The Afar woman, urging me to get married immediately
, reminded me of the traditional Hamer wedding ceremony I had witnessed a couple of months earlier at Turmi, in Southern Ethiopia's Omo Valley, with a fifteen-year-old Hamer boy, Bodi, as my guide.
Bodi, 15-year-old Hamer guide 18-year-old Hamer bridegroom
For centuries the tradition has continued. At about age 18 the goatskin-clad warrior bridegroom, who exists on a mixture of bovine milk and blood, shaves off his hair and goes into the wilderness to survive on his own for four months. At the end of this period, his hair has grown bushy and he removes the curls only from the front half of his scalp in honour of his final test of manhood, as witnessed by his family and that of the bride, “jumping” over a line of eight bulls.
The women of the two families, dressed in gaily decorated goat skins, their arms covered in copper and iron bracelets and their hair styled in stiff tresses formed by a mixture of bright red ochre and animal fat, with bells tied around their ankles and blowing instruments made from cow horns, that sounded not unlike those paper noise makers that unfurl when you blow into them at New Year' Eve parties, sing and dance into a frenzy having started early in the day drinking locally-made sorghum-based alcohol. Their courage enhanced by the fire water and their dancing, they individually approach the various adult males of their family and ask them to beat them with young switches cut from the local trees. And not just once but several times throughout the day. The whips cut into the flesh on the women's backs causing them to bleed and they then proudly display these multiple welts, rubbing healing oil into them to ease the pain. The whole experience is a challenge for the senses indeed as it is not only a cacophony of bells, horns, singing, ululation and thwacks of the whips but a blurring sight of colourful hair, jewellery, face and body paint, and bleeding wounds, mixed with the heat of the sun and the taste of the dust of the earth being stirred up by the many hours of dancing.
At a signal from the elders, it is then time for the warriors to touch up their face decorations with a type of paint made from rubbing what looked like white and red stones against a larger rock and mixing with water. Once the male grooming session is complete, the entire wedding party walks over to a second clearing where the bulls are kept and where the groom is subjected to a pre-jumping ceremony at which the previous jumper, whose party we have replaced, transfers his strength and courage to the new bridegroom using magic (Bodi told me) to make it possible for him to jump the bulls safely. The two bridegrooms sit facing each other with their legs outstretched. Our groom removes a wooden knob in the shape not unlike that of a circumcised penis from his loincloth waistband where it has been tucked all day and clenches it between his knees. The elders hang rings the size of bracelets over the knob and then four times pull a dozen or so freshly cut young twigs through the rings with the knob remaining in the centre.
Next the elders form a line and point their whips toward the bulls and speak to them to calm them while the bridegroom stands among them, perhaps for the bulls and man to feel comfortable with each other. The bulls are interesting in themselves for their ears have been decorated by what looks like someone taking a one-hole punch and punching out half holes in a regular pattern around the edges. The elders then pull the bulls by their tails and by their horns into a line and smaller calves are placed at each end of the line to act as a sort of stepping stone up to the bulls' backs. While the men continue to hang onto the bulls by their various appendages to keep the line straight, pushing them back into position whenever the bulls decide to move or try to make a run for it, the bridegroom removes his goatskin and runs naked across the calves' and bulls' backs, for a total of four full passes. Suddenly there is great cheering, singing, clanging of ankle bells and blowing of cow horns to congratulate the groom for succeeding in his final test and becoming a true man.
The crowds disperse quickly to get to their wedding feast as they have been fasting all day and leave the way for the next wedding party to witness their own jumping groom. But, I wonder, where is the bride all this time? At home, I am told, missing all the fun. It certainly seems unfair so I make a mental note not to marry a Hamer man.
As we join the crowds walking out of the bull pen area, I go up to the bridegroom to congratulate him. Four years later, as I write this description, I surmise that Bodi has probably now himself passed through this stage of his life!