Monday 24 February 2014

Ethiopian Mursi Tribe Expedition - a fascination with lip plates

Mursi Tribe with lip plates and ceremonial dress
With the Mursi Tribe in the Lower Omo Valley of Ethiopia
The Lower Omo Valley in the hot, dry west of Ethiopia, is home to the most fascinating tribe - the Mursi or Man as they call themselves. We bounced along, over a barely visible goat track, in two 4 wheel drives searching for this elusive and aggressive Mursi tribe. Being nomadic they had shifted camp recently so it took some detective work locating them.  As we started the ascent up a small and dusty hillock I fleetingly caught a glimpse of a black torso, head and spear before the apparition ducked behind an outcrop. WE had been spotted. 
Our 4WD's at the Mursi village
Our 4WD's at the Mursi village
We knew we were close. As our 4X wheel drives crested the hill and we descended toward a dried out creek bed I could see a couple of Mursi women up ahead.
‘Ooo look!’ I exclaimed to the occupants of the car in general and Occy specifically, ‘Occy, take a photo!’
Occy dutifully (yes, he has a thumbprint on his forehead ;-) whipped out his camera and started shooting. Bad move! Travellers be warned! Nek minnut our vehicle was being pelted by rocks and Occy was half prostrating himself – at least as well as one man can whilst sitting in the front seat of a car - and showing in sign language that he had gotten the message and was making  said offending camera disappear.  If you don’t negotiate for the privilege of shooting a photo beforehand, with a suitable price of course, then you run the risk of having a rather exciting stoning.
Grass Mursi Huts in the Lower Omo Valley
Grass Mursi Huts in the Lower Omo Valley  Photo Russell d'Scarlett
We sped up to escape anymore gleeful stone throwing and after several more kilometres finally spotted a low collection of around 20 grass covered round tukuls. Half a dozen Mursi men carrying Kalashnikovs and sticks approached our vehicles as we pulled up in the dusty red earth. They appeared very serious and we felt slightly intimidated by their direct and almost menacing stares. The thought fleeting crossed my mind to wonder if we had been quite in our right minds bringing our children to this isolated and aggressive tribe.
Old Mursi woman seeks refuge from the sun inside her hut
Elderly Mursi woman seeks refuge from the sun inside her hut. Note the fire stones and ubiquitous yellow water containers Photo by Dorit d'Scarlett

The scorching sun drove the very young and very elderly into the shade of their tukuls.  Once the ritual greetings with the men were completed (clasping opposite hands and shoulder bumping) we were invited to visit with the tribe. The women quickly and eagerly surrounded us. Apart from the obligatory hide skirt, they had the most unusual decorations, each as varied and individual as the next. The women were uniquely fashionable and poised. The beautiful and elaborate headdresses they wear are inspired by nature and are a reflection of the beauty they see around them. Some had huge head decorations of cow’s horns, others gourds of various shapes and sizes, some had corn cobs and animal teeth.
Profile of Young Mursi Girl showing Lip Plate, Body Scarification and the bangles made from brass bullet casings
Young Mursi Girl with Lip Plate, Body Scarification and Bangles  Photo by India d'Scarlett
The Mursi are known for their clay lip plates, or dhebinya, made of clay and fired black. Some are plain whilst others carry an intricate pattern of dots traced into the clay before firing, then afterwards rubbed with grass (linnui) to darken the colour. After this they may then be painted with decorative designs in ochre. 
Mursi girl with painted lip plate
Painted lip plate and gourd headdress Photo by Russell d'Scarlett
When a girl reaches the age of 15 or 16, another woman from the tribe, usually her mother, cuts her lower lip. A wooden plug holds the lip in place and allows the wound to heal in that way without closing the incision, similar to having an ear piercing only a hundred times larger and worserer (yes that is an actual word in our house ;-). Over a period of time, newer and larger lip-plates are inserted though it is the girls’ prerogative whether or not she wants to continue widening the cut. Not all of the women had lip plates. Some of the younger women had quite obviously never worn a lip plate, whilst others had removed their lip plates, leaving their lower lips to hang below their chins. The lip-plates show a woman’s sexual readiness and are an aesthetic choice that displays their pride in being fertile and respectable women. 

Lip plate on Mursi mother with child
Lip Plated Mursi Mother with Child on hip Photo by India d'Scarlett
The Mursi are also known for their body scarification. A cut is made into the skin and the cut then rubbed with ash to allow a raised keloid scar to form. Historically the use of lip plates and scarification is what protected the women of the tribe from slavers and during wars with neighbouring tribes from rape.
The young women were magnificent. Tall with ebony skin that glowed, pride and self-confidence radiating from their very posture, they were far from shy. They approached my three girls with open curiosity, quickly pulling down the girls’ tops and bras to examine their breast and in particular their nipples and compare them to their own which were on open display. I have to say that I am very proud of the fact that my girls didn’t flinch or try to cover themselves up. They acknowledged the Mursi girls honest curiosity and gave it as due payment in exchange for them allowing us to visit them. It was actually somewhat surreal because we had come to visit them, thinking they were so exotic and unusual but they had exactly the same perspective of us.
Mursi grandmother with tusks no lip plate
Mursi Grandmother with Child on Back - no lip plate Photo by India d'Scarlett
Mursi woman grinding sorghum on a grinding stone with child on back
Mursi Woman Grinding Sorghum - notice the absence of the lip plate causes the lower lip to hang down  Photo by Russell d'Scarlett
The traditional food of the Mursi is a thick porridge made from sorghum flour and coffee which they brew from coffee bean peel. The actual beans are not seen as valuable. The Mursi are largely herders and cattle is their most valued possession, a measure of social status equalled only by owning an AK47 or Kalashnikovs which also help protect the herds from other thieving tribes.

The Mursi roam nomadically in search of the best pastures. In the dry season water is very scarce and the Mursi have to dig deep holes to reach underground water. Inside the low round  huts or tukuls, which are merely branches lashed together with strips if cow hide and covered in grass,  skins are laid out to sit and sleep on. A fire either outside the tukul or in the middle is where cooking is done. The Mursi like the other tribes have very few possessions and certainly no western possessions apart from their Kalashnikovs and the ubiquitous yellow plastic water containers seen all over Africa for fetching and storing water.
The members of the tribe are eager to show us their stick fighting techniques and two elders go at it, whacking each other’s sticks. They are just giving us a demonstration of their techniques but when it is done in serious ceremonies there is a lot at stake. The winner gets to choose the bride he wants. Stick fighting can be very brutal and even lethal.
Ritual stick fighting of the Mursi Tribe
Ritual stick fighting Photo by Dorit d'Scarlett
After we have met all the members of the tribe we are permitted to negotiate prices for taking photographs. The Mursi  make the most magnificently simple brass bracelets from melted down bullet casings, curved into a slight heart shape with small dot decorations on them. I negotiate for two of them. Once on my wrist they are not coming off and I have worn them ever since. Every day I look at them and think of my favourite Ethiopian tribe, the Mursi.
Headress of the Mursi Tribe
Beautiful Mursi woman in her own style headdress Photo by Russell d'Scarlett
This is the downside of westerners coming to visit the Mursi. They have no use for western goods but plenty of use for the cash to buy araki, a very strong alcohol, from the Arri tribe in Jinka famous for its making. It is widely known that visiting the Mursi in the afternoon is not a good idea. They have usually imbibed liberally of araki and become even more aggressive.
On Safari visiting the Mursi tribe
Me with my favourite tribe the Mursi Tribe  Photo by Russell d'Scarlett
I am so grateful that we spent time with the Mursi tribe while their culture is still intact. The bad news is that the Ethiopian government is building a road thru the land normally traversed by the Mursi complete with electricity. This will feed a massive sugar plantation on the very southern edge of the Omo Valley enabling the private contractors, rumoured to be Chinese investors, to build a massive sugar refinery and workers quarters housing 500,000. See The Gibe III Dam and the Large-Scale Commercial Irrigation Scheme to find out more. The government are pushing to move the Mursi into this permanent housing, making them workers and all under the guise of providing education and healthcare to them. The Mursi have escaped slavery for so many centuries and maintained their own unique and fascinating culture only to be threatened with a form of slavery and complete annihilation of their culture in this day and age. I can’t think of a single worse travesty than the death of this magnificent culture.