Despite the Western civilization’s influence around the globe, Ethiopia has preserved its culture intact. Among the many cultural practices Ethiopians follows, the Ka’el ceremony” (ceremony of fat men) is one that is followed by the Bodi tribe.
The Bodi people are agriculturalists who still engage in trade by barter system. The cows are so special to them that their blood together with fresh milk is a source of food for them.
Ka’el ceremony is celebrated at the start of each year [the month of June in the Gregorian calendar], to mark the new year celebrations. This festival takes place annually in the remote area of Omo Valley, southern Ethiopia.
The popular belief is that women of the Bodi tribe are attracted by the fat men and the festival is considered a good opportunity for them to show their charms. Every Bodi kid dreams of becoming a fat man.
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Ka’el ceremony celebrates the vitality of grazing land during the rainy season. Here cow equals money and having a big body is a sign of prosperity.
The 14 clans present a man who is single and deem fit for the competition. The contestants prepare for six months and during this period, they must not have sex and must not be seen outside their hut.
The women take care of the contestants by feeding them alcohol, singing, and bringing them milk every morning. The blood is taken after making a hole in a cow’s vein with a spear or an axe, then the people close the hole with clay. The contestants drink the cow milk and blood mixture all day long. The first bowl of milk contains 1-2 litres and should be drunk in the morning. They must quickly drink the milk before it coagulates.
French photographer Eric Lafforgue, who spent time with the Bodi while travelling through southwestern Ethiopia said, “Some fat men are so big that they cannot walk anymore. One asked me if he could use my car to go to the ceremony area. Once in the car, he started to drink milk and blood again because he said he wanted to keep trying to be the fattest until the very last moment.”
The people say that it is not the richest who wins but the most mentally dedicated. The contestants follow a strict and regimented diet and are one of the main reasons why the Kael competitors are respected amongst the tribe.
Also participating in the competition is a way to attract potential wives. People here believe that the bigger they are, the more women will desire them.
On the day of the competition, the competitors cover themselves with clay and ashes and display their acrobatic skills. They run around sacred trees for hours sometimes with the assistance of women, while being watched by judges. Followed by the people using a sacred stone on a cow before killing it. The intestines are then used to predict what the year holds.
The women attending the ceremony use the opportunity to show themselves off in their brightest and most beautiful clothes.
When a winner is chosen by the elderly judges, they crown him, “fat man of the year title.” Like any other beauty pageant, there is a prize, here it is nothing but fame.
After the ceremony, most lose their enormous bellies after a few weeks of eating less. In the next week, the next generation of competitively fat Bodi men will be chosen and the cycle will begin again.
However, the Ka’el ritual and the Bodi’s traditional way of life are under threat from the Ethiopian government as it plans to resettle 300,000 people from all over the country on their lands.