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.
|With the Mursi Tribe in the Lower Omo Valley of Ethiopia|
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.
|Our 4WD's at the Mursi village|
‘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 ||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
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.
|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|
|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
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.
|Painted lip plate and gourd headdress|| Photo by Russell d'Scarlett|
|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 Child on Back - no lip plate ||Photo by India d'Scarlett|
|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 ||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.
|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.
|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
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.