Art, Culture, Books and Travel

The Mursi tribe in Southern Ethiopia

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Apart from ancient monuments, mountains and national parks, Ethiopia has got various, unique and fascinating indigenous tribes. South of the capital city Addis Ababa, we arrived in the Omo valley, which is home to the Banna tribe, the Mursi, the Kara, the Bumi, the Chai, the Bodi, the Konso, the Hamer and the Aari. These tribes are still preserving their culture and could not let us into some of their villages.They have their own languages and very few could speak to our guide Bob in Amharic which is the national language of Ethiopia. Omo valley is one of the most isolated regions of Ethiopia and to get there, we had to hire a four wheel drive truck with an experienced driver and a guide.

The sun was overhead and it was getting hot for me but I cared less as I had a dream – to see the people of the Mursi tribe.They are really unique and they took my breath away when I set my eyes on them.The mursi women wear big plates on their lower lips made out of clay, known as dhebi, a tugoin and barely nothing to cover their chest. The plate adornment begins at the age of 15 or 16 which symbolises both social and biological adulthood. “It’s a painful process since it involves piercing the lip and removal of the bottom teeth to enhance the plates.Blood is lost and wounds take a while to heal”, explains Nabucoy, a young mursi woman.The plates are removed while eating and then the lips are left to hang down. Some women put a metalic jewel.According to what I saw, the lips and ears are pierced, cut and pulled down with heavy disks and jewelry.

These plates are a symbol of beauty  for the mursi tribe and also play a very big role in marriage.”The bigger the plate, the more beautiful the woman is,” explains Bob.” If a mursi girl wears a bigger plate,chances of attracting a man for marriage are very high. And the bigger the plate she can carry, the more cattle her family can expect as bride price when she gets married.”

The same plates were used as protection from slave traders who used to come from southern Sudan. Haki(70) narrates that a long time ago, tall men with strong weapons could attack them in the night. “Though we were strong, we could be defeated sometimes and then our young women and men would be taken as slaves.Our elders then decided  that piercing(cuting) the lips, ears for both men and women, face and body painting, would make us look ugly for our enemies. Then after many decades of doing it, it became part of our culture up to date.”

The Mursi tribe is also known for being one of the strongest and harshest tribes in Africa. They are famous for their stick fighting though some of the men were carrying guns.They are so proud to be who they are. Nabucoy, a young woman goes on to explain that, they can do without the money that is paid to them by tourists for photo shots. “If we have food shortage especially during droughts, we do barter trade with our neighbours. We walk to Jinka on wednesdays which is a market day and exchange live stock for corn,sugar and salt.We are so blessed by the Omo river which we depend on for livelihood.When it floods, we grow beans, maize and sorghum.We keep goats, sheep and cattle which provide us with milk, meat, blood and hides for clothing.Nabucoy amazed us when she explained how they get blood from the animals in small portions without slaughtering them. It is then mixed with milk before drinking. This keeps us healthy,strong and resistant to diseases.”

When asked if she has ever been to school or if  she goes to church or prays, Nabucoy’s answer was no. She has never been to school and neither have any of the villagers but she can count money. She says, “most of us believe in nature but a few are christians”. The Mursi have never accepted to be counted because their culture doesn’t allow them to, but their population is estimated to be around 3900.

As we drove back to the city, I felt so happy deep in my heart for meeting such great people.

by Roselyne Munyenye Princess



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