Friday, 22 December 2017

It's HAMAR Time!

I was so glad to be heading for the Ethiopian border after a long drawn out debacle at the Ethiopian embassy, who seem hell bent on stopping people entering their country and spending money there! Clearly they have enough already! Still - perseverance prevailed and we got there in the end! Heading towards the border from my last stop at Archers Post, I got a What's app from Chris and Erin. I had met these guys at the last campsite in Nairobi and we found we had a lot in common. Not only were we heading in the same direction, albeit they were in a Land Rover, but they were also bikers who had ridden around the world together as a team many years before. They had gone with another couple (Rob and Emi from Holland) on the Tracana route a few days before but sadly Rob and Emi lost control of their vehicle on the gravel and found themselves rubber side up a long way from anywhere! Thankfully noone was hurt, the car was recovered and they all made it over to Henry's campsite just south of the border. This is where I caught up with them all.

That night we discussed our next moves. Rob was confident the car was drivable back to Nairobi where they would decide what to do. They would either call it a day and end their trip or try and find a new body (which I believe they did and hope to be on the road again mid Jan). I really wanted to go to Omo Valley but after reports that one of the tribes had gone on a killing spree and shot 13 truck drivers on the road in, after one of their own was run over, I was feeling a little apprehensive to say the least. Going in alone at least did not seem like an option I wanted to take. If I found myself stranded for any reason on that road, I would have no back up and that thought was nerve-wracking. Chris and Erin however, really wanted to go too and so we made the call over a jello sandwich (my first and last) that we would go together. The killings were last week and so the chances of more trouble were probably quite slim. 

 The Omo valley is known as the cultural crossroads as many migrated here over thousands of years ago from all directions. There are now around 200,000 people living here along the river, making up sixteen different tribes. Each tribe has its own cultures and ceremonies which can be vastly different from his neighbours. Most of the time they live peacefully side by side as cattle herders and farmers but the occasional cattle rusting etc can lead to eruptions of violence between tribes.

The road in was peaceful and actually good fun with a nice section of off road and some great countryside. It was nice to have some company behind me, especially as they were also carrying my luggage!! Two days into the ride down into the lower section of Omo Valley, the Land Rover caught fire! The rough roads had broken a bracket holding the battery and rattled a bolt out too. Luckily it was put out safely and not too much damage was caused, but we turned back and aimed for the nearest small town. Determined not to give up we hired a guide and a truck to take us the rest of the way. We had received word that there would be a bull jumping ceremony at one of the Hamar tribe villages that day and we were invited to join them. We didn't want to miss it!

Now don't get me wrong. This was not a personal invite. They invite a handful of tourists to attend through a local guide in order to help pay for the ceremony. The chief sets the price before we arrive and we are driven there at the appropriate time.

After several miles of sandy road which took us deeper into the bush, we came to a road block (a tree in the road). We were told the chief had put it there signifying that we now had to leave our cars and walk the rest of the way.

Initially I didn't feel comfortable being there. This was not an event put on for tourists. This was a personal and important ceremony. We were interfering, changing things by being here and I for one did not feel particularly comfortable or even welcome, despite being invited and having paid for the privilege. Not everyone from the tribe saw the benefit and the hostility was not lost on me. It was however, clearly lost on others in the group and that made me feel even worse. I didn't want to be part of this and so I put my camera down and went to sit quietly on the riverbank near a group of men from the tribe. I smiled at them as I sat quietly leaning against a tree and just watched, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Within a few minutes I felt something hit my arm. I looked over at the guys sat nearby, who turned out to be the Maza, or the 'whippers', and found one of them smiling at me, having just thrown a twig to get my attention. The ice had been broken and I felt just a little bit accepted.

I looked over toward Chris who had decided to sit down in a quiet spot in the middle of the dry river bed where the ceremony was taking place, perhaps for the same reasons, but now he was surrounded by men and women who he seemed to have give his phone and camera to, and was now giving them lessons on how to take selfies! He might have looked like a wise old elder sat with his pupils, had it not been for his red hair, white skin and digital gadgets! You might think that most tribes have their own mobile phones these days, and many tribes do, but this was not the case here. These guys are miles from any town or infrastructure and although I am sure these were not the first cameras they had seen, some behaved as if they were completely alien to them. Anyway it certainly seemed like everyone was starting to relax as the ceremony continued throughout the afternoon and people seemed a lot happier to have their photo's taken (always showing them the photo I had taken helped as it always does). After a while I felt most welcomed by many, even sharing the odd giggle, and still just tolerated by others. Hardly a surprise.

A Hamar man comes of age by leaping over a line of cattle. It’s the ceremony which qualifies him to marry, own cattle and have children. The timing of the ceremony is up to the man’s parents and happens after harvest. As an invitation, the guests receive a strip of bark with a number of knots – one to cut off for each day that passes in the run up to the ceremony. They have several days of feasting and drinking sorghum beer.

As part of the ceremony the bull jumpers female relatives, quite literally demand to be whipped. They get very upset when they are denied by the Maza (the whippers) and cry, fight amongst themselves or just keep begging! The Maza are the guys who have already leapt across the cattle, and live apart from the rest of the tribe. The girls don’t show the pain they must feel and are apparently proud of the scars. I was making the noises for them as I watched, but not a murmur or a flinch from them!

One effect of this ritual whipping is to create a strong debt between the young man and his sisters. If they face hard times in the future, he’ll remember them because of the pain they went through at his initiation. Her scars are a mark of how she suffered for her brother.

There is much to the ceremony of course and it continues all day until the evening when the elders and Maza line up the cows. The jumper must jump up and across the line, running over their backs four times. Only when he has been through this initiation rite can he marry the wife chosen for him by his parents, and start to build up his own herd. 

It was certainly an amazing experience and one I will remember for some time. I just wish we had time to visit some more tribes but it was time to hit the road again and see some more of Ethiopia. 

There have been some political protests throughout the country, with the the army being called in and many turning violent. This has meant that I have had to change some of my route and now I am heading towards Lalibela to meet with Chirs, Erin and some other friends from the road for Christmas. Ethiopia does not celebrate until the 7th January but we plan on getting cooking in the campsite on the 25th. No doubt there will be a few beers drunk and Erin even have some Christmas songs downloaded. GREAT???

Have a wonderful Christmas wherever you are and see you all in the New Year.


  1. thanks for sharing your amazing experience. Africa is proving that you saved the best for last! Merry Christmas Steph!

  2. So glad I checked in on your progress tonight, great read! Thanks and have a Merry Christmas...

  3. WOW! What an experience.

    Merry Christmas, Steph!

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