The hot air is filled with dust and an atmosphere of excitement. Animals are being rounded up and men select switches (flexible wooden rods), which will soon be used to draw human blood. It’s an important day for the tribe, and for one man in particular, who will later be initiated into adulthood. Beer and food are passed around, and everyone looks forward to the impending ritual.
If the boy at the center of the festivities feels a little pensive, it wouldn’t be surprising. Why? Because later on, he will need to summon all his strength and agility for a huge leap over a line of cattle that he will need to successfully complete in order to enter adulthood.
The Hamer people of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia have lived their lives virtually undisturbed by outsiders for centuries. What’s more, the region in which they live is even more ancient. The site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and according to UNESCO, the area is “unlike any other place on Earth in that so many different types of people have inhabited such a small area of land over many millennia.” Today’s colorful ritual is just one small aspect of an area rich in both history and culture.
The men and women of the Hamer tribe take a lot of care in their appearance. This woman’s traditional clothing is made of soft cow skin, decorated along the edges with a border of beads. She is adorned with metal bracelets, cowry shells, and beads, most of which she will wear her whole life.
The woman’s intricately plaited hair, meanwhile, is covered in red ochre. And the torque around her neck indicates that she is a first wife and serves as a symbol of status amongst the tribe. This elaborate attire is not just about fashion, and almost every article of clothing carries some symbolic meaning for the Hamer.
Although today’s ritual is primarily a coming-of-age ceremony for boys, girls play an important, and possibly even more daunting, part in the proceedings as well. In preparation for what’s to come, the women drink sorghum beer and dance and sing songs of praise for the young men of their family who take part.
The scars on this woman’s arm are decorative, formed by cutting the skin and rubbing charcoal into the wound. Among the Hamer people, there’s no place for the faint-hearted – as we shall soon see.
Once they have drunk enough and roused themselves with blasts on metal “gola” horns, the women are ready to start their rather extreme form of cheerleading. They make their way over to the “maza” – young men who have already completed their own cow jumping ceremonies. Their skin is shiny from the butter they have applied to it, and their backs are bare. They are ready to do their bit.
Only very young girls and the boy’s mother are excluded from taking part in this show of solidarity. But his most enthusiastic supporters are his sisters.
Once they reach the waiting maza, the women begin to tease and verbally harass the men in order to provoke them. The men, who are clutching long thin sticks, are hesitant to react at first. Finally, however, they start to beat the women across their bare backs with the switches.
These are not playful strokes, either, but blows often strong enough to break the sticks in half. Each swipe leaves a gash in the women’s flesh, but still the women continue to provoke the maza to strike them again and again.
There are two motives behind this voluntary whipping. First, it’s a way for the women of the family to show support for the boys who are undergoing the cattle jumping initiation. The more lashes they sustain and the greater their injuries, the more devotion they have demonstrated for their brothers and other male relatives. The second reason is to secure the boys’ loyalty. Now that the girls have proven their commitment, the boys are expected to look out for them in the future, should they ever be in need of help.
The women’s scars will serve as reminders of this commitment. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Ethiopian government is in favor of ending the whipping part of the bull jumping ceremony. But for now, the women themselves want to keep the practice alive.
This young man is having his face painted in preparation for the ritual: the red paint with white spots is meant to imitate the coloring of a leopard. Until he performs the jump, no male Hamer may marry, own cattle, or have children, so it’s an important milestone in his life. Before making the leap, he is rubbed down with sand to scrub away his sins and is smeared with cow dung for strength.
Although the cattle jumping ceremony takes place during the course of one afternoon, the festivities go on for much longer than that. The invitations are sent out to relatives and friends in the form of a strip of bark with knots marking off the number of days until the initiation. Invited guests may have to travel great distances to arrive at the site. And in preparation, they begin drinking and feasting for days in advance.
Here, the maza hold the cattle steady. Their age varies according to when they made their own jumps: boys from wealthier families are usually able to perform the ritual earlier. Boys stay maza (which translates as “accomplished one”) until they get married. And when they get married depends on when their families can find someone suitable, or afford to pay their dowry. Until then, the young men travel from village to village to assist with the cow jumping rituals, for which they are paid in food and drink.
Around 15 cows and castrated bulls (representing the women and children of the tribe) are chosen for the ceremony and lined up in a row. The place of cattle in this ritual signifies their importance in Hamer life. For these semi-nomadic pastoralists, cattle herds are both symbols of wealth and an essential source of food, especially in lean times when they rely on their cows’ blood and milk to survive.
Highlighting the animals’ importance, there are 27 words in the Hamer dialect to describe the differences in the color and texture of a cow’s coat. A Hamer man is also known by three names: his human name, his goat name, and his cow name.
The jumping begins!
Now, the cattle have been rubbed with dung to make them extra slippery – in case the challenge isn’t sufficient already! On top of that, the young man being initiated must make his jumps completely naked, except for two pieces of bark tied across his chest.
He needs to complete four successful leaps over the animals, but if he falls he’s allowed to pick himself up and try again. The watching crowd cheers him on with their backs to the west, which is where they believe all evil should go.
And he makes it!
Although this activity is called bull jumping, getting across the backs of 15 cows and castrated bulls actually involves a fair bit of running and balancing. Fortunately, the cattle are held in place by the maza to lessen the likelihood of accidents.
By performing this difficult task, the Hamer boy is moving beyond childhood into manhood. Until now, he has been considered immature, sexually unclean, and of low worth, which is why he has not been allowed to marry. All that will change once he completes his fourth jump.
The boy – now a man – literally leaps into responsible adulthood to the roars of his supporters. Yet although this challenge may be over, more difficult ones lie ahead.
The development of Ethiopia brings benefits and problems for tribal people like the Hamer. More and more young people are abandoning traditional ways in favor of urban life – where they drink stronger alcohol and sometimes find themselves falling prey to less scrupulous people. It’s a time of transition for the Hamer people, and one that will no doubt take many years to complete.
As the sun sets, the cattle are herded off to their corral for the night, but still the party continues. There will be a large dance with lots of flirting, in which the girls will choose their partners by kicking them on the legs. Meanwhile, the new maza will have his head shaved and begin his new nomadic life as a single man.
We’d like to thank photographer Ngaire Lawson for sharing her amazing photographs of this ancient ritual with us.