Photographer Nicola Bailey was traveling through southwestern Ethiopia, documenting the challenges faced by one of the region's largest tribal groups, when she was given the opportunity to witness a landmark coming-of-age ritual of the Hamar people: the bull-jumping ceremony.
The centerpiece of the ceremony, a challenge where a young man must cross the backs of a line of cows, determines whether he is ready to join the ranks of adults in the tribal group and marry.
But another prominent aspect of the celebration caught Bailey's attention: the ceremonial whipping of the tribe's female members. The violent lashings leave deep scars on the backs of women.
The thought of being whipped repeatedly would make most of us cringe. Yet the practice was embraced and encouraged not only by attendees watching from the sidelines, but the women subject to the beatings. In fact, the women taunted the men and asked them to strike their bodies with long, wooden whips. Enduring the pain, amid dancing and cheers, is seen as a sign of love and loyalty toward their male relatives. Indeed, the men are forever indebted to the women after the ceremony is over.
The scene stirred up complex emotions for Bailey, who is interested in documenting human rights issues.
“As a woman, seeing the other women getting whipped. It’s challenging because we live in a world where we think violence against women is unacceptable, but the women are begging to get whipped," she said.
And the tradition was embraced and celebrated by those participating.
“Even though there’s all this whipping, there’s not this bad vibe. It’s celebratory, [people] dancing, and blowing on their horns," Bailey told us. "There’s a sense of excitement and there’s a sense of anticipation.”
We discussed what Bailey — who documented the ceremony and its significance during her travels — saw via phone and email. Ahead, she shares what she learned about the practice and why the ritual means so much to the people of Ethiopia's Omo Valley.