The Hamer tribe of Ethiopia has a unique way of turning men into boys. The only thing that stands in the way of a young tribesman is a bull.
The tradition of bull jumping has ancient roots in Southwestern Ethiopia, where it is used as a measure of whether a boy is ready to transition into building his own family or not.
Hailing from Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, extending from the Omo River to Lake Chew Bahir, the Hamer tribe is the only one to lay claim to this custom. Since the area is relatively secluded and the Hamer tribe tends to value its traditions, the culture has been insulated from outside influences to a large degree.
Since the tribe consists primarily of pastoralists, cattle rearing is a big part of their daily life, traditions and rituals. From a relatively young age, the children of the tribe tend to farm lands and take care of livestock.
A big part of a young Hamer boy’s life is the practice of grabbing a bull by the horns. The ceremony of bull jumping though, is seen as a rite of passage for any boy who wishes to get married and start a family.
The idea is to test the mettle of a young Hamer boy, testing his ability to conquer his fears and displaying courage in the process, to complete the task at hand.
The ceremony is usually scheduled for October or November and involves running over the backs of seven to ten bulls four times without falling. According to elders from the tribe, the ritual has been practiced for more than three centuries.
The father, or uncle of a boy decides when he is ready for bull jumping and the eldest child in a family has to perform the ritual before his younger siblings can follow suit.
In certain cases, at the father’s discretion, children as young as 5 take part in the ritual with the help of the community.
To show that he has given his approval, a father gives his son a small stick, also called a Boko. The son then carries the Boko to all his relative’s houses, announcing his participation in the ceremony which they eventually bear witness to.
The boy’s family then begins to prepare a feast and decides when the ceremony will be conducted. Since the Hamer tribe does not use calendars, the boy hands his relatives’ coils of ropes with markings on them. They cut the rope at the marking each day to keep count of the boy’s big day.
Hamer women famously blow horns during the ceremony, setting up an intriguing atmosphere.
Depending upon the boy’s social status, the gatherings can range between 100 to 300 people. Those who come to celebrate are served a local alcoholic beverage as Hamer women, dressed in traditional clothes with bells hanging from their legs, begin to dance and blow loud horns.
Young women are discouraged from participating in this ceremony as the next step involves the women going to the men about to participate and asking them to whip the women with birch sticks as a sign of their devotion.
The boy’s maternal family is demarcated with beaded belts and usually do not participate in this part of the ritual. The women compete with each other to be whipped and usually persist despite being beaten severely. This is seen as a sign of their loyalty to the young boy, as the tribe corelates pain with devotion and loyalty.
The scars left on their backs are seen as a symbol of the boy’s loyalty to them.
As the sun sets, men who have completed the ceremony before but remain unmarried, gather castrated bulls for the ceremony. The bulls are smeared with dung to make them slippery, while the boy is usually naked, with his hair partially shaved off.
The boy’s body is first rubbed with sand to wash away his sins and then smeared with dung to give him strength. To protect the boy spiritually, strips of bark are strapped to his body as well.
While the horns and bells create a racket in the background, the boy leaps on each bull’s back before leaping to the ground. After the boy has displayed his strength, agility and bravery, it is decreed that he is ready to begin his life as a man.