In Omo valley situated in south west of Ethiopia near Arba Minch there are about fifteen ethnic groups, still living in an ancestral way, with solidly rooted customs and traditions. A semi-nomadic people of about 34,000. The Mursi live on the edge of the Mago national park near the valley of the river Omo, located in the rift depression, near the border with Sudan and Kenya. 60 km from Jinka, after crossing the slope of the same name, the trail declines in a vast plain covered with semi-arid and bushy savannah, an immense reserve of species of mammals and birds. It takes more than two hours to reach one of the entrances inside the territory of this ethnic group, which counts less than ten thousand people. Their number decreases due to extremely precarious health conditions, prolonged droughts and their forced displacement to the arid lands of the East.
These Semi nomads are one of the last peoples of Africa in which women still wear labial and auricular ornaments in the form of flat disks, hence their nickname of “femmes à plateau” (female clay). The Mursi or Murzu, are nomadic shepherds. They move in search of pastures and water for their livestock. Where possible, sorghum and corn are grown. They have few contacts with other tribes. They establish their villages at waterways where they grow some acres of land. These small villages consist of about around twenty small huts (less than 1.20 m high), built on an acacia frame and covered with straw. They regularly change locations to escape the tsé-tsé fly attacks, ticks, leeches and anopheles. In these rudimentary shelters, tight against each other, they sleep in a total absence of comfort with only a cow’s skin lying on the ground.
freedom before marriage
Polygamy is habitual, but every woman has her own hut, with her children. For the father, having children is an income, each of them represents a gain, in terms of dowry, from twenty to thirty cows (heritage that ensures the survival of the tribe) and one or two Kalashnikovs! At the Mursi, unlike their neighbors (the Hamers, the Surma, the Bona …) women do not undergo excision and men are not circumcised. Sexual freedom is the norm for women, up to the date of “marriage” to 16, 17 years. But having a child from 12 is not uncommon! They give birth in the forest, which explains the great maternal and child mortality. The wives of the same “husband” can live in different villages. The men, naked warriors or dressed in panther skins and warthog tusks, carry the Kalashnikov on the shoulder.
They show the scarifications with pride, proof of their courage and valor in combat. Their bodies are covered with paints made from ash and gypsum, signs of beauty. They are known for their warlike instincts and are often in latent conflict with their neighbors (Hamer). When women reach the age of marriage, they make the lower lip incise and insert an ever larger plate, enlarging it little by little. The labial plate, inserted in the lower lip, can reach 20 cm in diameter. Facts of terracotta, these round plates are decorated with various geometric patterns and sometimes painted. The size is commensurate with the dowry required by the girls’ family to marry and to their social rank. They wear a loincloth in cowhide or goatskin and adorn themselves with necklaces made of multicolored pearls or shells and iron bracelets (for arms and ankles). Their diet, based on sorghum or corn puree, is completed by the products of hunting, breeding (cows, goats), peach and fruit. Like the Masai, they regularly consume zebu blood taken from the jugular vein. The elders, respected by all, make decisions concerning the tribe and choose their leader.
The honor reserved for the husband
“It is said that lipstick was used to make women ugly, to dissuade the warriors of neighboring tribes to kidnap them,” says Benoît Feron, but over time it has become a symbol of beauty and prestige: more important is the woman within the tribe, the bigger the plate, in fact, we do not know for sure why the Suri bring the labial disc.”This is the clothing that women consider appropriate to appear in public. They always wear clay to serve their husbands’ food while sitting among other men, “says Jon Abbink, an anthropologist at the African Studies Center in Leiden, the Netherlands.The researcher also has a social value for the researcher. adult status of a woman and confirms that a dowry of cattle has been paid by the husband to his family.
The size of the labial disk does not necessarily depend on the amount of the dowry.With the clay, the woman honors her husband who insures the well-being of his family and of the cattle.Benoît Feron, on the other hand, found that the discs are not reserved for special occasions: the suri women wear them every day and take them off at will, in particular when is time to eat
Threats to this form of tradition
The Ethiopian government dominated by Muslims exerts pressure on Mursi women to abandon this practice. Another indirect pressure arises from the awareness of the tribe that will be excluded from social and economic benefits until it is seen as backward by foreigners. Recognize that this tradition determines the perception that others have of them, limiting and hindering future development. Tourists, on the other hand, keep the tradition alive. They come from far away to see and photograph these women with pierced lips who, probably, perceive as monsters part of an abnormal spectacle. Mursi also realized that they could earn a living by posing for tourists, which may be enough to motivate them to continue the tradition. The practice of lengthening the lips has become an economic resource for the entire community. The Mursi tribe will probably have to take into account the warnings of the government, but until then, tourists continue to arrive.
The Mursi attach great importance to intra-tribal harmony. Until very recent times, they were grouped by Omo family clans, and more often today in the arid savannahs of the interior. They fear and worship the waters of the Omo that are vital to all nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples of the region. In addition to a strong current and eddies, the brown and often river mud hides hippos, crocodiles and evil spirits. Animists, they love nature, a tree, a source … and they bury their dead in the forest.
The Mursi tribe does not have a single name for its tribe, but different ones, such as Dama, Merity, Murzi, Murzu etc. But they have proclaimed themselves Mun (Turton, Yigezu, Olibui). The Mursi tribes have their own language called Mursi. Mursi belongs to a broader classification of languages known as surmic languages.The Mursi language has been officially recognized only recently, but to date there are two different spellings. One is based on the amaric, while the other is based on the Latin. The amarica base was developed by some members of the Serving In Mission organization. While the Latin base was developed by Moges Yigezu of the University of Addis Ababa