Cow Jumping with the Hamer People of Ethiopia : by Melissa Lunstead
For an extremely long period of time, the Omo
Valley of southwestern Ethiopia provided a home to some of the most
remote, colourful and interesting cultures found anywhere in the
world. Within the past decade, however, this area has become a haven
for expensive camera toting organised tour groups, who leave a path
of destruction, corruption and garbage in their tracks, changing an
area drastically that for so long remained untouched.
I had been told that visiting the Omo Valley as an independent traveller was next to impossible
as it was very dangerous and there was no transportation. I decided to take my chances and with a
little patience and a lot of time it proved to be one of the most phenomenal experiences of my
life. The village of Turmi was my destination. This was the home of the Hamer people. There
are no buses that go to Turmi and therefore I was putting my luck on hitching. I got off a very
packed bus at the conjunction of the road that headed to my destination.... And there I sat.
After six hours, as night was about to fall, and I was contemplating pitching my tent, a vehicle
came by, and for an outrageous price, I hitched a ride. The driver was a Catholic missionary
from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. He ranted endlessly about the 'godforsaken ways of
the pagans' of the Omo Valley and how their cultures were 'wrong' and 'bad'. He condemned them
consistently for their evil ways and practices, as he would press down on the accelerator of the
land rover and run over every rabbit-like animal that was unlucky enough to pass through the beams
of the land rover's headlamps.
'These people, bad people, Melissa!'
'Why is that?'
'They do not believe in Jesus Christ!'
'And many of them wear no clothing, the women wear no tops.'
'And that makes them bad?'
'Yes, and they circumcise the women.'
'Yes but many different cultures do that.'
'These are bad people, very bad people.'
I just fell silent, knowing that there was no point in arguing with someone of his mind set.
I arrived at Turmi late in the night, and found myself in a mud walled, dirt floored, rest
house - a haven of comfort after a long day on the road in the blazing sun. The next morning I
arose early and began exploring my surroundings. A young boy at the rest house led me to a place
where I could buy tea and bread. It was there, buying 'dabo' for my breakfast that I befriended
a boy by the name of Gele. Gele is a Hamer boy who epitomises the contrast of tradition with
Western expectations. In order to pursue a chance at higher education, he has been forced to
abandon his traditional clothing, remove his jewellery and leave his home. He no longer fits in
with the Hamer people, or the urban city folk, or the Western tourists. The teachers sent from
the large cities refuse to teach Hamer people who dress in their traditional ways of skins and
beads. When I met Gele, he was dressed in suit-like pants, and a nice button down top. His hair
was cut short. This was quite the contrast to the traditional male Hamer hairstyle of hair being
slicked back with painted clay, and ornamented in ostrich feathers. Gele and I spoke for awhile,
and eventually he invited me to be his guest at a cow jumping ceremony that was to happen the
next day. I gladly accepted his invitation and early the next day, after a breakfast of tea and
bread, we met up and walked to the dried up river bed where the cow jumping ceremony and my
future disgust with fellow Westerners was to begin.
The sight that I was treated with was amazing. Dozens of Hamer girls sat beneath the shade of
the large trees, while others, ornamented in their beaded skins, jumped in unison, creating a
myriad of jingling sound as their bracelets clinked together. These girls, their breasts bouncing
freely in unison with their heads and shoulders would jump up to a few men, who wore feathers
behind either ear. These girls, would hand the men a green stick, and while they continued their
jumping the men would whip them, drawing blood. As the blow was stricken, the girl, without
flinching, would bow her head and jump away, only to return in a matter of moments with another
green stick, to repeat the whole procedure. I sat in awe, under the shade of the trees with the
others. Gele explained to me that these girls were friends of the boy who was to jump over the
cows later. In the Hamer tradition, in order for a boy to become a man and be eligible for
marriage, he must run over about eight cows three times. If he competes the task, he will be a
man and therefore able to marry. In order to show their happiness for the boy, who was to become
a man, they performed this whipping ceremony.
Eventually however, I found myself surrounded
amongst the Hamer people with about 50 tourists who had paid to come to the ceremony. They
walked amongst the people, flashing their cameras, and handing out buttons and pins with slogans
such as 'Shopping is good', to people who a matter of years ago, had had no interest in money,
and still have no concept of the wasteful materialism of our Western societies. I watched in
disgust as an overweight Italian man placed a camera right in a young girl’s face and snapped a
photo. She was furious and gave a loud cry and grabbed the camera, her hand outstretched wanting
compensation for this intrusion. He shook his head, waved his finger in the air and walked away.
These tourists would try to wave me out of their photos, as I sat with my new found friends, that
they were treating as remote as North Americans treat zoo animals. I stubbornly refused to move.
'Are you an anthropologist studying the Hamer people?', I was asked time and time again.
'Aren't these people so inhumane with this whipping?', people proclaimed to me as they shuddered
to the sound of the sticks ripping flesh. I just shook my head at their ethnocentricity and
'No, I am not an anthropologist, I'm backpacking and doing some writing' I would proclaim, 'and
to the Hamer girls, the scars they receive from these whippings are beautiful, and it is something
they are proud of.'
I had lost sight of my friend Gele for awhile, eventually I found him though. He had discarded
his Western shirt and grabbed a spear. He had painted his chest in great strands of blue. A huge
smile was on his face for he was being who he was meant to be. A Hamer man, not a boy stuck
between the new Western world and the traditional world he had known as a child.
Eventually the whipping ceremony was over, and I followed Gele up to the location of the cattle
jumping ceremony. There, probably 50 cows were rounded up in a circle. A group of men stood in
the centre of the great beasts surrounding a naked teenage boy. A large group of women surrounded
the cattle and jumped and danced in unison around them. And of course, to disrupt this perfect
picture, crowding all around were dozens and dozens of tourists trying to get a 'good picture' of a
ceremony they had not even taken the time to discover the purpose of.
I stood with Gele, watching
this spectacle. The cows tramped, dust filled the air, and the women kept with their dancing and
their singing. As I too, was wearing my hair in the traditional Hamer girl style, dipped in red
clay, ochre and butter, they grabbed my hands and tried to convince me to join. There was a cry,
and a few of the biggest bulls began to be lined up side to side. The tourists kept inching in;
the Hamer people looked at them with disgust and confusion. Only a few years ago, this was their
ceremony. It was not a spectacle for the tourists that now flaunted to the area. I began to
wonder, as the naked boy stood up, and cheers went up, if this tradition, like in so many other
places, will begin to remain solely in order to get tourist dollars. The boy jumped up, and ran
across the backs of the cattle, three times. Back and forth he went, and became a man.
was over, and the tourists left in the same manner one leaves a movie theatre. The show was over
and it was time for them to return to their real world. None of them realising that what they
had just seen was the real world. The father of the boy who was now a man looked at the tourists
as they left to the comfort of their large hotels far away and shook his head. I don't think
anything else needed to be said beyond that gesture. I walked back to the village of Turmi,
holding hands with the Hamer friends I had made, listening to the jingle of their bracelets as
they went. The smell of the exhaust from the land rovers filled my nostrils as they spewed up
dust on the road and faded off in the horizon out of sight.
Melissa Lunstead is a freelance travel writer.
Please contact GetAbroad if you would like to contact Melissa firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Melissa Lunstead – 2002/3
Reproduced with permission.