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The Bar-Mitzvah of the Hamer Tribe – The coming of a man.

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Bull Jumping is a tradition that has been practiced by the Hamers’ for many 10’s of thousands of years and still continues to be carried out to this day. The ceremony depends on the involvement of the community as a whole. The women of the tribe dance & blow their brass horns while the men whip the women as they scream in demand.

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They gather the 7-10 bulls at sunset, line them up in a row and the ‘bull jumper’ is to run across their backs 4 times. If he falls through the row of bulls he is to start again until he completes the running 4 times without falling. The significance of the 4 times represents the number of teats on a cow. I asked what would happen if the boy jumping was injured or permanently disabled in any way. They told me that if this was the case they would place one man between each of the bulls and help him over each animal until the jumping has been completed.

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The sounds of the horns & jingling of the bells on their caves was awakening. Their initial song and dance was the calling of the bulls. It went for about 3 hours.

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Every so often, the women would approach the men and call on them with their horns to whip them. Such focus these brave women would show as the men accepted their wishes and would unleash a thrashing blow on their bare buttered backs. The sound was horrific and quite traumatising. I felt rather ill.

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A few girls couldn’t have been over the age of 10 asking to be whipped. The men rightfully refused their wishes however it has been found that the men sometimes follow through on the odd occasion.

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In all honesty, it was incredibly difficult to watch. I have always believed in keeping tradition alive. But this was hard to justify. The women did ask to be whipped a number of times. They believe in the strength & beauty behind the pain & scarification.

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I suppose it’s ‘ok’ as the whipping is never done against her will. In fact, the women will fight over who will essentially be whipped first. Who can endure the most pain? Who will be a strong enough bride for her warrior?

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The local brew is potent. It tastes like mentholated spirits and sand. The texture is grainy and looks like a clag glue when poured into pots to be shared around. In the photo above I sit with a man as he mixes the drinks.The ostrich feather represents the fact that he is an uncle of the tripe.

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One child was extremely frightened. When he saw the lashings and open wounds on his mother’s back, he began to cry hysterically. The mother ran immediately to console him. She picked the child up and reassured him that everything was ok and not to cry, bouncing him around from side to side. She giggled at his innocent show of emotion with her friends and once he had calmed, she handed him to a grandmother sitting on the side who was fortunately not participating in the brutal custom.

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The boy was deep in concentration. The bulls were pulled into line and the jumping began. It is customary for him to be completely naked and to show strength and confidence during his jump. He put on an excellent show and finally gave a smile of relief when it was complete.

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The celebration goes all though the night. Unfortunately the travellers are not allowed to attend the after party. The men & women apparently get a little rowdy and it becomes relatively unsafe into the later hours of the night.

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What an experience..

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8 thoughts on “Bull Jumping Ceremony

  1. Wow. Don’t understand why the women get whipped though? Isn’t the ceremony about the boy becoming a man and jumping over the bulls?

    • Scarification is practised regularly among many African tribes. It is a symbol of beauty, strength & devotion to the tribe’s men. The women play a part almost as much as the men do in this ceremony. The men were assessing the wounds on the women’s backs. It seemed as if they were comparing the damage – determining who was able to endure the most pain. Once the men have jumped, they are officially considered eligible bachelors and may marry whomever they please. I assume that maybe the tradition of whipping is done to impress the ‘jumpers’ – the soon to be bachelors?

  2. oh Sus,what an incredible experience. Your photos are amazing & descriptions quite graphic.It makes me feel squeamish.. How wonderful to be able to part of these rites of passage. xxx

  3. Cynthia, amazing photos and words! The ancient Cretans had a similar ceremony, in which men AND women participated as equals. I was shocked that the women insisted on being whipped. Female courage is NOT, absolutely NOT about masochism, but I respect that only they can seek to change this tradition.

    I did share your blog and images on a website called http://www.feminismandreligion.com, as one of the contributors had posted some facts behind the myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur.

    (I lived in Ethiopia in the 1960’s and wrote a book recently about my former classmates: “An Ethiopian Odyssey,” to raise funds for water projects there. Website below.)

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