I’m in the southern reaches of Ethiopia with my local driver Zenai, literally well off the beaten track, spending the day with the Bashada people.
On this trip we’ve made our way to one of the remotest spots in Africa, all part of a two-week itinerary that features some of the most fascinating people on earth.
Ethiopia is a country on the rise; home to one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent. Ethiopian tourism is burgeoning, in part because of experiences such as this one. Packing into a Land Cruiser and riding over unsealed roads into the dusty heart of this country, I witness a truly special, and singular, moment.
The day had dawned hopeful, as we made our way south into the heat of the Omo Valley, descending from the forested heights of Arba Minch, the largest city in the area that serves as a gateway to the region. We cruise over paved highways, and every bend in the road seems to present a surprise - as we approach, children walking on the roadside begin to dance a jig, their legs swivelling and swerving like a 1920s Vaudeville act, in the hopes we will stop and drop off a few birr, the local currency.
At one straightaway, a group of young men on silts strides onto the tarmac, stripped naked to the waist, painted in white.
Turning off the highway, we make our way by dirt road to the village of Key Afer, a rooster tail of dust curling up in our wake. Here, we browse at the local market, rubbing elbows with those buying and selling sorghum and chili peppers and homemade beer, picking our way through a selection of handmade wooden statuettes brought here for me, the visitors.
Then as we sit on unsteady plastic chairs in a ramshackle local restaurant, my guide Zenai tells me our most important find in this market town was actually a small piece of information. “I’ve just been told that there will be bull jumping today,” Zenai says as we sip Beer from glass bottles.
Rare and organic, these ceremonies are not scheduled far in advance, and news of them is passed by word-of-mouth, through a network of guides and merchants. We had hoped to attend such a ceremony, and now, we learn one is taking place today. “But it’s far,” he continues. “We will have to eat while driving, and the village is at least 20 kilometres off the road". We decided to drive. Sitting in the Land Cruisers, we rumble off the unpaved road onto a series of donkey tracks and dried creek beds, the hardy SUVs digging deep into the dry soil to spirit us along. After at least two more hours of hot transit, we arrive at the village — its name I never asked, and I will never know - and are greeted warmly, with smiles, despite the fact we are essentially aliens from a far-off, never-seen place.
It’s a feast that will carry on for days, when - and if - he is successful.
The dancing begins soon after our arrival, accompanied by whipping with hand-hewn birch sticks - a Bashada cultural practice, where the women on his side of the family demonstrate their support for the young man. Later, they can present their wounds, which are packed with butter, ash and charcoal, as evidence. It’s as strange and foreign as everything else I see, shared by a tribe who number only about 35,000 and populate far-off corners of this country, their culture largely untouched due to their isolation.
And despite the barriers of language and culture, genuine exchanges take place. Young women, shy at first, their hair and skin freshly coated in butter and ochre for the occasion, pose for photos, scrambling to see the images on my camera afterward, before rejoining the dances.
As the light fades, Zenai and myself make our way to a flat, open plain, where the bulls are lined up. The young man, fortified with a local beer made from sorghum, makes his fateful jump. Successful on the first pass, he turns and takes several more, flagging but continuing in the ritual after stern encouragements from his stoic father, who paces at the fringes of the ceremony. Another small cheer rises as he finishes his task — and becomes a Maza, now qualified to take his first wife (and more, if he can afford the dowry of cows and goats). A night of celebration lies ahead for him, his friends and this village, but not for us. The light now almost gone, we hurry back to the Land Cruiser and commence the long drive back to our lodge, the sounds of feasting fading through our open windows.
In a matter of seconds, it is done, his first traverse across the backs of eight bulls, greeted by a great, celebratory cheer from the crowd gathered all around. And while the rest of his life lays ahead, he turns and again sets his face, making it clear to all of us that he isn’t finished — not just yet.
Portraits of people in different tribes in the central and southern region of Ethiopia.