The bridegroom stands naked, stripped except for a ceremonial sash announcing his transition from boyhood to man.
He is weak as he has not eaten for days. He has been fasting and praying alone deep in the bush.
He takes a running start and jumps onto the backs of six live bulls, all held in place by his attendants. If he falls he will be beaten within an inch of his life by the women of his tribe, but if he succeeds in traversing this living walkway, he will be married.
This uniquely different rite of passage is a Bull Jumping Wedding of the Hamer people of the Omo Valley, in Ethiopia.
When cultures evolve inside an isolated area, a byproduct is often ceremonies and rituals virtually incomprehensible to the outside world that are unexplainable in logical terms. The Omo Valley of Southern Ethiopia is such a fishbowl, and the tribes that call it home have no linguistic or stylistic linkage to any other cultures on the African continent. It is so isolated that the first road did not enter it until the mid1960's, and many convincingly offer the theory that it once held the Garden of Eden. The earliest evidence of man comes from nearby Olduvai Gorge and as the outside world begins to trickle into this human petri dish, more and more human fossils are being discovered that push back our time on earth with each discovery.
The Omo Valley first became a blip on the public radar in the 1930's when the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus brought two women from the neighboring Mursi tribe to New York to put them on display in their "freak show" with their oversized plate like lip labrets, but public curiosity died young as did the two displaced ladies. They left behind no account of their forced labor time in the land of the free. These labrets were first introduced three centuries ago when the black kings of Africa were selling their own people to white slavers. The Mursi decided that if they could make their women look ugly, the slavers would not take them. The plan failed but the labrets became an integral part of their culture and today, the larger the lip plate, the more beautiful the woman is considered to be. Unusual dress and rituals are the order of the day for the various isolated tribes in the Omo.
The Hamer Bull Jump ceremony lasts several days with local people being summoned from all over the valley by small brass trumpets that the young women blow from dawn to dusk, before, during, and after the ceremony itself. The girls are supervised by a female shaman, a woman identified by her tall ostrich feather, who wields immense power within the tribe.
Being a wedding, everyone wears their finest. The women coat their hair with red ochre that under the mid- day sun melts until they are a beautiful earth tone from head to foot. Their hand stitched cowhide loin cloths and layers of glorious beadwork are a hallmark of bush handiwork and fashion. For the men, painted faces, hair feathers, and a shoulder slung AK47 Kalashnikov rifle are the order of the day.
The ceremony begins in earnest when tribesmen from a clan separate from that of the groom arrive with their long switches of tree branches. The women of the groom's family will taunt them with the most disgusting insults possible, degrading not only their manhood but their families as well until the men begin to lash out at the bare backed women, scourging them into bloody pulps. If a women cries out she will be ostracized, but this never happens. In fact they return over and over for more silent suffering, saying that it is how they prove their love for their tribe. By the end of the first day, most Hamer women's backs look like flayed meat.
This scourging becomes, in effect, their social security blanket as Hamer women long outlast their men and are not allowed to re-marry after a husband dies. If a widowed Hamer lady bears a much scarred back she will be tenderly cared for in her old age by the entire tribe, but if she is unscarred, her existence will be minimal and hard.
When the scourging is over the entire clan, that by now numbers in the hundreds, retreats to an isolated part of the forest where the bride's family has brought their cattle herd for the groom's inspection. The groom will carefully choose six bulls for the ceremony whose backs he will be required to run across. The women dance, sing and noisily blow their bugles while the groom picks his cattle, looking for calm bulls that will not move while he is on top of them.
When he has made his selection, his aides, called Maza, all Married Hamer men who have successfully run the bulls, will push the hapless creatures together, holding both their horns and tails in an effort to calm the totally spooked animals.
When they are in a perfect line, the groom will get a running start, jump onto the back of the first bull, trot across all six backs and jump back to the ground. Then he will turn and repeat this three separate times. Should he fall or even hesitate for a moment, the women of the tribe will beat him with sticks until he is unconscious. When he comes to he will be shunned and must retreat into the forest for prayer and contemplation. In one year he may attempt the ceremony once again.
If he should succeed in crossing all six of the bulls, three times each without falling, he is married and in great favor with all. Only at this time will he be taken to his bride's village to meet her for the first time and will pay her father a dowry of several cattle and a firearm, preferably an AK47 for the privilege of taking a wife.
As more and more trekkers leave the beaten path in search of adventure, tribal cultures such as the Hamer will slowly be revealed to the outside world. While many "cultural" villages throughout Africa have long since contracted with safari companies to present facsimile ceremonies to tourists, even the most remote ones such as the Hamer are discovering an open door policy towards trekkers can be an easy source of revenue.
Visitors to these societies must look into their own hearts and decide if their intrusion is contributing to the destruction of the culture or worth it for what they learn and take away. This traveler admits to be conflicted on these points and my own ponderings have made me look at this from the other side, wondering what tribal people would think of some of our own institutionalized ceremonies and entertainment because what seems bizarre to one person is just daily life to another.
How would a remote villager react to a ballet or an opera, both of which have many similarities to ceremonies I have witnessed? With the long African tradition of storytelling I believe they would embrace live theater which is closely linked to what I have experienced around many of their campfires. They would most likely be stunned to visit an aquarium, which would allow them to see living creatures underwater, but be appalled or sickened by our zoos that hold animals captive that they only know as living free. Our religious ceremonies are not that dissimilar and in fact many animist societies would recognize much of the physical trappings of western style Christianity.
A mere decade ago many remote societies would have been startled by an image on an electronic screen but the recent infusion of trekkers into these places has made cellphone and digital cameras ubiquitous, while today, satellite dishes proliferate on top of mud houses and canvas yurts.
As more of us venture off the beaten path, the old world and new will continue to merge and hopefully each will continue to learn and take the best from the other for their own. But for now, when I look at most reality television I think a Hamer Bull Jump is not all that bizarre.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
The Mursi, Money, and Mayhem by James Michael Dorsey
Tracking the Hadzabe: Little is Changed in one of Africa's Last Remaining Bush Tribes by Shelley Seale
A Quick trip to Hell in Ethiopia by James Michael Dorsey
Ethiopia: Birthplace of the Traveler—and Then Some by Bruce Northam
See other Africa travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: