Must one always take a stance when observing something? Is it a sense of duty that leads us to judge another being for his delphic actions, or is it just indifference and man’s endless and sometimes unsubstantiated quest for moral high ground? It has been easy, so far, to deduce a good deed from a crime in societies of today. The evolving development of common sense along with the rise of empires, societies and laws have taught most humans to behave in a relatively civilised manner in order to co-exist and live a mostly joyous life.
Certainly, we slip up and even the most aeolistic governments or religious groups are prone to behave less humanely than a gang of irate chimpanzees. Few, maybe none of these modern civilisations track records on the moral leader bored have remained steady over time which tends to lead us to “finger-point” at each other. Letting the wrongs of others define the riotousness of ourselves and intern blanketing us from our own unholy deeds. “Riotousness, civilised, holy, laws”, our daily conversations dense with these big words, often overused by those whom have no understanding of their meaning. Even I question, ambivalent now while walking down a dusty road in the Omo Valley, some of the discriminative dangers of some of these words. Whose “society” and how, who’s “civilised” and why, is it you and I that contend for morality or is it our opinions and perspectives doing the jostling.
I have seen large plumes of dust rise into the air on occasion, even mist. The thundering of Victoria falls and its mist rising into the sky can be seen and heard from miles away as too is the dust and rumbling of hooves that comes with a heard of buffalo on the move. A similar cloud of dust rises in front of me now, while I reflect on the days before spent with various tribes of the Omo Valley, Ethiopia. the Karo and their war paint, the Mursi looking back at me, piercing eyes and the infamous lip plate holding the visual mass of each scene. All so different and truly fascinating yet the chanting and sounding horns coming from the growing cloud of dust I suspect bring a new level of absurdity to this experience.
Feeling at home in the dust, heat and electric energy that comes with African ceremony my pace is faster than those who now are weary of the battle-like chanting coming from the riverbed below. A large group of observers have gathered to witness the bull jumping ceremony of the Hamer tribe and we all meander downhill, following the sounds of singing and metal anklets clanging to an African rhythm. Cameras on straps I move swiftly through scrubland leading up towards the riverine woods that hide the commotion in the dry river itself. I skid and swivel to face what I thought was a greeting from a fellow visitor to the region. Dapped in the latest safari apparel and wearing enough sunscreen to protect him and his squad against a nuclear blast he, noticing my cameras, confronts me on my ethics of photography, or photographing these tribesman and woman specifically.
“You photographers have exploited the tribes and caused them to change their ways” saying whilst pointing his curled finger at me, trying not to let it escape his oversized shirt sleeve and be scorched black in seconds by the deadly African sun. Realising that I was dealing with another judger with all the facts, but actually none, whom is more interested expressing himself rather than knowing the truth of anything I reply with “ actually it is mainly due to the philanthropic giving of NGO’s and missionaries in the region that has driven this modernisation, quite positive change in some cases as in the lives of people whose life expectancy was once thirty years old”. While he winds up another meddlesome comment, I notice his and his comrades’ hats are branded with “Saint ‘something or other’ Church” and I bolt for safety amongst the “savages” they have come to convert or protect or something.
In Hamer society when a boy reaches the age of about seventeen a bull jumping ceremony is arranged. A date and place are fixed in order for families from both the boys fathers side and the mothers to be ready for the great event. The boy must jump across the backs of around seven bulls, back and forth in order to be accepted as a man worthy of marriage. Failing to do so through falling across or off the bulls is humiliating to say the least and the Hamer boy must wait another long year in order to try again in the hopes of being wedded. The main event of the actual bull jumping will seldom last more than five minutes yet the build-up to this point is seismic.
For the men it is too obvious to get rowed up and lay around in the shade of trees fringing the river. Their heads resting on a wooden pillow that doubles as a seat or visa verse. A tool that not only allows rest but while doing so will not interfere with their carefully constructed hairstyles and is something a man will rarely travel without. Some are genuinely sleeping, which is hard to believe as, well, it is the equivalent of sleeping with your temple on a wooden stump and around them the woman are erupting in and out of song, dance…and chase.
Enter controversy. The woman of the Hamer, during this ceremony, must also prove to themselves that they are worthy of a bull jumper, the current one or those who have long passed the test. Regardless if it is you to be married, if you intend to be later in life or are already, you are free to join this test of woman hood. Seen as a great honour in Hamer society only the older woman, already scarred from countless ceremonies, and the young keep out the arena…and arena it truly is. A small group of men whom have recently passed their test of man hood are chosen to be “whippers” and clutch a handful of carefully cropped sticks. Thin, yet stiff. They burst, one at a time, out of the riverine woods and enter the riverbed where the woman pursue them relentlessly and when caught the sticks are wrestled from his hands. Here is the paradox. The woman, after freeing a stick, will give it back to the man who must now strike her across the arm and back, which he must. After whipping those who managed to retrieve sticks, he vanishes into the woods to restock. Another stick carrier will dart across another section of the river now and the woman charge towards him and the cycle of cat and mouse and blood and dust continues.
It was a while after first emerging out of the woods and onto the riverbed that I started wondering how I would frame any of this. Dust was everywhere. People singing and chanting, and the commotion had only just begun. I am told this is only the mother’s side of the family and the boy’s fathers’ side is yet to arrive. “Just wait” the Omo interpreter, who has abandoned his guests to come share a cigarette, excitedly warns me.
There is a burst, an increase of volume, more than what we have become accustomed to now and the ceremony pauses, they all turn to look down river. A large group of women are emerging out of the heat haze and leading the charge is a tall and well-built member of the father’s side. I’ll come to be obsessed with her as the day goes on. Galloping through deep river sand as if a sprinter on tarmac I distinctly remember a brief desire to flee as I was exactly between the two families now closing the gap between them, like to armies headed into battle. Horns blowing, screaming, metal clanging. “Surely violence is imminent” I think, yet as they meet the two groups merge and start heading back in our direction. Trotting at first to a synchronised gait, composed and melodic in song, but not for long…
A man with sticks heads across the open and the warrior woman, the one, hunts him, quickly leaving the rest of the woman behind. His route takes him up the river bank behind me which left me in the path of the African Wonder Woman’s pursuit. Fearing a collision and certain death the man with the AK 47 and I run for cover. she came ballistically past us and made short work of the mans attempt to escape her and those in full sprint just behind, retrieved a stick and got a stripe across her back. Soon after that, another. And another. And another.
The more welts across their backs the more revered they were in the tribe. Every woman able or not able, but of age, would take part in this seemingly barbaric event. From the most physically blessed to a woman who seems to suffer from polio. Her arms and hands moving her more speedily than her legs could manage. I admire her. No shame, no fear, no resentment. Just a fierce smile as she grits her teeth, ploughs through the hot sand and relentlessly pursues the crowd she can hardly ever reach before it stampedes to another corner of the river, but never gives in to the shade, not once assuming the excuse of her unavoidable circumstance. A true warrior. For every stripe across her back it was equivalent to ten across and able-bodied woman. At least that was the little honour I could contribute in my head, for the Hamer woman no one is counting, only how much welt and blood is on your back seems to matter.
I start to look closer, later in the day, at their eyes and faces. most of their backs now striped with blood I assume there must be a fair amount of pain delivered with each strike, as if there wasn’t to start with. She is jumping up and down again blowing her trumpet after reeling in another hopeless attempt to escape her. It all slows down and I see something I have subconsciously been aware of the entire day. The men experience no joy in what they are doing. Their faces sag with a cold desire for it all to stop. It is a job. They must do it. To return respect to the woman of their tribe. He fondles the tip of his stick and winds up to strike her again. I watch her now. Back dripping with sweat and blood. Surely, she will flinch as stick meets exposed flesh, her eyes must at least blink. The stick breaks on impact while she blows through her horn, not missing a note. No flinch, no show of pain or discomfort, as if a butterfly had just landed upon her. The global scene was fascinating. There she stood dripping with sweat and blood, there was he dripping with sunscreen and judgment. There was I worrying about my dry scalp and there were they topping up on the ochre and blood that the sweat had washed out their hair.
The ceremony eventually moves up the hill to where the boy, who has stood emotionless amongst the chaos all this time, must jump across the bulls. An extraordinary moment and of unparalleled importance in the boy’s life yet to me it is a calm sea compared to the hurricane of woman that quietens to allow the boy his moment. There she is again, she walks to take her place in the row of woman that make up his father’s side of the family. On the way one of the bulls break away from the line and brush against her. Quickly gaining her balance and catching up with the bull she grabs it by the ear and gives it the “how dare you touch me beast” look before manhandling it back into line. After which she melted into the wall of bodies, woman holding sticks above their heads, anticipating the jump across the bulls. The main event was now, yet I felt the climax had passed.
Standing against the old cruiser that brought me to this patch of red earth deep in the Omo Valley, the Hamer woreda. I wondered more on why I wondered if I approbated of what I had just witnessed.n I realised that my perspective was the only absurdity there. How could I, I realise, even comprehend how they had gotten here. Tribes not forgotten as they would have to be known first, and they were truly unknown to the world up until recently. Even in the discovery of their existence their cultures and traditions remain a mystery. Who was I to judge this world that was entirely unfamiliar in every aspect to the one I knew.
Well, there was no need to fear for judgement was near and I noticed captain quintessence approaching once again. The red of his flushed face starting to show through the wall of sunscreen. “They have to change their ungodly ways!” he mumbles at me as he and his world-savers storm off towards their air-conditioned Land cruisers. Speaking of gods, i look to see the goddess of the day yet she has already dispersed back towards her village. Probably to dress her wounds, get a good night’s rest, then let the sun of the next day dry the blood off her back...