Imagine this. You have driven for three hours through the African Bush from a remote dusty village in the southwestern corner of Ethiopia, along twisting dirt tracks and across dry creek beds, and then for a further 45 minutes on a roughly cut track through the bush, which is not a road or a track at all but merely a clearing either side of a footpath along which no other vehicle has yet travelled. It is so fresh that the exposed stumps of trees and bushes are going to cause havoc with your tyres, and you have no hope of spotting or avoiding them all. You’re not sure where you are going but your guide says ‘it’s all good’ …
You are here in the Southern Omo Valley in a remote corner of Africa to witness a pre-nuptial ceremony in which a young man earns the right to marry the woman of his parents choice by running naked across the backs of a line of nine bulls and doing this four times after a day of celebration, dancing, drinking and traditional rituals. It is called the ‘Bull Jumping Ceremony’ but it turns out to be so much more than that!
You may have read about the Southern Omo Valley tribes of Ethiopia and possibly seen some of the documentaries and photographic essays that have brought a broader audience than anthropologists to these unique cultures. There are more than twenty tribes living in this remote south-west region of Ethiopia, an area which has only relatively recently become accessible to tourists, and then only with a guide, and often an armed guard.
Having made your way here from halfway around the world you need to work out how you can make the most of your visit. The small towns of Jinka and Turmi serve as ‘jump off’ points to explore the region so you make your way to Turmi, a small, hot and dusty village with very little infrastructure but it is close to the Hamer villages. There is a small hut in town which serves as the ‘office’ / ‘gathering place’ for the local guides, so finding a guide is quite easy. The people in Turmi have already figured out that the ‘Ferengi’ (foreigners) have lots of money and they sometimes stage manage visits to nearby anvillages and their ceremonies but you aren’t really interested in joining the dozens of tourists that are also in town and you are quite prepared to get off the beaten track.
This is our challenge and we are very excited to be here for our last great adventure before we leave Ethiopia. We have set up camp in Turmi for a few days and we are here to see ‘The Bull Jumping’ but other than that we have no idea what to expect. We talk to a guide and he says that he knows of two ceremonies that will be taking place the next day. One is fairly close to town but the other is some way out and we will be the only ‘Ferengi’ there.
We agree to leave around lunchtime the next day and assume we will be back around sunset. We anticipate joining our new friends, Thomas and Igna for dinner back in Turmi at 7pm, who arrived later in the day having spent two days on the road from Jinka, where it only took us one day. But then they are travelling on a tandem bicycle!
We leave Turmi with high expectations but, as it turns out, we didn’t really know what we had signed up for. Our guide is crammed into the front of our Landcruiser with us and we wind our way between several villages before we leave the dirt road and pick our way along the newly cut bush track. Eventually, we reach a group of boys under a tree and we park in the shade. Our guide says we have to walk a short way so I grab my camera bag and we follow him for about ten minutes along a path that leads down to a river bed. There are crowds of people down here and we stand off to one side taking it all in while our guide talks to the villagers.
We are introduced to the young man who will be ‘jumping the bulls’ today and we can see that he is quite nervous.
A group of women leave the river bed, dancing and running, and climb the slopes up to a cleared area near the village huts where we find crowds of people sitting together on the ground under low shelters. We are invited to sit with them.
The women continue dancing and the noise is tremendous when they pass. The stamping of feet, the jangle of the many bells around their legs and ankles, the singing and the blowing of horns are almost deafening.
As they dance the dust rises and swirls in the light of the afternoon sun … a symphony of colour and light and noise.
The smells and taste of sorghum beer, and the local coffee, both of which are being brewed in large calabashes over small fires all add to the vibrancy of the scene.
All of our senses are assailed by this onslaught and it is a struggle to take it all in.
The children run around under everyone’s feet, as do the goats. One baby goat scratches around one of the fires and a small child removes it before it gets burned.
The smaller children are very keen to have their photos taken.
Occasionally one of the men asks if we are ok and offers us more coffee or sorghum beer. Otherwise, we are left to our own devices and to sit on our cattle hide happy to observe.
The celebrations can last two or three days and during this time a number of different activities take place.
We are directed back down to the river bed where people are regathering. First up the men use some pigments, black, ochre and white, to paint their faces. Our guide paints Julie’s face.
Our guide tells us that ‘The Whipping’ is about to take place. We are not sure if we have heard him properly and we have no idea what is going to be whipped. A few people gather slender branches from some of the bushes and strip the leaves from them. During all of this, the women continue dancing and singing and blowing their small horns. Different things are happening all over the place.
Then ‘The Whipping’ starts. The women encourage each other and, through dance, singing and blowing their small horns, demand to be whipped. Their backs carry the scars from past ceremonies. Several of the men are reticent but the more senior men seem to accept the responsibility more readily. The women obviously want to be whipped and they show no sign of pain. Apparently, they later rub things into the wounds on their backs to promote scarification. Several men refuse to carry out the whipping and some of the younger girls contemplate it but then back down. Both men and women seem free to participate or not as they wish. The men select a branch that is most flexible.
The young boys and girls are taking a keen interest in proceedings, picturing themselves as more active participants in the future.
Later in the afternoon, a large number of people arrive from other villages and they are welcomed, offered some space under the shelters and given some sorghum beer.
Some of the men have coated their skin with oil and charcoal so that it shines. When they arrive they are given the best places to sit and plied with sorghum beer. These men will play a central role during the bull jumping.
The whole affair is a moving festival of activity from the river bed to the village and back again and then over to a clearing where the bull jumping takes place.
A group of men take themselves off to one side and start to dance. A few of the men step into the semi-circle formed by the other men and start to dance. They all set up an amazing syncopated beat with their feet and clapping with their hands. The men inside the semi-circle jump in unison with the rhythm of the beat they are creating.
As sunset approaches the mass of people moves up a slight rise to a level area. We are told that the cattle are coming. They arrive and are immediately surrounded by the dancing groups of women who are making a tremendous noise. They move in and out of the bunches of cattle, pushing and shoving and generally confusing the cattle. This goes on for some time until the cattle are befuddled and bemused. That seems to be their intent because the cattle become a lot more malleable and stop trying to escape from the surrounding ring of people.
The young man who is the central character in this ceremony wanders between the cattle contemplating what is to come. There seems to be a distinct look of trepidation on his face.
The oiled young men now move in and start to line up the bulls in preparation for the central event. They grab horns and tails and drag them into position. It is now well after sunset and the light is fading fast. A shout and the young man is up and running lightly across the backs of the bulls. Once across he drops to the ground and turns to repeat the effort three more times.
So very quickly, it is all over and we need to get back to the car. By the time we reach it the light has gone completely. Our guide is walking around the car with a torch and he draws our attention to one of the tyres which is completely flat. There’s nothing for it but we have to get it changed, which we do and we start the slow journey back through the darkness.
We haven’t gone far before Julie says that she can hear something. It is a warm night and we have all the windows open. She can hear air escaping and we have a second puncture and this tyre is slowly deflating. I decide that it can wait until we get to some more even ground so we can get a jack under the car. We still have a couple of four-wheel drive spots to get through though.
Eventually, we get back to a semi-decent track and change the tyre and we can head back to Turmi. We reach there a little before 8pm and unfortunately, we have missed our dinner date so we have dinner on our own, our senses still reeling from the intensity of the afternoon.
When we left the celebrations looked set to continue well into the night and will last through the next day. Each village only holds one bull jumping ceremony per year so they obviously make the most of it.