In the Southwestern area of Ethiopia you’ll find the Omo Valley. In this area, a tribe named Hamer is known for the tradition of bull jumping. Some of their traditions are thousands of years old, and this is just one out of many.
I traveled to Ethiopia so I could experience what these traditions were all about. Especially bull jumping. This is the ceremony, where are young teenage boy finally shows his worth and becomes a real man.
Bull jumping is a celebration. At first sight you can get slightly scared looking at the women, who keep getting whipped by the men of the tribe. But the women laugh and smile. At the same time, they have deep wounds and bleed so much that you almost feel sick from the look of it.
But it’s part of it. The tribe consists of approximately 50,000 people. All people in the tribe keep the old traditions and the celebration of the teenage boy, who finally becomes a real man.
Finding the place, where the bull jumping takes place, is definitely not easy. We, the tourists, have to drive 1-2 hours away from the civilization. After this, it takes around one hour to get to the exact spot, that they are staying at. Without a guide it would be impossible to find out where the ceremony would take place. It’s out in nowhere. But once you’re there, you’re not in doubt. People are happy, and from far away you hear the the locals sing and the bells that are tight around the women’s legs.
The purpose of the ceremony
During the day, the village is getting ready to celebrate the young teenage boy. This is the day where he will be a grown up and be ready to find a wife. The locals wear their most beautiful jewelry and paint each other in the faces. The feet and hans are getting washed. They dye their hair with ochre and butter for their traditional hairstyle.
You sense that this is not an event that takes place every day. Some people say that this only happens a few times a year. And I must say, they are making a great effort. They are enthusiastic.
It is a special day for all of them. This is where the teenage boy will show that he is a real man, so he can get the title of being a maza.
Women getting whipped
I hear a smack and look around. Suddenly, I notice how all women are bleeding on their backs after having been whipped by the men. It’s impossible to feel anything else than sorry for these people. The whips must hurt after all this bleeding. This is not something you wish that anyone should ever experience.
Before the ceremony, where the young teenage boy shows his worth, the entire village is dancing, singing and whipping. The women wear bells around their legs and dance in a circle. All the time, women are leaving the circle to find a man who is ready to whip her. The women are dancing in a very determined way while their bells are ringing. The men are smiling. And then they are whipping with all the power that they’ve got.
In the Hamer tribe, the whips symbolize love. The more a women is being whipped by the men, the more devotion she shows towards the young man. After each hit the woman is smiling and goes back to other women to keep dancing. These women proudly show how much they support the new maza. With this ritual, they show the young man how much he means to the entire tribe.
You see the young man. He is standing naked in the middle of all the bulls. The bulls have a very special meaning to the Hamer tribals. They symbolize high social status.
The bulls are being placed next to each other. Usually, there are 8-10 cows in total. The men, who already own the title of being a maza, are making sure that the bulls can’t move away. The young teenage boy needs to be entirely naked while jumping up and running across the backs og the bulls. He has to do this four times. If he manages to do this without falling, he will be celebrated and ready to viist other villages for 3 days to find his future wife.
It is very entertaining and a bit nerve wrecking to watch the bull jumping ceremony. All the time, you wonder if he is really going to make it. But it always ends well. If he by accident falls down, the other mazas will help him get back up to finish the run. When he has made it, he gets the title maza and is allowed to whip the other women as well. He now has three names – his own and the one from a goat and a cow.
As a tourist, you are able to encounter the entire ceremony. Together with the locals, we walk back to our jeeps to drive to our primitive lodges, while the locals continue their walk to the other villages and keep celebrating the new maza. Hopefully, he will find a woman that he would like to marry.