The Omo Valley extends from the Omo River to the Lake Chew Bahir, in the southwestern Ethiopia. It is unique because it presents an extraordinary concentration of different ethnic groups in a rather limited territory. Most of the tribes in the Valley still live in a traditional way, cultivating the land and raising livestock.
The Hamer tribes live in different villages between Turmi and Dimeka, in the Debub Omo area. Most Hamers are Muslim shepherds living with several families in the fields. They do not believe in the individual ownership of the land, which is free of charge for cultivation and breeding of cattle. Hamers have a strong bond with the cattle, in fact already as children they take care of the livestock.
Hamers have a distinctive hairstyle: women prepare a mixture composed of ocher, water and resin to create copper-colored braids called “goscha”, showing prosperity and well-being.
Hamer boys, called Ukuli, perform an ancient ritual to mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood: “The Bull Jumping Ceremony”. This Hamer ceremony usually consists of running above ten bulls, back and forth four times.
The “Bull Jumping” tests the bravery of Ukuli, who must be able to dominate his fears to become man.
Ukuli is partially shaved, he is stripped naked and rubbed with sand to wash away his sins and bad luck. He also wears two strips of bark around his chest as protection during the test.
At the beginning, the father, or the uncle in his absence, decides when the eldest son of the family is ready for the Bull Jumping. Only after the major son has completed the ritual the other brothers can also have their initiation.
When the father considers his son ready to face the initiation rite, he gives him the “boko”. It is a sort of pear-shaped stick that the boy will always carry with him and will show to all relatives to invite them to the ceremony.
The young man’s family decides the date of the ceremony and deliver to all the guests a rope with as many knots as the days that separate them from the big event. Hamers do not use calendars, so they cut a knot of the marked rope every day to know when the ceremony will take place.
Finally, the day of the “Bull Jumping” ceremony all relatives and friends gather to celebrate. The Hamer guests vary from 100 to 300 people, depending on the social class to which the family belongs.
The women, dressed in traditional clothes, adorn their legs with bells and start dancing as if in a sort of trance. Instead men watch the show drinking alcoholic beverages.
The Hamer ritual comes to life when women express their affection and encourage the boy by being whipped on the back with birch branches.
The “Maza”, the young men who have already jumped the bulls but are not yet married, whip the women who urge men to whip them more. Hamers believe that the greater is the pain, the greater are the loyalty and affection to the boy. The scars that will remain on their backs will be the proof of their love.
Towards sunset, the Ukuli boy prepares for one of the most important days of his life.
Thus, Maza and elderly men begin to gather castrated bulls, sprinkled with dung to make them more slippery. Once the 10 bulls are lined up, everything is ready for the jumping rite. The women play horns and rattles and the Hamer boy start jumping on the bulls accompanied by shouts of incitement. The Hamer boy must demonstrate agility, strength and courage to become a man: if he will run four times back and forth on the backs of the bulls, without falling down, he will become a “Maza”.
Hamers can marry up to four wives but the first one is chosen by the father after this ceremony. Generally the father gives to the bride’s family 30 cows as dowry.
If Hamer Ukuli fails to pass the test, because he falls more than four times, he must wait for the following year to retry the jump.
If successful, the young man receives an animal skin on his neck and finally celebrations start with dances and dazed sounds of rattles and horns.
This photo-story was awarded by All About Photo as the best project showcasing the theme “Black and White” in 2020. My “Bull jumping” portfolio was published on the 12th Edition of AAP Magazine on August 24,2020.