It was early morning in Tumri, a village in southwestern Ethiopia famous for its open-air market. I timed my visit so that I could witness this weekly buying and selling of goods between the Hamar and other neighboring tribes. The vendors were only beginning to set up their booths, so I sat in a small coffee shop nearby to enjoy a strong cup of the local Ethiopian coffee.
A young man approached my table with a cup of coffee in hand and asked if he could join me. I was grateful for the company, and invited him to sit down. His name was Solomon, and he came from a town not far away and was part of the Hamar tribe. After a short exchange, he offered to be my guide. He told me about a local ceremony called bull-jumping, which would be taking place that evening. He explained that this was a unique rite-of-passage tradition practiced only by the Hamar people. It was the initiation ritual for a boy making the transition to manhood, and it would grant the young man the right to choose a wife and start his own family.
I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to have stumbled upon the opportunity to witness such an important event in the life of a boy, his family, and his community. In my own childhood, I had learned from an early age to escape the parental yoke and to make my own life’s decisions. In school I had read a poem by Persius and fantasized about being at the center of a Roman ceremony myself. The words of the poem came back to me now: “When as a timid youth I first shed that protective purple toga, and my amulet hung there as an offering to the girdled Lares, when dressed newly in white, with pleasant companions, I dared cast my eyes over the whole Subura with impunity, at the age when the road’s unclear, and in our ignorance of life, confusion clouds the anxious mind at the branching crossroads.” I was fascinated that by sheer chance, I was about to experience something I had dreamed of as a child, and now in a place and culture that I would have never imagined.
We agreed that Solomon was going to pick me up at my hotel around 3:00 p.m., and then we parted ways. The market had opened, and I walked down its busy and narrow aisles as I had planned and originally come to Tumri to see. Yet, I was not able to concentrate on the goods and the interactions that I encountered; I was too excited thinking about what would happen later in the evening. I went back to my hotel and waited impatiently for my guide.
Solomon appeared at ten minutes past three, and we got into his car and he drove for an hour and a half. When he parked the car, he told me we would still need to hike for another thirty minutes to get to where the ceremony was taking place. In eager anticipation, I walked with Solomon up and over a small hill. At last, at the bottom of the hill, I could see a group of around seventy people gathered. Some of the men were drinking beer and laughing. A group of ten women were dancing in circle. Some men were wearing shorts and t-shirts that looked like they could have come straight from a department store in the United States, while others were shirtless. Below the waist, they wore material wrapped and tied like short skirts. Many had around their necks colorful beaded necklaces, and multiple metal bracelets around their upper arms. On their feet they wore sandals. The women were more ornately dressed with long goatskin skirts and aprons that left their backs bare. Most of the aprons covered the woman’s breasts, but others did not. The women’s’ clothes were decorated with glass beads and white shells. Their hair was tightly braided and smeared with a mixture of ochre and oil. They also wore many earrings and necklaces strung with snail shells and glass beads, and metal bracelets on their arms. Some women wore very distinctive necklaces made from metal and leather, which I found later to be called “burkule.” This is carried by a woman who is the first wife of a man.
A young man was sitting on the ground surrounded by a group of male onlookers, one of whom was painting his face with red ochre. Sitting not too far away was a middle-aged man who caught my attention for longer. He was wearing a dark blue jacket and striped pants. He carried an AK-47 machine gun in one hand and a small chair in the other, and had a bullet belt around his hips. Solomon saw me staring and told me that he was the father of the boy.
Suddenly a woman left the dancing circle and stood in front of a shirtless man who was carrying a stick. She blew a horn at him, obviously to call his attention. The man lifted the stick and swiftly struck the woman on her back. I clearly saw blood rushing from the newly formed wound, but the woman didn’t flinch. I was shocked and looked to Solomon for his response.
That is part of the ritual,” he said. “The men are called Maza. They have already gone through the bull-jumping ceremony and will hold the bulls during the actual jumping ritual.“
“But why would a woman volunteer to be whipped and to suffer such pain, not to mention carry a permanent scar for the rest of her life?” I was still reeling from what I had just witnessed.
“It’s an honor and a sign of loyalty to the boy,” Solomon said. “Once a Maza has whipped a woman, she knows she can always turn to him for help if she needs it. He owes that to her now. Look at all the women, and you’ll see that they all have scars.” I looked around and noticed that the aprons were designed to expose the bare women’s backs scarred from past whippings.
As we stood there, one by one, a woman would blow a horn to taunt a Maza and get whipped on her back. The mix of blood and sweat was everywhere. While one woman got whipped, the others watched, eagerly waiting to be next. The dancing itself never stopped, and after a woman got whipped, she would go back to the circle and to keep dancing, badly bleeding down her back.
“I can no longer watch this; I need to go,” I told Solomon.
“Let’s go and wait behind that tree. The actual bull jumping should start soon.”
After an hour or so, the Mazas began to gather the bulls together. I finally saw the boy: He was totally naked, standing by himself and patiently waiting to run over the backs of the bulls. The Mazas brought the bulls to an open field and lined them up side by side. Everyone started shouting and yelling to encourage the boy. After a running start, he jumped on the back of the first bull and ran across all of them, his feet alternating from one bull’s back to the next. Once he made it to the other side, he turned around and did the same thing in the opposite direction. He did this the requisite three times with a smile on his face.
The bull-jumping was over; he had earned his manhood. The people slowly dispersed.