Mike McCaffrey travels to Ethiopia’s remote Omo Valley to witness a boy’s journey into manhood, but finds it is the women who must show the greatest courage of all.
The bull-jumping ceremony in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is a rite of passage for every young man in the Hamar tribe. In a test of his bravery, the young man must strip naked, and run across the backs of bulls in front of his village. Strangely, it is not the most impressive part of the ceremony, nor the most intense test of courage that day.
As villagers finish their chores, and the midday heat dissipates, they start emerging from the bushes into a clearing, coming to sit together on the sandy banks of the Kaske river. The women have tied bunches of small bells to their calves which jingle with each step. Their hair is matted red with ochre like the muddy waters of river, and each one carries a gola, a brass horn. The men are regal with long ostrich feathers stuck into their hair. They sit quietly together, snorting snuff, and waiting.
More women arrive, trumpeting their horns, chanting and dancing in circles. The sounds flow up and down the river valley like a magnetic force, drawing more people out of the bush. The mood becomes playful. The only one who seems solemn is the boy who is to jump across the bulls. He is surrounded by a handful of male relatives, and left alone with his thoughts. He is 18, but you can see the stress on this face, making him appear younger and timid.
The energy starts building up. The women start making more noise with their horns, jump higher, and their smiles become wider. Each time someone is spotted approaching the river valley, the women charge over in a frenzy to see who it is. They are waiting for men to arrive carrying metre-and-a-half long whips made from young vine-like branches.
Two young men are spotted trying to slink closer undetected, but the women ambush them. The men have an armful of switches. Carrying them like a football, they dodge women who scream and grab for them. Arriving in the clearing where the boy is sitting, the women finally surround them, wrenching the switches from their hands, and then fighting each other for control of them.
The women form a disorderly crowd in front of the two men, viciously taunting them. The men stand stone-faced for a while, and then finally accept a switch from a woman. The other women move back forming an audience, and the selected woman continues viciously insulting the man, purposefully provoking him.
Facing him, she holds her horn proudly above her head with one hand, and starts jumping up and down. Her eyes glaze over and bulge out as she goes into a trance, the bells jingle rhythmically from her calves. The man raises the whip high over his head.
He strikes hard, curling the whip over her shoulder, and across her back. The tip of the whip makes a piercing crack as it breaks the sound barrier, splitting open her skin. Rivulets of blood flow down her back, and onto her kudu skin skirt. She shows no pain. He shows no joy. I am stunned.
I had not realized what was going to happen until it did. We had been told there would be “weeping” before the bull jumping ceremony, and now I understand the cross cultural miscommunication. They meant a whipping ceremony. It is brutal and raw, and I feel uncomfortable witnessing such violence, especially to a woman. I feel like I have been transported to the Sparta of Ethiopia.
The battered woman is almost immediately pushed aside as other women jostle to take her place. It is not only their chance to show their courage to the village, but also their opportunity to show how loved the boy is by the village. The more women willing to be whipped at his ceremony, the greater the level of respect he has from them. It is a ceremony that is designed to state that before you can show us you are strong, the women must first demonstrate that you are loved.
As the whipping ends, cattle are brought out from the bush and lined up side-by-side by men. The boy appears from the bush wearing just a thin reed across his chest. The village gathers around, and the boy leaps across the backs of the bulls, landing barefoot on the ground and turning to repeat the feat. The women cheer in support, and the men struggle to hold the cattle as they try to escape. It all seems something of an anti-climax, however, after the performance of the women.
The boy is now a man. He can now seek a wife. The bull-jumping ceremony is a testament not only to his courage, but to his kindness. Ironically, in proving his kindness, the women of the village demonstrate the greatest courage of all. The boy smiles, unburdened of the pressure of his performance. The women walk confidently with the children, bleeding and chatting. They still have a 25-kilometre walk back to the village, and it is obvious that just like in most villages around the world, the real strength comes from the women.
A version of this story first appeared in Mike McCaffrey’s blog, Nomadic by Nature (nomadic-by-nature.com).
[Photo: Nomad by Nature]
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