Whereas the last post covered a long strenuous 5 days of stress, traveling, and visa drama, this post is the reward. I made it back with the group in time to visit the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley. These are some of the coolest, most remote, and most individualistic tribes in Africa and we were going to get a hands on experience. The tiny town of Turmi where we spent the night was only a few kilometers away from the Hamer tribe. When we arrived in the morning, all of the women instantly surrounded us. They wore lavish necklaces made out of goat hide and beads but little else. To be blunt, I saw a lot of boobs. A lot. The men of the tribe sat back, indifferent to our presence, but the women flocked around us. Each of them wanted us to choose them to be in a picture for which they would charge 4 or 5 birr (25 cents). Paying for every picture gets cumbersome quickly, so I really chose not to pay for any pictures and instead I’ll steal some from everyone else.
The women led us through the village to a large hut in the back. We first had to duck through a hole in the thorny fence around it and then crawl through the tiny doorway in. Once we were all seated around the fire, we began a traditional coffee ceremony. They showed us the fresh coffee beans and they basically just roasted the beans and added some water. Boom! Instant coffee. We drank the coffee out of giant wooden gourd-shaped bowls. The coffee was so light and fresh I ended up having three bowls, if also only to be polite. Inside the tent, we were having fun joking with the women. We quickly learned to communicate without language – pointing, faces, charades, whatever. We usually just made fun of each other and the women laughed along.
After the coffee ceremony we got a tour of their village. It was much more spread out than the Samburu village in Kenya, but it was just as rustic. The girls all wanted money for photos and they even tried to get us to donate the shirts off our backs! I suggested making a trade my shirt for their shirts, but they managed to convey that my shirt was shitty cotton and theirs were tough goat hide and would never break. No deal.
That afternoon, we drove some 50km further to visit another branch of the Hamer tribe who were having a very special and very rare bull jumping ceremony. Apparently, one of the final steps before getting married is completing the bull jump. This big ritual invites tribes from all over to celebrate and give him blessings.
We parked pretty close, but we still had to trek for about 45 minutes through dried up riverbeds and thorny acacia trees just to make it to the ceremony. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. When we got there, the ceremony was well underway, but I couldn’t have told you what was going on. People were dressed mostly in what we saw them wearing at the tribe earlier, nothing special. Women had bells strapped around their legs and would occasionally and seemingly randomly join together, and start jumping in a circle. The men were also just milling about, some of who carried large automatic machine guns. Amidst the chaos, there was one element we did understand. We stood silently by as young men would whip the women with branches, leaving deep red cuts in their backs. Many of the other women who weren’t getting whipped wore huge scars across their backs. According to the tradition, the women are all relatives of the man completing the bull jump. They receive the lashes to prove their love for the man – the deeper the cut, the deeper the love. Every now and then you would just hear the crack of a branch on skin and know that someone was getting whipped. It was very upsetting, but all of the women took their beatings nobly and proudly.
After about an hour of milling around and talking to the tribal women, the bulls in the middle started getting sorted. Somehow, the best bulls were chosen. The man of the hour appeared in the middle of the herd of the bulls and we he emerged on our side we realized besides some hair decorations, he was stark naked. He and some of the other males selected the biggest, sturdiest bulls and lined them up so they were shoulder to shoulder.
The man took his place and with one giant step pushed himself onto the first bull and ran along the backs of the other 6 or 7 bulls to our side. The women were cheering as the men held the bulls in place. He immediately turned back around and jumped on again, running across. He never tripped or stumbled and made bull jumping look very easy. He did this just a couple more times and the whole thing was done in 2 minutes. We applauded his valor and then just like that the tribe vanished.
We began our lonely walk back to the truck when we got caught in a downpour. Previously I had been such a good traveler that I was never without an umbrella, a raincoat, or both. But today I had none and we all got soaked. The 45-minute walk seemed to take forever, but once we just accepted getting wet, it became a lot less miserable. That night, we went to a nearby hotel for a delicious dinner and spent the whole night drinking and celebrating our great couple of days in the Omo Valley.