Bull Jumping

The female relatives singing before the event

(Dana) In many cultures, there is a rite of passage – an event that marks the transition into adulthood.  At home, some teens become a bar/bat mitzvah; others are confirmed.  In the Hamar tribe in Southern Ethiopia, girls of marrying age (14/15) are circumcised.  Boys of ~18-21 prove their maturity through bull jumping.

When a boy is ready for marriage, his father will find and negotiate a bride for him.  Without telling the boy about his intended, his father will begin a 4-7 day celebration, culminating in the rite of bull jumping.  This is not a show arranged for foreigners; there is no set schedule.  Sometimes there will be two in one week, and other times six months in-between.  We were lucky; during our stay, Aska from the Shafala village would be making his transition.

Aska, apprehensive, before his rite of passage

After a two-hour bouncy drive including way too many kilometers down a dry, sandy riverbed, we arrived at Aska’s ceremony.  The first step was a financial transaction with the village elders – a pre-arranged 400 birr ($20) per visitor to witness and photograph the event.  Interestingly, we were berated later by several Hamar women; even without translation, it was clear they didn’t know that we had paid the men.  Classic… the women do the work and the men are paid!

We settled into the sand as the events began to unfold:

1.  Aska’s female relatives sing songs, blessing the future groom. Blowing horns, they call to their relatives to join the festivities.  As they jump in traditional dances, their hair – in ringlets and coated with butter and ochre – bounces to the beat.  Wor Worra – bells on a band around their calves – echo through the river valley.

A relative receiving the whip

Most importantly, the women taunt the groom’s best men, exhorting them to whip them.  Yes, whip them.  The stronger and more numerous the lashes, the more power is transferred to Aska for his bull jumping.  Woosh…snap!  I watch her face closely; not a flinch.  Maybe it’s the power of the ritual; maybe it’s the sorghum beer.  The cycle of songs and whipping continue.  Aska watches.

2.  Aska’s male relatives arrive with bulls and take them to the jumping site.  At some point, the entire group – a hundred Hamar followed by 20 camera-wielding tourists – starts walking to the site.  One of Aska’s relatives, Yito, complete with raw lash marks, grabs my hand, and we climb up the hill, along a path fringed by thorny bushes.  Dozens of sets of bells are clanging around me; the sound vibrates through me.  We reach the clearing and the whipping resumes until one elder determines enough has been done.

Dana's elder friend

3.  The female relatives’ job isn’t done.  Now they must circle the bulls, chanting blessings and singing in an effort to lull the cows into a docile state for Aska’s jumping.  Meanwhile, the Maza – males who have jumped before – prepare Aska, offering him power and advice.  We are sitting quietly next to the group of women villagers.  The laughter and chatter in Hamar, along with the strong smell of ochre, sweat and earth, wash over me.   Smiling and nodding my respect, I show them some of the photos I have taken.  One elder women (probably my age) finds them incredibly humorous and grabs her friend so that I can take their photo also.  Soon I am sharing laughs and pictures with several of the women around me and even one previously stone-faced, rifle-toting warrior!

Aska sprints across the bulls

4.  Finally, four bulls are chosen and lined up next to each other.  The best men hold them by the mouth and the tail.  Aska is naked except for his ceremonial beads.  When it is time, he leaps up onto the first bull and sprints awkwardly across the backs of the other three bulls.  He must complete 3-4 passes or he will fail.  Incredibly, if he fails, it will be his female relatives who will be punished.  They will be whipped more because they obviously weren’t passionate enough the first time! 1…2…3…4!  A few stumbles and one false start, but he has done it!  He is congratulated by the entire village.

At tonight’s celebrations, Aska’s father will tell him who he will marry.  To the Hamar, Aska is now a man.

The whipping is very, very real

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