Ethiopia is home to a number of diverse and interesting ethnic groups who follow their own distinct life styles, customs, traditions, beliefs and rituals.

Hamers number around 25,000 and live in the lower Omo valley. The valley is situated betweenHamer bull jumping Jinka and the Ethiopian boarder with Kenya and Sudan.

Hamers, mainly pastoralists, speak an Omotic language which is closely related to the Cushitic languages of Oromo.

Both men and women give special importance to their personal beauty adorned by metal bracelets on their arms and legs.

The women’s hair is thoroughly covered in a mixture of grease and red ochre coloring. The young girls flatten it and make little tufts while the married women wear an elaborate plait which covers the forehead and falls down at the shoulders and back.

They beautifully attire in their beaded skins and iron jewelry; wear their hair in dense ringlets smeared with mud and clarified butter and topped off with a head-dress featuring oblongs of gleaming aluminum courtship.

Hamers have two basic events in the progression up the social ladder. Circumcision, which occurs when a child or young man has lost his milk teeth and the ukuli bula, a big step forward in the life of a young man- a leap over the bulls.

The jumping the bull ceremony is the most spectacular rite of passage in Southern Ethiopia. This ceremony marks the invitation of young men into adult hood.

Their marriages include the handling over of a large dowry to the family of the chosen girl. The dowry, a high price of goats or sheep is the reason why there is no set age for the ukuli bula.

This of course depends on the wealth of the young man’s family, the number in the family, as well as the number of brothers he has.

The leaping over the bulls is a ceremony (similar to pilla of the karo people) to determine whether a young Hamer male is ready to make the social jump from youth to adulthood and for the responsibilities of marriage and raising a family.

The main players are the initiates who are going to jump the bulls, the mass and those who have recently undergone this rite. The ceremony takes place in clearings in the countryside and is attended by the family, relatives and close friends of the ukuli.

Decorated with feathers, necklaces, bracelets and wearing their best cloths, the maz, who is responsible to whip the women, approach the area carrying long thin flexible branches to be used as whips.

The initiate boys are required to jump onto the backs of a line of fifteen to thirty, run the whole length of this formidable obstacle, jump down onto the other side and then repeat the entire procedure three more times without falling.

During the ceremony, the maz escort the initiates to the jumping arena and help to keep the cattle together, young women who are relatives of the initiates beg to be whipped by the maz.

This order reveals their ability to endure pain on behalf of the boy they love. The more numerous and extensive the scars, the deeper the girls devotion to the boy who is about to become a man.

Finally the initiate boys walk out of the arena through a special gate way, after which they are judged to have passed from childhood to manhood. Should they fall off, they would be whipped and teased mercilessly by the women.

On the day after the jumping the bull ceremony, women gather together, dances continue for the following two days and nights.

The Mursi dueling
dueling at MursiThe Mursi are cattle headers and cultivators who number about 6000.

They live in the lower Omo valley of the river Omo about 100 km North of the boarder with Kenya.

Their territory lies between the Omo and its tributary the Mago River and falls administratively in the southern regional government.

One of their most significant ceremonies (tagine or sagine) is a duel between single young men from different territories.

At a certain age, they must face each other with long wooden clubs (donga) whose ends have a phallic form. During the fight they protect their most vulnerable parts with coarse cotton cloths.

Dueling is a form of ritual in which men from different local groups join in brief but furious single combat with wooden poles (donga), around two meters long.

Some twenty years ago contestants used to wear basket-work helmets. Nowadays these have been discarded in favor of the more effective protection afforded by widening the head around with the long swathes of cotton cloth.

Each contestant wears a dueling kit (tumoga) which is both protective and decorative. It includes a basket-work hand guard, rings of plaited sisal cord to protect the elbows and knees, a leopard skin over the front of the torso, and a cattle bell tied round the waist.

Simply participating in the fight, win or lose, is enough for the young man to receive recognition for his bravery and to prove he is ready for marriage.

The fights are a way to publicly display one’s personal qualities and an attempt to conform to the tents expected of an adult behavior.

A dueling contest (tagine) usually takes place over several days and is carefully prepared for often being discussed, within and between both groups, for several months in advance.

It is scheduled for a time of a year when there is plenty of food available, so that the contestants can be physically well prepared.

When it eventually takes place, it is treated with the utmost seriousness and like war. It is seen as part of a continuing series of events in which each side takes its turn.

The ceremony takes place every year after the harvests (November to January).

The fight is symbolic and the adversary has to be defeated but not killed. If an adversary is killed, there are serious reprisals for the young man and his family.

In dueling, contestants should never come from the same local group or the same clan. He can only duel with men whose sisters he can marry even though they are called miroga, a term used for enemies from neighboring groups.

To win the duel, one’s opponent must either fall to the ground or retire hurt. Then the victor is carried round the field on the shoulders of the local age mates.

The victorious young man wins a special prestige and above all, an attention from the young single women. He is then brought forth in front of a group of those unmarried girls of his mother’s clan who lay goat skin skirts on the ground for him to sit on.

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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