There are approximately 45,000 Hamer people populating the Omo Valley near the Kenyan border. A pastoral people, they strive to continue their traditions and preserve their culture for future generations by passing on traditions and rituals. The traditional Bull Jumping of the Hamer tribe, a spiritual ritual, is one such ritual. In order to achieve manhood, boys must undergo two different rituals: a circumcision, which happens when a boy loses his baby teeth, and a leap over the bulls. Successful completion of these two rituals allows boys to transfer from boyhood (naasi), to uninitiated (ukuli), to unmarried adult (maz).
Bull Jumping is believed to be done as a sign of rebirth and transition of a boy into manhood and there are several stages of the initiation process. For example, on the day of the ceremony, female relatives of the young jumpers assemble themselves in a circle, adorned with beaded necklaces, iron coils around their arms, and decorate their skin with cowry shells. Some wear iron torques around their necks known as ensente, which indicate the wealth and prestige of the woman’s husband.
To a chorus of bells and screaming horns, the women circle around the men, jumping and dancing to the beat. Suddenly, a woman abandons the dancing group. She begins to heckle the young topless man, yelling insults at him. The hostility rises until he lifts the tree branch in his hand and delivers a forceful whip to her body. Visibly bleeding, the woman continues hurling abuse at the young man, shouting for all to hear that he didn’t whip her hard enough in order to provoke him further. These women, who are related to the young jumper, endure this pain as a symbol of devotion to the jumper and the elders and to show their loyalty to the tribe. The tradition is known as Ukuli Bula and their sacrifice and devotion to the jumper are recognized and returned. Castrated cattle are then herded into the center of the celebration space and the women continue their dancing and horn blowing, circling the herd. A nervous ukuli appears. The jumper is put into a circle of men and the ritual begins.
Standing naked, he is rubbed with dirt to cleanse his sins and is smeared with cow dung for strength. Prayers are said and he is outfitted with only thin bark strips tied across his body for protection from evil spirits. He is now ready to jump over the line of bulls set before him.
The Charkale, or the men who have successfully jumped, gather anywhere from 10 to 30 bulls smeared with their own excrement to make the jump more difficult. With the bells and horns still sounding, the naked young jumper takes a running start and hurdles onto the first bull’s back, quickly moving onto the backs of the rest of the herd before leaping back to the ground. This must be completed 4 times in total. If he falls he is susceptible to a whipping himself by the women and will become a disgrace to his family. When he completes his jumping, cheers, horns, and bells fill the air. He is now a maz – an unmarried adult member of society.
DID YOU KNOW?
“A typical Hamar household consists of a woman, her children, and a male protector. A man may be the protector of more than one household, depending on the number of wives he has. Also, men are sometimes assigned the responsibility of protecting a divorced woman, a widow, or the wife of an absent husband (usually his brother). Marriage celebrations include feasting and dancing and young girls, as well as boys, are circumcised.”
– Gateway Africa (source)
After the bull jumping the real challenge begins. From here, the ukuli goes to live in the bush or in the forest to learn how to survive with his fellow maza, those who successfully completed the bull jumping and are awaiting marriage. Once they become married they will then transition to Donza – a married adult.
To learn more about the Hamer people, Ukuli Bula and Bull Jumping, read the following articles: