On a sweltering hot afternoon along the banks of the dried up Kaske river, the cracking sound of a whip echoes through the thick air. Turmi, a dusty, dry and isolated southern Ethiopian town is home to many of the Hamer tribe and their most important tradition, the Bull Jumping Ceremony.
Hamer women adorned with bells around their legs and semi-traditional clothing dance together in a rhythmic trance. After a morning indulging on sorghum homebrew concoctions, these women are ready to celebrate. To a chorus of deafening bells and screaming horns they congo-line in a circular figure before gathering together jumping and thrusting their heads in time to the beat.
A woman unexpectedly abandons her dancing group. She begins to yell insults and heckles the topless young man before her. The aggression in her tone rises until he lifts the tree branch in his grip and deals a forceful whip to her body.
Blood can be seen seeping from the wound, yet the woman continues hurling abuse at the young man shouting for all to hear that he didn’t whip her hard enough.
This young man is known as a Maza, among many present, he has completed his own Bull Jumping ceremony but is yet to marry, and until the date he continues the role of a ‘whipper’ at other Bull Jumping ceremonies.
The Bull Jumping Ceremony is a rite of passage into manhood for a young Hamer man and there are several stages of the initiation process. Once his family has announced a jump date, he must act as an ukule (donkey) to the elders and assume any task that is asked of him. After successfully jumping, the young man becomes a charkale, accompanying other triumphant jumpers in the calming of the bulls at other ceremonies. After 8 days, the young man becomes a Maza, and remains in this role until a date to wed has been set.
The women dance throughout the ceremony and frequently break circle to chase young Maza’s and endure more whipping. The scars from these whips attest the woman’s loyalty to the young jumper, usually a male relative. In the future, if the woman faces strife, using scars as proof of her devotion, her male relative is obliged to help.
Whilst the ceremony generally remains true to tradition, some aspects have changed. 15 years ago, the existence of money was unknown to the Hamer. In times of modernisation and a stream of curious tourist, the Hamer have become privy to the worth of cash. The Bull Jumping segment of the initiation can be witnessed by any and for a fee, foreigners included. It costs an inflated sum of 500 Birr ($25USD) for an all access pass to the main jumping event.
The tourist presence during the ceremony has mixed reactions among the community. It is common to see locals painting tourist’s faces and encouraging participation in the preparatory activities. Others are not so inviting, lashing out, shouting and violently pushing cameras away. It is common to see Elders and guides having fights about what is off limits for camera happy tourists.
Remotely held Bull Jumping ceremonies may have little or no tourists in attendance, however for events held in the outskirts of town, tourists can easily outnumber locals. Despite the sometimes-large tourist presence, the event is not staged. The bloodshed and scars that prevail are evidence this tradition remains strong.
Whether locals side with farangi (foreigners) or not, in the late afternoon the entire party relocates to a site where the bulls have gathered, all walking together.
The animals are herded into the centre and women continue their dancing and horn blowing circling the herd. The noise agitates the animals, the Charkale trying their best to keep them calm.
The Bull-Jumper nervously appears. He is put in a circle of men where prayers are said, and rituals are undertaken. Standing naked, he is rubbed with sand to cleanse his sins and smeared with cow dung for strength. Donned in only thin bark strips tied across his body to deter evil sprits, he is set to jump over the line of castrated bulls and cows before him.
Traditionally the Charkale would gather 15 – 30 bulls in a line and smear their backs with butter or dung to make them slippery. However 6 – 10 have become the standard line-up.
With bells and horns still sounding, the naked young jumper runs up and hurdles onto the first bull’s back, quickly stepping on the backs of the rest before leaping back to the earth. He must do this 4 times in total, and if he falls he is susceptible to a whipping himself by the women.
When he completes his jumping, cheers, horns and bells fill the air. An animal skin is placed around the neck of the triumphant jumper and a prayer with his peers is said. All quickly disperse back the village for evening festivities and at the grounds all that remains is a pile of used whipping sticks.