The Hamar Tribe’s Bull Jumping Ceremony
As an isolated tribe, the Hamar have been able to maintain a variety of unique rituals such as the infamous Bull Jumping Ceremony.
It’s a coming of age ritual where a young Hamar man (Ukuli) leaps over a line of 10 cattle as an initiation rite of passage. Once completed, the Ukuli becomes qualified to marry up to 4 women, raise children, and own livestock.
Honoring the ancient ceremony and the Ukuli himself, the Hamar women were dressed to the nines in their traditional regalia – colorful outfits that were adorned with beaded jewelry, metal bangles, and jangling bells.
To a chorus of melodic chants, ringing bells, and blazing horns, the Hamar women began dancing in a circular congo-line – constantly jumping and thrusting their heads in unison.
Eventually one of the Hamar woman started solo “jump dancing” next to May. As May clapped along, the rest of the tribe found this to be hilarious and started to do the same.
Next thing we know, dozens of Hamar women kept inviting May to dance, until she caved in and joined in on the fun…
However, while the women were dancing and smiling, the men of the village remained as “emotionless” onlookers. They stood at a distance, tightly gripping their weapons, in case an incursion from an enemy tribe. In the world of the Hamar, you can never be too cautious.
Hours before the bull jumping began, the Ukuli’s female villagers were getting ready to be whipped as part of the ceremony. Each woman went up to the Maza with tree branches and demanded to be whipped by them. For reference, the Maza are a nomadic group of young men who have already leapt across the cattle – they live apart from the rest of the tribe, moving from ceremony to ceremony until it’s their time to wed.
The women who wanted to be whipped were yelling like crazy and blowing deafening horns. Needless to say, the atmosphere was chaotic and the tension was palpable!
With the cracking sound of whips echoing through the tick air, you could almost feel the force of each lash piercing every inch of bare skin.
Since the Hamar tribe is predominantly a warrior culture, the women refused to show pain after being whipped. Instead, the women were proud of their scars and wore them as a badge of honor.
Culturally, the Hamar look down on women who refuse to participate in the ritual. Although, young girls are spared and discouraged from being whipped.
And contrary to what you might think, the whipping is 100% consensual; the girls gather in groups and demand to be whipped on their backs.
The aim of this ritual whipping is to create a “bond” between the Ukuli and his women villagers.
So if one day a woman becomes a widow or faces hard times, the scars are a reminder of how she suffered for him and acts as a record of the debt an Ukuli owes her.
After being whipped, a woman’s wounds are dressed with lye (leached wood ashes) and dried cow dung. Together, these ingredients cause the welts to harden into raised scars and will last on a woman’s body for the rest of her life. And the more scars a woman has, the more she is respected and valued as a potential wife.
As the women villagers were being whipped, the youngest of the Maza (boys that are too young to whip women) remained as passive onlookers while their faces were being painted with clay.
Throughout the bull jumping ceremonial day, these young Maza boys were guided by their elders, in effort to ensure that all the traditions were taught first-hand to the younger generation.
Years from now, they’ll be the ones doing the whipping and carrying the tradition forward.
After hours of ceremonial proceedings and pure chaos, the cattle that the Ukuli must jump over were gathered while the rest of the tribe squeezed into the Ukuli’s home.
Before the bull jumping commenced, the Ukuli was removed from the festivities and was washed with sand for purification. He was then smeared with fresh cow dung to give him strength.
Totally butt naked, the Ukuli attempted to jump (in actuality, run) over 10 cattle – four times across to demonstrate his strength and valor, without failure.
Had he been unsuccessful during the bull jumping, the Ukuli would have to wait for another year before he could try again. During that time, he and his family would live in the anguish of shame.
Thankfully the Ukuli was successful, so he’ll no longer be seen as a boy in the village. But rather, he’ll now be seen as a man – another warrior amongst his Maza kinsmen.
Location: 3 hours from Turmi, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Tour Company: Omo River Tours
Main Guide: Aron Tamene Teka
Tip #1: Hamar tribe ceremonies tend to attract a fair amount of tourists, so unless the village is far away from Turmi (where most tourists stay), expect the place to be jampacked . Ask your guide to find a ceremony that’s occurring in a more remote village (at least 2+ hours from Turmi), so you’ll be away from as many other tourists as possible.
Tip #2: If you’re going to a remote village (versus one near Turmi), make sure your driver has multiple spare tires. On the way to the village, we popped a tire. On the way back to Turmi, we popped a tire as well. The roads are rough and Ethiopian drivers tend to use cheap tires, so unless you want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere at night, double check your driver’s tire situation .
Tip #3: Pay for photos in advance. Prior to booking your trip, make sure that your guide is able to pay a flat fee to the village chief for all photos taken. This will streamline your experience and reduce all of the hassles that may occur with individual payment.