The Ethiopian South

All the “travel” blogs we have done up to now have been about the North of Ethiopia, partly because that is where we live, and partly because there is so much to see – with its two and a half millennia of first pagan, then Christian, civilisation – which differs most markedly from the common perception of Africa.

However, 18 months ago, we made a trip to the Ethiopian South, specifically the “South Omo” area, which is still inhabited by pastoralists who have more in common with the other nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of East Africa like the Kenyan Masai than with the settled populations of northern Ethiopia. Of course, they are not untouched by the modern world: apart from tourists like ourselves, they are the object of government policies of “sedentarisation” – a neutral way of describing the attempt to make them part of the ‘developmental state’ through education and modernisation. Nonetheless, the different tribes in this area have retained unique cultures and ways of life, though these have inevitably evolved and adapted in response to both tourism and political action.

One of the reasons we have waited so long to talk about the trip is that there is a certain discomfort in what might be described as the voyeuristic nature of tourism here. The object of the visit is not the great monuments to human aspiration and religious belief, like the stelae of Axum, the sunken chapels of Lalibela or the rock-hewn mountaintop churches of the Gheralta. The reason you visit the tribal areas is to see the people, get a glimpse of their culture and photograph them, at times in exchange for money.

That said, looking back at the photographs 18 months on, is to be reminded of a remarkable experience. We travelled with an Ethiopian friend from Mekelle, Mitiku (see previous blog, “Mitiku’s Story”). Apart from the pleasure of his company, Mitiku speaks several Ethiopian languages and is also an anthropologist by profession, so we hoped that he would help us out with both some of the linguistic difficulties and with scholarly insight. We also naively thought that by having an Ethiopian with us, we would feel less “foreign” and closer to the people who are also Ethiopian, albeit with a totally different culture. That didn’t happen, as he was presumed to be our guide, rather than one of our party!

The Hamer
We “visited” three groups: the Hamer, the Mursi and the Karo. This posting will be about the Hamer (or Hamar) people. As Google will (or rather won’t) show you, there is not much information to be had about their history or origins, although some scholars link them directly with early Egyptian civilisation. As tourists, our main encounter with them was through the spectacle for which they are best known, the rite of passage for young men called the “bull jumping” ceremony. Since the photographs speak for themselves, what follows is just some background to what they show.

This ceremony traditionally takes place between late February and early April, but we witnessed it in January. Maybe it has become a kind of movable feast, adjusted to the presence of tourists. In any case, it is a three-day ceremony through which every young man of the tribe must pass in order to become marriageable. The third day is the most spectacular, not to say disturbing.

Although the culmination of the ceremony is the “bull jumping”, it is undoubtedly the preliminaries, dominated by female relatives of the “jumper”, which are the most dramatic and unsettling. A group of these women dance and sing and blow horns, then approach the young men – friends or relatives of the male protagonist – and taunt them into whipping them. As you can see from the pictures, this is no token flogging, but violent and physically damaging, carried out with flexible sticks like willow wands or birches on bare skin that causes deep bleeding gashes. The overwhelming impression is that the males inflicting the damage are reluctant, and it is the women, who drink heavily before and during the event, presumably to anaesthetise themselves and release their inhibitions, who dominate the show and invite the violence by their mockery. We were subsequently told that the women involved are unable to move or get up for days or weeks after each ceremony, but they carry the scars as a mark of pride… and inevitably some of the lash marks become septic. Bear in mind too that the women will subject themselves to this at numerous bull jumpings as the various men in the family prove themselves eligible for marriage. Each man jumps the bulls just once, as long as he succeeds. If not, the challenge is repeated.

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After perhaps two hours of dancing, singing, drinking, horn blowing and scourging, the whole group, participants, witnesses and onlookers, moves to the open space where the bull jumping is to take place. Here we had our first glimpse of the future groom, identifiable by a very loose hair style, and fairly morose expression. We learnt that this is the typical style of the bull jumper. The protagonist’s male entourage gather around him for the ritual disrobing, which is hidden from the spectators. The bulls are lined up and held, in our case perhaps eight of them side-by-side, but we were told it can be more. Naked, the young man runs towards the line up, using the first animal, a smaller calf, as a sort of springboard step, runs along the backs of the animals, jumps down, and repeats the process several times. Again, we were told that some run the bulls eight or ten times, but our guy – with a nervous sullen expression – confined himself to a modest four.

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As with many traditions in nonliterate cultures, the explanation of the origins of this ceremony is sketchy at best. I suppose that the bull jumping speaks for itself: a difficult and potentially dangerous task which demonstrates that the boy is ready to take up the duties of a man, perhaps as fighter or hunter… As for the whipping of the women, we were told that it demonstrates that the man comes from strong stock. The sense of physical and sexual aggression that the women seemed at times to express towards the male tourists, as well as the taunting of their own young men, would suggest that, in the past at least, the Hamer women would not have been content to stay home when there was fighting or hunting to be done. On the other hand, although they were clearly aware of our presence, this in no way had the feeling of a spectacle staged for the rich foreigners. A few years down the road, perhaps, that is what it may become. We asked if they minded a Western audience like us witnessing this. Apparently not, the fee we paid for being there goes to future groom’s family for which they are very happy.

Of course, there is more to Hamer life than rites of passage and scourged backs. We also visited a couple local markets, which were an interesting contrast. The first clearly had a largely tourist focus, with bare-breasted girls and unsmiling young men posing (for money).

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The second, in Dimeka, something between a small town and a sprawling village, where the Hamer come to sell their goods and, as will be apparent from the photographs, hang out, had a more “authentic” feel… This time too, many were clearly there to pose, but now for each other. Many of the women, with braided hair dyed with ochre and resin in the typical Hamer style, wore polo shirts ornamented with shell necklaces and a kind of skirt made out of bright cloth. Others still wore the traditional kudu antelope skin garments. A few wore close-fitting, hollowed out gourds on their heads, somewhat resembling a 1930s crash helmet. The young men carried ornately carved wooden headrests (presumably a legacy of a nomadic existence, but still used as pillows and stools). Done up to the nines with colourful bands on their heads, arms and ankles, “muscle shirts” and VERY short cloth tunics, they had something of the look of Greek or Roman warriors.

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Apart from the people, it was interesting to see the products on sale or in use in the market. As well as foodstuffs of all kinds, traditional containers such as gourds and clay pots, which have largely disappeared from the North, continue in regular use here, alongside more modern artefacts, such as the ubiquitous Ethiopian yellow jerrycan.
The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

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3 Comments

  1. These people are so strong! A beautiful and respectful blog with very discolising pictures. Thanks John and Barb!

    Reply
  2. Tks for the kind comments. Glad you enjoyed it. Love to you and Jose x

    Reply
  3. Hi Richard. Thanks for the comment. We’re doing fine thanks. All well with you and family?

    Reply

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