Coming-of-age is no mean feat for the young men of the Hamar tribe in Southern Ethiopia’s Omo Valley.  To be considered an adult or “Maza,” which literally means, “an accomplished one,” young men must run naked along the spines of ten to fifteen castrated bulls, standing together in a line.  The young men must run across a total of four times, and to make this challenging task even harder, the bulls are smeared with their own excrement.

This “Ethiopian Bar Mitzvah,” has been a key rite of passage for tens of thousands of years for the pastoral Hamar, who today number some 45,000 strong.  Bull jumping is the main event of a three-day festival held between heavy rains, and is a time of riotous and joyful celebration for the tribe’s people.  To the outside observer, however, this happiness is not always immediately apparent.  Part of the ritual includes the traditional whipping of initiates’ female relations, something visitors to the Omo Valley have found disturbing to watch.  During ritual dancing, young women of the tribe taunt and harass the initiate into whipping their backs until they bleed.  The wounds are dressed with lye and dried cow dung, causing the welts to harden into raised scars.  These are considered a badge of the woman’s honor, and an indisputable evidence of her loyalty to her family she carries with her for the rest of her life.  Since Hamar women marry when they are about 17 and the men after 30, a widowed woman often has to appeal to her male relatives for assistance or support in older age.  The scars are a potent reminder of how much she supported him in his hour of need.  All evidence suggests that the women are not coerced into the whipping ritual, but volunteer for it willingly, and underage girls are forbidden to take part.

Leaping over the lineup of bulls takes courage and skill.  The initiate is washed with sand to purify him and smeared with fresh cow dung to give him strength.  Often, his face is decorated with orange and white paint so that he resembles a leopard, one of the bulls’ most lethal predators.  He is allowed two tries, but if he fails, the young initiate will be whipped and bated by his womenfolk, which is considered the ultimate humiliation for the Hamar.  If he is successful, the initiate is welcomed in to the ranks of the Maza, unmarried bachelors, who live apart from the rest of the polygamous tribe until each is ready to marry his first wife and to own cattle, which form the bulk of the bride’s dowry.

Though many Hamar today are moving away from their traditional semi-nomadic existence of cattle herding and migratory crop cultivation of maize and sorghum, they nevertheless gather regularly for the bull jumping ceremony, which is garnering intense interest from the growing number of tourists visiting Ethiopia.

Learn more about Ethiopia’s ancient culture and traditions on Alexander + Roberts’s new Adventures in Ethiopia, with selected departures scheduled to coincide with certain festivals and holidays.  Speak to one of our knowledgeable reservation agents to plan your unforgettable journey to Ethiopia.

Posted: 10/21/2016 1:43:40 PM by Alexander + Roberts

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