Suitcase and World: A Hamar Celebration. Whipping and Jumping Bulls.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Hamar Celebration. Whipping and Jumping Bulls.

Young Hamar men relaxing before the Bull Jumping Begins

This afternoon's plan, which was not on the original itinerary was to attend a bull jumping ceremony that the Hamar are known for but that only happen on occasion. As I found out from Netsanet later on, he found out through word of mouth that the ceremony would be taking place today and adjusted our itinerary accordingly. We were lucky that Netsanet found out and basically, lucky to be at the right place at the right time to catch this ceremony.

The traditional Hamar bull jumping ritual is a rite of passage for men.  According to Netsanet, the man and his family choose when he will jump - age is irrelevant, it's when they feel he's ready.  The actual jumping sounds simple enough - it involves jumping up atop the first cow and then running across the backs of the remaining cows without falling but the backs of the cows are rubbed with dung making them a bit slippery so the feat is more challenging than you would think..  The young man has to make the jump four times without falling.  If he falls, then that is an indication that he is not ready to move into manhood - it's also considered extremely embarrassing not only for him but also for his family.

Once he completes the jump successfully, he joins the ranks of the men who are referred to as *maza*, meaning the "accomplished one".  At this point, he is also considered ready for marriage, he can own cattle and he can have children.

So, the bull jumping ritual is a major milestone in the life of a Hamar boy.  Although the bull jumping ceremony takes place during the course of one afternoon, the festivities go on for much longer than that. Family and friends come from afar and there's a lot of feasting and drinking in advance of the big day.

There are also several other rituals associated with the bull jumping ceremony.  One, which we got to witness, is the whipping of women.  This is how our afternoon began.

According to Netsanet the entire ceremony, with whipping and bull jumping, would start at about 2:30p and last for about 3-4 hours. It was such a blazing hot day and we were all wilting in the heat. The hot weather gave everyone, including me, cause to debate whether or not to attend the full ceremony. We were assured there would be shade to sit under so armed with plenty of water, I decided to go. In actuality, I wanted to go to the ceremony no matter what.  I came all this way and it would have been a shame to not experience it.

From the hotel, wee drove to edge of dry river bank which we had crossed earlier in morning.  This time, we walked back across.  As we neared the river bank, I could hear music - sounded very festive!

There was a small group of Hamar sitting near the edge of the riverbank. From the outfit the guy was wearing, Netsanet could tell he was the guy who would later be jumping the bull. Everyone started taking photos of the family without asking for permission or allowing them any sense of privacy. I thought that to be so rude so I refrained. Wouldn't you know that another, larger tour group arrived and they all hovered over the family like hawks?  So incredibly rude. If this was your son's big day, would you want a bunch of total strangers hovered around him snapping cameras?  Seriously.  As Pat pointed out, if the family wanted this to be a private affair, they would have waited in more secluded location rather than sitting on the riverbank. I agreed but even so as outsiders, we would should be exercising some respect and not just shove cameras into people's faces.

Pat and I walked away from the conundrum and up the embankment.  In a small clearing, women were dancing. Before we could even find a spot to sit down, the music died and so did the dancing.  Pat and I found decent spots, under shade and plopped ourselves down.  The rest of the group went their own ways.  In case it's not already obvious, Pat has become my constant companion on this trip - we're truly like two peas in a pod :-)

From somewhere in the crowd, we heard that the whipping ceremony was about to begin. We saw the crowd moving down to river bank so we assumed ceremony was taking place there. Neither Pat nor I were too keen on seeing women being whipped so we sat still.  Then, all of a sudden, the crowd returned and instead of being away from the action, we were actually in the front row!

Hamar woman provoking her chosen man to whip her.

So here's the backstory to the whipping.   In preparation for the whipping ritual, the women drink sorghum beer and after what I witnessed, I would say several were very drunk.  They then congregate together, blow on metal “gola” horns and jump up and down - it's the Hamar version of cheerleading.

The jangling of the bells, strapped to the upper part of their calves, add to the noise of the celebration. 

The women  blow their horns and jump up and down repeatedly.

When ready, the women will literally pull/drag a man (usually a maza) into their circle and harass and provoke him to whip them with a thin switch.

Sometimes, the women are whipped across their chests, sometimes across an arm but most of them want to be whipped across their back.  Initially, the men are reluctant to whip the women but eventually, they give in.  The men do not inflict gentle strokes.  These are sufficiently hard whips to break not only break the stick but leave an open, bleeding gash in the woman's skin. However  painful this might or might not be for the woman, she will continue to fight to be whipped. 

In the world of the Hamar, There are two motives behind this voluntary whipping. First, it’s a way for the women of the family to show support for the young man who will be jumping the bull and to the mazas who are participating in the ceremony.  The more lashes they sustain and the more severe their wounds, the greater devotion. The second reason is to prove their loyalty to the young men - the men are expected to look out for them in the future, should they ever be in need of help. You could see the women deliberately choosing which man she wanted to whip her.

Fortunately, it was a constant round of whipping.  There were other sights to distract us. 

Everyone dresses up for the occasion.  Even the Hamar men don their finest jewelry.

The women deliberately bare their backs.  You can see the scars from previous
 whippings as well as new wounds. 

The *arena* where the whipping ritual took place. You can see it's a very small space.

One of the maza men.

Taking a break.

Several of the younger Hamar women wore t-shirts; perhaps to be a bit more modest
knowing that strangers i.e., tourists would be in the crowd.  t-shirt or not, her back
would still be exposed to show her scars.

As women living in the *modern* world, it was initially difficult for both Pat and I to accept the idea of women being whipped by men.  So, while we respect the cultural tradition, both of us were willing to step aside and not witness it.  However, in retrospect, I'm glad that we did as it gave more insight into Hamar culture though I hope that one day, Hamar women will realize that there are other less painful and in many respects, demeaning, ways to show their love and dedication to the men in their lives.  Later, Netsanet told us that the Ethiopian government has been attempting to put an end to the whipping ritual but that they are getting push back from Hamar.  Change is slow to happen.

The jumper as well as all several of the maza getting their faces painted.

It seemed like whipping ceremony went on forever - it did get to be a bit repetitive. Then, attention was turned to someone getting their face painted. We all assumed it was the guy who would be jumping the bulls. The crowd of tourists immediately closed in on the poor guy; the circle they formed was several people deep. Again, I refrained from fight my way through the crowd to get a view. I stood back and watched people pushing and shoving their way forward. Those who were tall enough were holding cameras above heads to try and get a shot. It was all so ridiculous. Pat and I escaped back down the embankment and found a shady spot to sit under.

We had heard that the bull jumping ceremony was to start at 5p and that it was a 30 minute walk to get to the place where it would be happening. Netsanet found us and told us that we should begin walking ahead of the crowd. Well, we were only about 30 seconds ahead of everyone else.

Making our way to the place where the bull jumping would take place.  Initially, we had heard we were going by car which was fine with me
given the heat but I'm glad we walked because.....

....we would never had the opportunity to walk alongside the Hamar women!

We followed the Hamar women to another clearing.  We had no idea where to stand or where we would have the best vantage point so we just found a spot and stood and waited for we didn't know what.

Then a small group of bulls and cows arrived.  Everything aspect of this ceremony has significance, even the fact that cows play an integral role.  For the Hamar, who are semi-nomadic pastoralists, cattle are both a symbol of wealth and an essential source of food.  Every Hamar man has three names - his human name, his goat name, and his cow name.

I think they were as clueless about what was happening as we were!

The women resumed their horn blowing and jumping up and down.  I think several were startled by the sound of the horns.  Can't blame them.

Poor cows.  I think they were trying to escape.

At this point, I decided to give my camera to Netsanet so he could take photos for me. As a man and a tall one at that, he can get shots that I can't because I'm a woman and I'm short :-)  Most of the following photos and video are by Netsanet.


There was a lot of waiting on our part.  A lot.  After a while, I started to get a bit bored.  The sound of the women blowing horns and jumping up and down was beginning to grate on my nerves; I'm getting less patient with stuff like this as I get older.  Seriously, it was.

 I think I can still hum the sound of the horns....and it's been several hours since I last heard them.

Over time, more and more bulls and cows were brought in.  The herd was getting larger by the minute.  I began to wonder why so many animals given that the young man would only have to jump across the backs of a few.

Slip and fall on that bull's horns and .....

Even the bulls got tired waiting. Fight!

Lots of waiting.  From left - Gale, Carol and Marianne.

Everyone was waiting....including this maza.  I love the way his head is trimmed.

Quite a few women opted to sit on the *sidelines* instead of *cheerleading*.  

The frenzy of the dance.

Beautiful head shot from behind.  Several of the women wore garlands.  You can see the red mud paste on the leaves.

A group of Hamar men wearing typical headbands.  The man in the center is wearing a traditional head dress fashioned from mud and
feathers.  Cotton pom poms are often are used in place of feathers.

Maza, with his face painted to imitate the coloring of a leopard, stands ready for the ritual to begin. 

The jumper surrounded by his maza. I can only imagine how nervous he must have been!

Netsanet captured a bit of video of one maza helping another tie his (for lack of the accurate term) belt on. 

The next few photos show a bit of the preparation process that the young man had to go through.   Before this, several of the men built an enclosure of sorts using twigs.  That part we could watch but it wasn't long before the enclosure was completely surrounded by people.  Within the enclosure, the young man was being blessed - rubbed down with sand to scrub away his sins and smeared with cow dung for strength.

Pat and I made our way over to the other side of the clearing; Netsanet soon joined us and I spotted Masai as well.

Checking out Netsanet :-)  Yes, he's a good looking guy *wink, wink*

Without really knowing it, we ended up in a very good spot - we're facing the spot where the jumper will emerge and do the feat.

The maza and other men begin to select the bulls and cows that the young man will be jumping over.  It was quite something watching them
pull aside the chosen animals - not easy when you have a creature weighing several hundred pounds fighting against you.

The jumper, surveying the lot of cows.  I'm sure he had a say in which ones he would jump.

Moving and restraining the selected animals.

The cattle are lined up and the men are doing all they can to push the animals together.

Every human and animal is ready to go.  You can't see it very well in this photo but quite a few of the Hamar women were holding up
switches - presumably, a symbol of support for the jumper.

Then, two small cows were pushed into the arena signaling that the jumping was about to take place.

And now, for the big moment.  I give you the Hamar jumper.  Yes, he is naked!  Did he fall?  You'll have to watch the video to find out!  The video is a bit blurry but it still shows the full ritual.


After ceremony, we back to hotel.  No point doing anything else.  I mean, how can you top seeing a Hamar whipping and bull jumping?  Dinner was a buffet meal back at the restaurant.  After dinner, I took a quick cold shower.  The hotel explicitly bans doing laundry so I opted to wear my dirty clothes into the shower and at least wash off one layer of dirt.  I hope everything dries by tomorrow as I want to wear the same pair of hiking pants for my entire stay in the Omo Valley.  They're the only lightweight pants I have and they're perfect for wearing in this weather and in the dusty conditions.

Before the electricity cut off, I took another look at the photos and videos from this afternoon.  Today's whipping and bull jumping rituals were far beyond the realm of reality for someone who lives in suburban Washington, D.C.   Witnessing them was definitely an experience that will take me some time to digest and it is most certainly one that I will not soon forget.

As I wrap up this posting, I'm still pinching myself that I'm actually in the Omo Valley seeing things in person that I had only seen as Google images on my PC. I am so excited about the days to come!

For now, tomorrow will be another long day and I need rest. It's been an amazing day of sights and sounds and I'm tired. Lights out at 10:30p!

Goodnight from Turmi!