My thoughts on attending the bull jumping ceremony of the Hamer people were these: If I were a young man about to prove myself worthy of a bride by running naked over the backs of six cranky animals, would I want hundreds of foreign tourists and at least three international media outlets there to record it? And if I were a young woman who was going to drink a generous amount of honey wine and allow my back to be beaten raw with tree branches by the male members of my tribe, would I want so many shocked and disapproving Westerners looking on? Their response, I am sure, would be utter and complete indifference. There can be few traditional people as confidently and defiantly themselves in the face of the modern world as the Hamer people of southern Ethiopia.
The bull jumper is a young man who has come of age and hopes to be allowed to marry his chosen bride by running back and forth three times over the backs of the assembled animals without incident. I’m pleased to report that our jumper was successful and that his payoff was immediate. Returning to terra firma after an impressive display of balance and agility, he scooped up his intended and together they quickly left the scene.
The ritual beating of the women is harder to watch and to understand. The Hamer women are aggressive, quite foxy, and nobody’s fools. But walk behind a random thicket at the ceremony site and you are apt to encounter a young woman, already bleeding profusely, defying a man with a switch to hit her harder. Their willingness to submit to this violence is typically described as a way of showing devotion to the men of the tribe. Why their devotion takes this form is, as far as I have been able to determine, unexplained.
There is a small but wonderful ethnographic museum in the town of Jinka, where storyboards feature Hamer women in their own words. I would have appreciated some insight into the origins and psychology of the custom. But the storytellers are, after all, community members, not anthropologists. They make it clear that refusing to participate in this ritual would be unthinkable, and that the scars thus gained are a badge of honor.