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Published: January 4th 2009
In our world, we have bar- and bat-mitzvahs and sweet 16 parties. We are debutants, we are strip club patrons. We undergo extreme hazing, 21-shot debaucheries, and imbibing until our stomachs need pumping. Call it what you like, do what you do; something marks as a celebration or an entrance into manhood or womanhood. And this is no different in Africa, and no different in the ethnic tribal groups of the Lower Omo Valley.
The Hamer tribe is one of the largest in the Omo, numbering at around 50,000. As subsistence agropastoralists they cultivate sorghum, tobacco, cotton, vegetables and millet. They eat a lot of honey and rear cattle and goats. Their territory reaches south to Kenya and borders that of the Banna tribe. The Hamer people are famous for their masterful body decoration and techniques. Unlike the Mursi
women who seemed to mostly shave their heads, the Hamer women weave their hair into thin braids known as goscha
, soaked in a mixture of ochre, water, and a binding resin giving it a slick, oily, dark copper tint. These braids signify welfare and health. Around their necks, the women commonly wear fat, iron coils called ensente
, which state the woman’s
married or engaged status. Hamer woman also drape themselves in cowrie shell necklaces and don iron arm bands which serve as a wealth or status symbol of her family. Animal hides are heavily decorated with colorful beads and commonly used as clothing, draped over their breasts or mainly stretched around their hips as skirts.
When a Hamer male comes of age, the tribe celebrates with a sort of test in the bull-jumping ceremony (a similar ceremony also celebrates marriages.) The men can undergo this ceremony as young as early teens and as old as a decade later. As I was told, the main season for this Hamer ceremony falls in the months of December-January. And lucky for us, one of the first of the season’s bull-jumping ceremonies was scheduled for the second day of our 2-day stay in Turmi.
Early afternoon accompanied by a local to guide us to the site of the ceremony, literally in the bush-bush without real dirt paths leading off the roads, our jeep tramples its way towards a large clearing where perhaps 50-100 Hamer tribespeople have gathered. We each pay around 20 USD, which goes directly to the tribe itself. This sounds a
bit like a tourist trap, but I assure you it isn’t. (And if it was, they seemed to have tricked me.) The tribe doesn’t stage these for tourists’ benefit, but as a tourist you merely pay so that you can sit in and observe, photograph all you like. The Hamer people basically ignore you completely and act as if you don’t exist. Along with our jeep, there is a handful of other tourists who had caught wind, and a few professional photographers hailing from France, Germany, Canda, etc.
In the lead-up to the ceremony, which lasts a few hours long, the women of both sides of family of the man-to-be, donned in full-on gear and their bodies slick with the hair mixture and sweat, dance around in huddles to self-created music and sounds. Around their ankles they wear iron trinkets and bells that make loud jingling sounds every time they jump or walk. In their hands they carry animal blow horns. They blow their horns and stomp the ground in sync to yield a primitive but recognizable beat, and so they rotate in the huddle and continue. Nearby they have their version of iron-cast caldrons filled with a certain
tea, which they serve to the rest of their tribe during this dancing procession.
On the side, a separate, smaller ceremony is carried out involving the current man-to-be and the next up. Next Up looks about 14 to me, and the current man-to-be looks more like 24. They gather in a very tight circle with what looks like very important people and carry out some ritual on the ground. So tight I wasn’t allowed in. I could only take pictures at ground level between the legs, and from the shoulders of a nice man from above into the circle. I can’t really describe much about what happens in this side-ritual or its significance, but at least you can see what the pictures are of.
The women are dancing both as a procession in the ceremony, and also in anticipation waiting for “the whippers.” The Whippers are, from what I understand, a roaming group special people that move around between tribes performing The Whipping of the women in the family. Past this, I don’t know what designates one as a Whipper or what other qualifications they have. As for The Whipping, it is the next step in the ceremony
she must love the guy a lot...
in which a Whipper stands amidst the group of women and whips them with a long reed (or something similar that hurts more) to the point of laceration and bleeding. The women beg and scream to be whipped - the harder they are whipped, the more they bleed, the more they love and care for the man-to-be; masochistic without being sexual. The women will ridicule and complain if they are not whipped hard enough, and in some way this is “bad” for the ceremony and reflects “badly” for the man-to-be.
After the dancing and the whipping, groups of males and groups of women line up facing each other and do a certain hopping dance towards each other, repeatedly. I’m not sure what the significance of this step is, but they do this for awhile as well, this time in waiting for the arrivals of the bulls which must be herded from far away and led over to the ceremony site.
With the arrival of the bulls, the entire tribe moves about 200m to another clearing, this one larger and void of even grass on the ground. A tribesman walks next to me and I wave at him. He
smiles and gives me a long, cleaned reed (a mini version of what the Whipper used) to hold and wave around in celebration. Cool. At the clearing, men are prodding the bulls around, dragging them by the horns to form a line perhaps 10-15 bulls long. The entire mood of the ceremony is elevated to another level, and the smells of sweat, the copper hair mixture, and bull shit saturate the air. The women continue to dance, excited yelling fills the air, the bells and the horns are going berserk. And then the man-to-be jumps the bulls.
Stark naked in his birthday suit, he starts from 10 meters back and the crowd parts to create a runway. He runs, the Whipper stands at the front of the line of the cows, and he hops over the backs of every/every other bull to land on the other side of the line-up. Then, he turns around, runs, and jumps back to us. The crowd explodes in horns and yelling, the photographers applaud and snap like their lives depend on it. And then he does it again, and again. He jumps back and forth several times, and the ceremony is concluded. Men
with guns emerge and laugh, talk, and high-five. Well, they don’t really high-five but you know what I mean.
Our driver kept reiterating how lucky we were to have caught this ceremony. It was definitely one of the most amazing days I have spent here in Africa. I didn’t understand much of it, but then again it wouldn’t have felt the same if I was viewing from a chair with a brochure and audio-guide I suppose. The coming of age to the Hamer is a very important ceremony as it is with our cultures as well. What you have to ask yourself now is, would you rather risk impaling your ass on the horn of a bull, or would you rather land in the local hospital ingesting your own yak? I guess we’re not that different after all, it’s all risk and pain for the entertainment of others.
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