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The Whipped back of a Hamer Women
OCTOBER 26, 2007

The Hamer

Several times on this journey we have come close to seeing a tribal celebration - always arriving a week or so after the famed event. All the way back in Swaziland it began when we missed the annual ceremony where the king selects a bride from hundreds of semi naked Swazi women by only a matter of days. On arrival in Turmi we were chuffed to find out that we had arrived in time to watch the last day of the Jumping of the Bulls Ceremony.

We awoke a little hazy in the Alpha Hotel in Turmi after a massive day on the road. With no hot showers or even food for that matter, we set off back to the tourist hotel to stock up on Highland (Bottled Water), some fresh bread rolls, and a hot cooked breakfast washed down with Ethiopians finest blend Arabica coffee.

With everything sorted we started off back down the main road for about 1km, before we hit the river bed we diverged onto a small animal trail and for about an hour we trekked through the bush/scrub/desert. Walking through the desert we passed through several small Hamer villages, the males were all out tending to their cattle or business, only the village elders and young children were left to tend to the fires and basic chores.

Fifteen minutes before we reached the ceremony grounds we heard the celebration already in full swing. Echoing through the trees the sounds of women chanting and singing and occasionally the stomp as one they crashed their feet into the dry earth.

The first 'act' of the Jumping of the Bulls Ceremony was held in the dried up river bank. As our path broke through the dense shrub we were greeted first by the young man who would be jumping later that evening, then by his brother and friends. While standing on the bank we witnessed the women in mid dance, metal bells attached to their legs, their backs bared and greased for the coming torture.

While the women danced, several older men were sleeping in the shade of the trees, out of the wind in the lee of the river bank. With no other tourists around we were able to quietly make our way through the Hamer people, unobtrusively taking photos and simply observing the afternoons events.

After maybe half an hour the first really action began. The women all started shrieking, then took off as a massive group up the river bed. From the far bank, maybe 300 metres away a lone "Whipping Boy" broke from cover and started racing towards us. As he neared the women he started making evasive manoeuvres to get clear of them, however sooner or later he was caught by the women and forced to whip them. Essentially the way it worked was one stick - one whipping. The women who captured the whipping boy would stand in front of him triumphantly, one hand raised in the air. The other women would stand around dancing and singing. Finally the Whipping Boy would send a cracking whip over one shoulder and down her back. The women were incredible, as their skin was broken and blood trickled down their backs they did not flinch. After a few recovery seconds they would began dancing and celebrating, quite often claiming the whipping stick as a prize.

Hamer women being whippedHamer women being whipped

The above scene was repeated through out the afternoon as one by one the whipping boys all broke from cover, expended their supply of whipping sticks and then congregated with the sleeping men in the shade of the trees. At times the action was so close we were literally caught up in the middle of the action. The whipping boys would make it to our bank and before breaking through into the cover of the surrounding shrubbery let loose with a few cracks right on the bank where we were sitting.

By around 4pm most of the women participating in the whipping had backs shredded from four hours of whipping. The older women would rub butter into their backs to ease the pain and their family members would help clean the wounds when it so required. The whole ceremony was building in intensity and you could feel the climax of the afternoon was not far off. The jumping boy had moved away into a circle of older women who proceeded to remove his braids giving him a wicked afro.

When the first of the other tourists began arriving we knew it was about to turn to shit - while we had been silently observing from the shadows, some obnoxious Americans walked straight into the circle where the women were dancing placing their tripods among the women and disturbing the whole celebration. It turned into a bit of a joke and within 30 minutes of their arrival most of the women were led away by the village elders to the quiet of their village.

With the dancing and singing abruptly ended everyone sat around not really knowing what to expect. Then at an unseen signal everyone proceeded to cross the river to the far bank and walk along another animal trail for about 30 minutes to the Jumping Boy's village.

The dancing women had all assembled in a stockade here where the celebration had continued in peace. In addition all the elders were seated in the shade of their huts watching the festivities, drinking coffee and tej, and generally enjoying the afternoon.

The dancing continued for another hour or so as the sun slowly sank from the sky. Before the boy could jump, he was surrounded by all of the village men, who protected the boy from prying eyes while he performed the necessary rituals, a goat was slaughtered and the meat cooked and given to the boy. Finally the men dispersed and the boy leapt to his feet and with his brother bolted off into the bush.

This caused a mass movement of people as everyone tried to relocate to a barren patch of ground 300 metres away where the bulls were assembled. At the sight of the bulls the whipping became almost frenzied, some women begging and crying for one last crack across their backs to show their love for their jumping boy. At times we were hard pressed to get out of the way as the crowd surged backwards and forwards.

Finally the men managed to line up the bulls head to tail (around 15 animals) and what had taken a whole day to prepare leapt into overdrive. The Jumping Boy, naked as the day he was born leapt onto the back of the first animal racing across the backs of the bulls to the far end. On successfully completing two and then three passes he was in a state. His family tried to stop him but he was determined to show his strength and crossed backwards and forwards a total of nine times.

Finally exhausted he was congratulated by his family, the women had grouped together and stood on the side of the bull ring linked together by branches held above their heads. The final touch was the boy being led blind into the herd of bulls in a show of trust and faith.

While the villagers spent the evening celebrating, we turned tail and started back towards the main road. There were plenty of locals heading in that direction and after 40 minutes we were given a lift in the back of ute to town. After a hearty feed of pasta we set off on foot to our hotel. Unfortunately at night, and a little disoriented we managed to get right lost. Thankfully a couple of local lads out for a night on the turps walked us to the hotel safely. No Money, no hassle, just a earnest Ethiopian greeting and they disappeared into the night.

Jumping of the Bulls

Click here to see the Jumping of the Bulls Photo Gallery (21 photos)

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