It is a traditional act for a boy to be regarded as a man for an action that he has performed. This action could be an act of strength and logic like the Yoruba Ijakadi or of bravery like having a leopard or tiger’s skin as a show of ability to subdue such fierce animal. It is interesting to know therefore that these acts of coming of age are not concentrated in a particular ethnic group. There are different acts in several groups, one of which is practiced by the Hamar (also known as Hamer) tribe of Ethiopia.
The Hamar tribe is a tribal community in the Lower Omo Valley of South-western Ethiopia. In a setting where the male, in order to be publicly accorded the title of a man and as such enjoy the privileges that come with it, is expected to cross a hurdle, the Hamar is of the opinion that bull jumping is the way to go. Bulls are known for their size, force and aggressiveness. In fact, research has proven that it is only a giant that can lift a bull. They are also known for their cultural representations and use in sporting activities. Among the Hamar people, a boy must step on 7 to 10 castrated bulls in other to earn the right to be called a man. This rite of passage is known as Bull Jumping Ceremony and Ukuli Bula in their native language, Hamer.
The activity is usually done in October or November at sunset with boys already prepared for the jump as it is a show of strength, agility and capability as a force to be reckoned with. In every family, the eldest boy must go through the rite before younger siblings can follow. The decision to go for the bull jump is made by the father or uncle in the father’s absence. As there is no starting age for the ritual, if the father says that a 5 year old boy should go for the jump, the boy is allowed to do just that. Before the ceremony, female relatives (excluding little girls) of the boys meet with the Maza – these are men who have just passed the bull jumping ceremony – and offer themselves to be beaten. This beating shows the women’s support and dedication to their male relatives. It is also used as a competition among the ladies of marrying age as their insistence to endure such pain continuously is a kind of attraction. The beating, despite the brutality involved in it, serves as a strong bond between relatives, the beginning of a debt to protect the female in the future for the pain she had to endure and an attraction to future partners.
On the chosen day, the boy is dressed with strips of tree bark wrapped around his body for religious protection. He is also rubbed with sand and smeared with cow dung for purification and strength respectively. The boys are assembled in the midst of the jump arena with their faces painted and head partly shaved. The bulls are castrated prior to the event, that is if they have not been earlier castrated. The bull’s back is further rubbed with cow dung in order to make the back slippery and the task of jumping harder. When the arena is set, about 10 bulls are guided into the space in rows and the jump begins.
The bull jumping plays out when the first bull is jumped upon and still on the back of the first, all the bulls in the row are leapt onto and ran over without the boy falling 4 times. The ability to retain balance on the slippery back of the total amount of bulls is the feat of the ceremony. For a blind or disabled boy, he is allowed the opportunity to be assisted by other tribe members.
Upon successfully running over all the bulls without falling more than four times, the man is draped with animal skin and blessed. Following cheers and celebrations from the people in attendance, he will join the Maza and have his head completely shaved off. This is followed by a dance and celebration into the early hours of the day and this can go on for days. During the dance, there is the opportunity to meet the potential wife. Although there is the chance to marry four wives, the first wife is chosen by the father and on a decision being made, a marriage will be concluded.
Like most rite of passage (or coming of age) activities, there is no price other than the accord of title for the persons that excel in the activity. Here, the successful boy is accorded the title of being a man and announced ready to start a family. He is now ready to have a wife, children and own cattle as the tribe is a pastoralist community. However, for those who fell at one stage or another during the jumps even if it was the final lap, there is a “repeat”. This is to say that the person is to come back the following year to engage in the bull jumping again.
The Bull Jumping Ceremony is deep rooted in the cultural values of the Hamar people so it goes beyond the rite of passage label attached to it despite being the main part of the ceremony. With about 250 persons in attendance, there is usually dancing and drinking during the celebrations. Women of the community adorn themselves in native dresses and drape their legs in bells to allow the jingle sound when they step on the ground. The main drink for the day is the home-brewed sorghum beer. There is also the display of female submission and the male duty to protect them.
Ultimately, the bull jumping ceremony of the Hamer is the African traditional representation of taking the bull by the horn and being applauded for it.
FATHIA ABOLORE YUSUF