The Hamar: The bull jumping ethnic group of Ethiopia
Today we visit the Omo River valley in Ethiopia where the Hamer ethnic community lives. The Hamer ethnic group has a unique initiation ritual that involves bull jumping. This practice is still practiced today.
The Hamer ethnic group (also spelt Hamar) occupies the south-western region of Ethiopia. They live in a fertile part of the Omo River where they farm and rear cattle.
The Hamer ethnic group is mostly made up of pastoralists and they greatly treasure their cattle. Till today, few of them have attended school. It is not surprising to see both men and women of the tribe carrying AK47s as weapons to be used against cattle rustlers.
Different ethnic groups in Africa have different methods of initiating boys into manhood. For the Hamer community, it involves bull jumping. The three day long rite of passage is quite important to the initiates and their families. The timing of the ceremony is determined by the man’s parents and it happens after harvest.
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The initiate is shaved to the middle of his head by a group of men known as the Maza. He is then rubbed with sand to wash away his sins and smeared with dung for strength. The strips from tree barks are then strapped round his chest. This serves as spiritual protection.
The initiate crosses over 15 castrated bulls that have been rubbed with dung to make their backs slippery. Failure to successfully walk over the bulls brings shame to the initiate and his family. The initiate would then have to wait till the following year. But if the initiate succeeds, he is set to get married to a girl his family chooses for him, have children and cattle. The initiate must leap over the backs of the bulls four times without fail. This day is considered the most important day in the life of a man.
In the course of the initiation, the female relatives of the boy, this includes his mother and sisters, are flogged with canes. This is to show their support. They beg the Mazas (the men that have undergone the bull leaping ritual) to flog them. Until their backs are bloodied that’s when the flogging stops. During the flogging, not a single weeping sound or cry is made.
This whipping is used to create a form of debt. The loyalty the girls showed is demanded back in times of need.
The Hamer also have a tradition of scarification. The marks are put on the chest, arms and back. When a Hamer man kills another man from another tribe, those marks are put.
The Hamer tribe is 90 percent Sunni Muslim but they still retain traditional beliefs.
The bride price is usually quite high. Most Hamer men don’t finish paying the bride price during their lifetime. The bride price is usually 30 goats and 20 cows. Most Hamer men marry quite late, in their 30s, while the girl is usually in her teens.
The Hamers also practice infanticide. The practice known as Mingi applies when the first tooth of the child appears in the upper jaw instead of the lower jaw. Such children are believed to bring famine, drought and diseases. The children are killed.
The Hamers number about 20,000. The men handle the cattle rearing while the women do all the domestic chores including farm work where they plant sorghum and other crops.