|With the Mursi Tribe in the Lower Omo Valley of Ethiopia|
|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 tribe.
|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.
|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.
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 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|
|Beautiful Mursi woman in her own style headdress||Photo by Russell d'Scarlett|
|Me with my favourite tribe the Mursi Tribe||Photo by Russell d'Scarlett|