Volunteering with Ethiopia’s Hamar tribe gives Guy Needham an experience that satisfies his soul.

By Guy Needham |

“Don’t worry ’bout a thing, cause every little thing, gonna be al-riiight”

It seemed only appropriate that Bob Marley blared out the front of the pick-up as we bounced along the dirt road.

After all, this was the country of Emperor Haile Selassie, recognized by Rastafarians as the Messiah of African Redemption and head of their religion. Not that any of that mattered as we dodged goats and dug into ruts.

I was on my way to the Lower Valley of the Omo, a great swathe of land in Southern Ethiopia, to spend time volunteering with the Hamar tribe. Our driver had taken a “short cut” as he’d heard that one of their most important rituals was taking place: the Jumping of the Bulls.

Ukuli is a three-day coming-of-age ceremony that every Hamar boy must go through in order to prove himself a man. We arrived just in time for the whipping.

“Aiii, Aiiiiii!”, a young woman was screaming as she struggled against her mother, pleading to be let go. She broke away and ran to the half-naked man holding an acacia branch. Crack! The whip came down and her skin opened.

The young woman smiled with pleasure – showing her dedication and love to the boy. It was an eye-opening introduction to the Hamar tribe.

As the bleeding women created a bell-ringing frenzy, the men tugged the beasts into place. Tails were held, horns were gripped. The boy jumper looked nervous. He dropped his modest goatskin and leapt up on the first bull.

Scampering naked across their backs he made it to the far end and back six times. He was now maza (an unmarried man who had jumped bulls), and was ready to go bush while his family selected a bride for him. It made our version of proposing seem a little easy.

Going to Ethiopia is like going back in time. For a start they use a different calendar with 13 months in a year, so right now it’s 2008 – I lost 7 years just by getting off the plane. Not only are the years different but so are the hours. The clock starts at 6am.

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