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The morning sun is shining in all its glory on our small hamlet Dumbayate, Hamer Woreda, Ethiopia. Excitement is in the air. Our small hut is the center of attraction. My sisters Duka, Arti and their friends Bono, Waliso, Alo and Yayo are chattering in excited tones and laughing continuously. All are in their best clothes and are wearing jewelry made especially for the occasion by the eldest sister Anti. She is an expert at these things, and we earn a lot of money selling her art work to the faranjees.
Woldo my father has been busy since morning. “Have you ensured that everyone is coming?” He asks.
“Yes, I have.” I tell him. A fortnight ago I had personally gone to everyone’s house and given each of them a knotted string. Fifteen knots, one for each remaining day. They wear the string round their neck and untie one knot each day. All this excitement is for me. I, Maya Woldo of the Hamer tribe am the man of the moment.
For this day my name is ‘Okulli’ the Bull Jumper. No Hamer male is considered worthy until he has completed successfully this rite of passage. Today I will prove that I have become an adult and can take all responsibilities that come my way. I have waited for this day all my life. I have practiced hard; have been hurt badly when the practice jumps failed, but all that is behind me now. For six months I am on a diet of only milk, honey and meat that has given me strength and energy. My hair has been allowed to grow long and it’s in a flare over my head.
Woldo my father is shouting at the women folk to hurry up. “You Almandae” he says to my mother, “we have to walk eight miles to Kaske; move your big behind” Almandae laughs at this and says in mock anger “Old man, it’s big because you like it that way. Why shout at me? You haven’t even started to dress up and you take ages to get ready.” Finally everyone is ready and we start walking towards the Kaske River.
There is lot of joking and laughing as the women make fun of the men. Some have small brass trumpets which they blow occasionally to express their joy and announce their passage. The heavy anklets they wear are also making beautiful sounds. On our way we are joined by another group coming from the village of Argude. It is two hours past noon when we reach the river Kaske. It has rained for three days so it’s flowing, though shallow. Already women from other villages are there and are dancing in the river bed, blowing their trumpets. I can see my mother’s best friend Charkindae singing in her melodious voice exhorting the other girls to dance.
One after other various groups of women run to the water, sing and dance and again disappear in the forest by the banks to search for Michari the cane from the baraza tree with which I will have to beat them. The men sit on the banks decorating themselves with the chalky mud found near the river. Some of them are having their hair done. Bodo my best friend has a hairdo that took him one week to make. He looks very handsome in it and is strutting about like a male Jigra (guinea fowl).
There are quite a few faranjees who have come to watch me jump. Whoncho the sage says they come from all over the world. He will negotiate with them the price of watching the ceremony. I can see some brown faranjees too. Those are very niggardly when it comes to spending and are very inquisitive too. Whoncho signals that the negotiations are satisfactory and it is time to begin the next phase. All of us cross the river and proceed to the spot where important rituals will be performed.
Today my mentor is Kala, the great bull jumper. He has a very important role to play; he is the one that will oversee the ceremony and guide me. He too has been living away from his home for the last six months living on a diet of milk, honey and meat. As we proceed my path is obstructed by Arti my youngest sister. She has a Michari in her hand that she gives to me, and raises her hand asking me to hit her. This is the hardest part of the ritual: hitting the person I care for the most, but if I don’t hit her she will be upset thinking that I don’t love her. I carefully inspect the stick for any knots that might cause injury and remove them, and then I hit her, making a scar on her bare back.
Some day in future she may show me the scar to remind me of the pain she has endured for my sake. I will have to hit the other girls too with their canes. Scarification is a tradition amongst the Hamer tribe. The northerners have been trying to stop us from doing this, but little do they understand that the pain endured is a sign of love. They also want our women to discard the tradition of not wearing any upper garment. I do not understand this need for changing our traditions. Whoncho says there are places where women have to cover themselves fully, even their faces to avoid trouble. Our women live half naked all their lives without any fear, but they call us savages!!
Whoncho has told me another interesting thing. The faranjees first send priests to tell us that we are unhappy and their God will make us happy. Then they send their marketing messiahs who tell us that we are unhappy but their products will make us happy. Finally they send ‘head doctors’ to analyze and tell us why we are unhappy and what will make us happy. I hope I don’t live to see that day. My apologies, the mind is wandering; I must concentrate on the jumping.
My uncle Baro guides me to a spot where other men are waiting to bless me. My path is again obstructed by the female members of the family who want me to hit them with canes. They are even fighting amongst themselves, snatching the others’ canes and throwing them away; then offering their own canes to me. Charkindae is taunting Kala to hit her, while other men are painting his face for the ceremony. He ignores her twice but she has worked herself up in frenzy and again taunts him this time about his manhood, at which he gets wild and takes a mighty swipe at her. She only laughs and taunts him more. The policeman specially posted for the occasion has to intervene. The elders take Charkindae away, but her back is cut open in places and bleeding. Of course she is enjoying every moment.
The white faranjees are intent upon taking photos, and they don’t leave a single opportunity to click. One of them even follows Yayo as she goes into a bush. His face is worth seeing when he realizes she is going to relieve herself. At this moment there is a great commotion. The bulls have arrived and they thunder across the river driven to the spot where the jumping will take place. The rituals by the river are finished. Kala, Leto and Shello have been painted. Leto will be my mother for the day as Almandae my real mother is not allowed to see me jump. The elders urge everyone to hurry up and all of us walk in a procession to the bull jumping arena.
This spot has been used for jumping since the time of the great warrior Garsho slayer of numerous Dashenech and Bumi tribesmen. The bulls are milling around at the spot, upset at being forced into a small space and are mooing their displeasure. It is late afternoon and the sun has gone mellow. Once again the women form circles and move amongst the bulls, singing taunting and charging them, while I am being prepared for the final event. I see the white faranjees absorbed with the pomp and ceremony of the occasion while the brownies are intent upon watching every minute detail, perhaps comparing with their own rituals. I offer Leto a woman’s skirt made of goatskin that he will have to wear as my mother. Then Kala brings the pot of charmed potion that I sprinkle all around to drive away the evil spirits and then I drink it. It will protect me and give me strength. Now it is time to inspect the herd. Every bit of my clothing is removed and I am as naked as I was at birth. I move amongst the bulls and breathe deeply to draw strength from their familiar scent. Suddenly I am very aware of my “sama”. It is half erect due to the excitement of the occasion. I am glad it is that way and not shriveled like that of Wale, who was so terrified during his ceremony that he failed. It’s been two years but the women still taunt him about his shriveled “sama”. Kala and some others are busy catching the bulls by their horns and forcing them to stand in line. It is taking time and all the while the women are dancing and singing. Oh yes, the faranjees are busy clicking.
Kala and his men have succeeded in keeping seven of the best bulls in line. The biggest bull is “Bali” the huge one captured by my father after killing two members of the treacherous Dashenech tribe from the Omo river. Bali is taller than Kala’s shoulders who himself is the tallest person for many miles. I make a trial run to decide my stride. The women start clapping and blowing trumpets to urge me on. Now is the moment of truth. If I fail I won’t be able to live the life of a Hammer. I push away the thought of failure and concentrate on the task ahead. Everything recedes into the back ground. All I see is Kuko the shortest bull who is first in line. I take my first step, the wind is behind me urging me to run faster and harder. I gather speed and get near Kuko. Kala’s successful jumps move before my eyes. Each bull is held by the horns and tail by members of our clan.
There is a hushed silence as I jump high onto Kuko’s back and then step on the backs of the other bulls and get down at the other end. No bull must be allowed to break the line or I will fall and be trampled upon. Now comes the most difficult part, for I have to jump again but this time from the other side where the tall Bali is awaiting me. I take a hop step and jump. I make it!! Hurray. But wait. It’s not over yet. I have to get down from Kuko’s side then repeat the process three more times.
I do it thrice but then I don’t get down from Kuko’s back but again go back to the opposite side and jump again and again without completing the fourth round. All this is to show that this jump has been too easy for me and I have lot more in reserve. Kala shouts to me that it’s enough. Now I have to complete the fourth jump and I do it reluctantly. I am no longer a boy but a MAN. The women who were ready with sticks to beat me if I failed are congratulating me. I cannot express my joy in words, so I keep jumping around. I can now marry, and will be allowed to negotiate business deals. But that is another story. I might tell it if you have liked this one.