How do I describe a day that now feels like an apparition, a heady day of images, sounds and smells that could have been a dream? In the Lower Omo Valley in southwest Ethiopia – one of the world’s last preserves of traditional tribes, where original practices and dress are still observed – we attended a Jumping of the Bulls ceremony. Constituting a man’s rite of passage amongst the resident Hamer and Bana tribes, the man-to-be must run four times across the backs of thirty bulls.
Our first stop in the Omo was a tribal market in the town of Key Afar. Here the Hamer and Bana dominate the crowds with their red ochre dreadlocked hair, multicoloured hair clips, beaded headbands, cattle skin vests, and engraved gourd helmets. We were browsing their stalls, when our guide stopped a young guy of about twenty wearing only a loin cloth and asked a question in a local Omo language. The youth hurriedly glanced at us, nodded at the metal bracelet he was wearing and said a few words back to our guide who explained: “He is wearing the bracelet because tomorrow he is Jumping the Bulls. Would you like to go to the ceremony?” And so after handing over not an insubstantial amount of money, we persuaded the local Bana tribe chiefs to allow us to attend.
The next morning as we were led through a dried river bed in the bush about twenty kilometres out of town, jingling bells and chanting, streaming on the wind towards us, became more acute until we cut through the forest and into a clearing dotted with a handful of traditional straw huts. Here a group of about twenty Bana tribeswomen and girls, resplendent in cattle skins and beaded headbands, stood in a tight little pack, singing and ululating, blowing small horns and shaking the bells attached to their ankles. I think they’d already been drinking. Lorna and the other women in our group were welcomed and assimilated into this celebratory procession of womanhood, while us men were shown to seats by the elders of the village and given calabashes of sour local brew.
We sat there for most of the afternoon like foreign but welcome guests at a wedding, while contingents of young men and women arrived from other tribes until it was time for the prelude to the main event: the whipping of the now quite inebriated female relatives of the man-to-be. The women and girls taunted and goaded the men of the tribe to whip their backs and shoulders one-by-one with canes, to give them thick scars across their backs, many of which were evident in the older generation. These are considered a great honour and a permanent sign of devotion to the boy. So much so that we saw a scuffle between two of the women over one of the more willowy and unforgiving canes.
In contrast to this brutal ceremony, the remaining young men of the now quite large assembly of tribes formed a solemn circle a couple of hundred metres away in the bush, serenely chanting and clapping to a steady mesmeric rhythm, while they took turns in the middle of the circle to elegantly jump up and down, with the height they reached a display of their virility and status. I’m sure the AK-47s they had rested on the trees behind them also helped to confirm these attributes.
As the afternoon progressed, the women’s chanting became louder and more insistent and expectation hung heavy across the village. Dusk began to fall and we wondered if the ceremony would take place at all. Abruptly, as if an unseen signal was given, the now hysterical throng of about two hundred people rushed through the gathering darkness to a small clearing where some of the village seniors were herding bulls side-by-side into an untidy line of about thirty animals. The crowd formed a loose and chaotic circle around them, occasionally breaking away screaming and laughing nervously, panicked, as bulls escaped the herders’ clutches, while a pack of women formed a boisterous satellite around the main crowd, stoking the hysteria with their drunken ululations.
After a few minutes of this chaos (and a few bodged photo attempts), the bulls were subdued, with a man holding each of them still by their horns. I stood directly behind one end of the line of bulls on the edge of the circle of people. Quite unexpectedly out of the enveloping darkness and from the top of the bulls, leapt a naked youth, the one we had met in the market, his eyes now manic and fearless. After a short run up, he disappeared over the top of the bulls and into the darkness again. He crossed six times in total, after which the bulls, and then very urgently the crowd, scattered in all directions, including our group of six tourists who sped away back up the riverbed and into the night. Intoxicated by the night, bewildered, as we drove to our campsite I struggled to comprehend what I had just seen.