Jumping the Bull: Lies And Other Tall Tales in Ethiopia

by Maureen Elizabeth Magee

I tell lies when I travel.  My mother would call them “little white lies” and I only tell them to spare the feelings of others. 


Oh, alright. That wasn’t exactly honest.  I tell lies when I travel in order to spare myself the piteous looks I receive when I tell the truth.  A woman traveling alone is not as rare as it once was but, depending on where she goes, there is still a curiosity factor. The farther afield she wanders, the more curious the local folks will be.

“Where is your husband?” That is the first question.

Now, I never mind admitting that I am single – I am an optimist and the inquirer just might have some terrific friend I could meet. Of course, if I answer truthfully and admit to two divorces I could appear to be a poor risk.  So I hang my head, and in a tragic voice, I whisper, “Gone.”

Which is not a lie, not really.  They are all gone, those husbands. 

“Do you have children?”

To tell the truth, I am not a talented liar and this next question is where the real lie occurs. I am a blissfully child-free woman. So many cultures adore children and consider them one of the world’s greatest blessings.  By acknowledging that I have no kids, I am faced with astonishment, sorrow, advice and the offer of prayers, herbs or incense to correct the situation.

Believe me, I have tried to be up front and explain the freedom of choice we have in North America. But whether I am in Baffin Island or Bali, Omo or Otovalo, I only sadden or confuse the curious. 

Honestly, it seems almost necessary to lie. 

I pull out a photograph of two boys and a girl, all adorable. As I show the picture, I gaze lovingly at it and accept compliments.  I found the photograph stuck in a book I bought from the thrift store. It is starting to look a little old and tatty now, and I might have to find a new one.  As a matter of fact, I am also looking older and tattier and perhaps should be claiming them as grandchildren.

This technique worked well for years until that one day in a remote corner of exotic Ethiopia - the day I forgot to lie. Not only did the truth almost do me in, but I met my match in facile fibbing … 

Hamer Women at Jumping Bull Ceremony.jpg

I was on my first visit to Ethiopia, for the filming of a travel documentary series.  We were visiting the various tribal cultures of the Omo Valley and had set up our campsite near the tiny town of Turmi, close to where the semi-nomadic Hamer tribe scattered themselves. A handsome young Hamer man named Kelile had found us – he spoke a minimal amount of English – enough to allow us to hire him as a guide while we wandered through his remote hamlet.

Kelile was about 20 years old; he wore the traditional sarong type skirt with an old tee shirt advertising a chic Paris hotel.  During one of the filming breaks Kelile caught me off guard by skipping the usual first question and proceeding straight to the second.

“Do you have children?” he asked.

“Oh good grief, no!” I replied without thinking.


His lovely brown doe-eyes saddened as he absorbed this.  He remained quiet. Then he seemed to make a decision and gently put his hand on my arm, looked straight into my eyes and said,

“Next month I am jumping the bull,” nodding encouragingly at my blank face.

“You’re what?”

“I am JUMPING THE BULL,” he replied in a deliberate voice as if slowing down the words would help me understand. His eyes had locked onto mine and he nodded again, more forcibly.

I nodded back, smiling vaguely.

He looked frustrated.  I knew how he felt – I hadn’t a clue what he was going on about.  He took a deep breath.

“After I jump the bull, then I can give you babies. 

Oh, dear.  My head was a jumble of manic thoughts … bulls = penises + tribal men from strange cultures + doing things with bulls = getting me pregnant  + how could that be? + why had I ever come here? +  where, exactly was here..?

I looked around in panic for our guide Mageru who during this trip had solved many problems. I waved him over with the traditional Ethiopian upside-down finger waggling and incoherently whispered the situation.

Mageru swallowed a smile, punched Kelile playfully in the shoulder and shook his hand.

I was not reassured.

They chatted in Amharic with Mageru growing more serious. Kelile raised his eyebrows and looked sheepish. Mageru patted me on the shoulder in an “everything is fine” manner and wandered off.

It was a mystery.

We finished our filming, shook hands with Kelile and said goodbye. All seemed normal. On the drive back to the campsite, I grilled Mageru.

“What was that all about?”

Jumping Bull.jpg

“The young Hamer men have a rite of passage in order to prove themselves worthy of being married.  All the cattle of the village are lined up side by side and the man must strip naked, take a running leap and race across the backs of the animals. If he can do it four times without falling, he can take a wife.  If not, he must wait another year.”

“So he was proposing to me?” I asked and Mageru nodded. “But what made him stop talking about it?  What did you say?”

“I told him you were my girlfriend.”

“You WHAT?” I stammered. “But . . . THAT’S A LIE!”

Maureen Elizabeth Magee is a Canadian writer.  Six months after this tale took place, she married her guide Mageru.  They did not have babies. No bulls were involved.  Honest.

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Photo credits: istockphoto.com, Maureen Magee  

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