility of grazing the cattle and they have long slathered on clay to prevent sunburn. Colors are used to designate position, for ritual, to ward off illness, to attract the opposite sex, to associate with family, a tribe or an animal, and in the last ten years… to impress tourists and attract photographers.

Bringing in the Goats

Young Kara Woman
Young Kara Woman

Photographers have been coming to the Omo to be able to capture portrait images like this one. She is the wife of a young man who acted as my guide during our visit to this village.

This is a natural light image. I placed her just inside the entrance to their abode and let the outside light softly light her face. I concentrated on ensuring that her closest eye was in perfect focus.




Looking Fierce!
Looking Fierce!

A few other helpful portrait hints….Keep the background simple and neutral. And side lighting (rather than direct head on lighting) gives a portrait more drama and character.

Hamer mother and child
Hamer mother and child

This mother is rocking a traditional look for women in her village. Her leather garments, snail-shell necklace and braided hair treated with local ochre colored mud are the hallmarks of the her Hamer heritage.








Grinding Grain
Grinding Grain

These girls and women in a remote Dassanech village are working hard grinding their local grain into flour.

A Daily Bath

This young boy getting a bath illustrates the water challenges of the village and of the region in general. Obtaining water is one of the major daily activities undertaken by women in Africa. This woman likely carried a twenty gallon container of water from the local river ( a 1/2 mile away) to her home. And most likely did it by balancing the container on her head! Her use of the water bottle to bathe her child is simply a judicious way of using the water that she worked so hard to obtain.

Hauling Straw
Hauling Straw

In some respects women are the pack mules of their families. This woman is returning to her village from the local town with her purchases of straw and other sundry items. I personally witnessed her walk 1 1/2 miles to this point and followed her with my eyes as she seemed to walk into infinity on this road. She wasn’t pleased that I took this photograph.

A face that's been lived in
A face that’s been lived in

In our journey through Ethiopia, we overnighted in a small town and my colleague Dave and I decided to amble through the downtown area to see if we could stumble into anything interesting. We came across a small coffee cafe (Ethiopia is one of the coffee capitals of the world) and this fellow enjoying an afternoon cup of Joe. He was gracious enough to allow me to photograph him. It’s one of my favorite portraits from my trip. I love everything about this portrait….from the jaunty way his hat balances on his head to his character lined face.




A Group Photo
A Group Photo

Taken only a few minutes after the portrait above. As we wandered through town we eventually collected 25-30 children who followed us in our little photographic sojourn. We loved taking photos of them as they were so excited when we showed them the LCD images on the back of our cameras.

I was able to gather these five for a group portrait. Notice the facial expressions and reactions to being photographed. The two girls on the left (sisters) were very cool and collected, the young girl and boy in the middle are excited and the young girl on the right is nonplussed.

Like my Earings?

Such an incredibly photogenic set of subjects! The Omo Valley and it’s traditional and colorful set of tribes is a photographers delight. But the traditions and very existence of the ways of life are under stress for a variety of reasons. There are economic development water¬†projects that threaten the downstream lifeblood flow of the Omo River, a growing tourist activity that threatens to overwhelm and change the local ways, and finally the normal march of progress that improves people’s lives.





Sharing a Laugh
Sharing a Laugh

Finally one last portrait. Notice the piece taken out of his upper ear…..most likely the result of a coming of age ceremony as a young man.

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Shrewsbury, MA

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