The Mursi of the Omo Valley

Posted by Pat on February 1, 2018 in Travel |

30 January 2018

It is a morning of rutted roads and clouds of dust. It reminds me of childhood when faced with that long Thanksgiving drive to a meal with obnoxious relatives. You dread being around the bully cousin or the picky grandmother. I have heard so many horror stories about the Mursi tribe that I wonder “why go?” We have been given clear instructions about our visit, just like mama used to warn the kids to “behave, or else!”

Our two hour drive is uncomfortable, incredibly bouncy and choked with dust. Mostly the land is flat, scrubby savannah broken by acacia trees, herds of goats, and a different species of “furless” sheep. Forested mountains hover in the distance. A small family of baboons sit atop an escarpment, beautifully silhouetted against the sky. Bounce, dip, bounce and all is forgotten but the desire to hang on. Sometimes the road is in rough condition, sometimes  “road” is just an exaggeration.

We drive deeper into the Mago National Park, home to about 10,000 Mursi tribe people. What can I expect? Our guide describes my day as a “unique Mursi Tribal encounter.” I have read about the aggressiveness of the Mursi. I must pay for every person in every photo. I am told not to take photos of anyone along the roads – if we do not stop and pay them rocks will be thrown. I am desirous to meet the Mursi and learn of their ancient culture and traditions but such behavior tends to pale the experience.

Who are the Mursi?

The Mursi (or Mun) are a Nile region agro-pastoralist tribe which originated in South Sudan. Over 92% reside in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR) of eastern Ethiopia very close to the South Sudan border. They are of the Omotic speaking group. Surrounded by mountains between the Omo and Mago Rivers, the Mursi live in one of the most isolated regions of Ethiopia. From the stories I hear, they don’t get along with others and they practice cattle rustling. They sound like the “bad boys of the hood.” Just as well there is lots of land separating tribes.

Mursi cultivate land with maze and barley and breed their livestock as they continue to live almost in complete isolation from the world much as they have for centuries. Social status and bravery are important and property, mainly livestock, passes father to son. The Mursi marry within their own tribe and few ever leave. The man must pay a dowry for his bride and it is common to pay 40 cows for a good woman. Along with a good cow, guns are also prized by the tribe. A man could have his pick of women for cows and an AK-47.

An AK-47 (which can be seen about the village and roads) cost around five cows. It seems to have replaced the spear and owning one brings respect. Women would love to own one for certainly any such woman could demand respect.

The Mursi are considered Animists, believing in the supernatural power that animates the material universe, like plants and natural phenomena, with a soul. Their religious leader is the Kômoru, or Shaman, who inherits his position. Their “higher force” is the Tumwi, located in the sky, although sometimes seen as a sky event like a rainbow or bird. The Kômoru communicates between the community and Tumwi, especially when the tribe is threatened by events like drought, crop pests and disease. He performs public rituals to bring rain; to protect men, cattle and crops; and to ward off threatened attacks from other tribes. The second most influential person is the Jalaba, an informal political position representing the tribe.

Probably the Mursi are best known for their traditional rites and dress. Mursi are some of the last groups in Africa where its women practice the custom of expanding their lower lips using decorative wood or pottery disks. The elder decides when the girl may cut her lower lip in preparation for the plate. Usually this is between 16 and 18. Much pressure is placed upon the girls to maintain this tradition and the bigger the plate, the more beautiful and valuable the girl. The process also includes the removal of three or four lower teeth. The girl then lives in seclusion for 4-5 months while she heals. When she comes out of seclusion, there is much celebrating as she is now considered a woman. From then on, wood or clay plates gradually get larger and larger to continually expand the lip.

Photo courtesy of Josefina Ballestero

I read that the lip plate actually started back when the Europeans were slave trading. During that time, the more beautiful and strong the slave, the more valuable it was. The Mursi, to protect themselves, started disfiguring their faces and bodies with lip plates, earplugs, and scars so to be unattractive and lower their value to the Europeans – possibly escaping enslavement.

Today, it is not only tradition but also a moneymaker.

There may be a community spirit, but there is no sharing when it comes to photos. Mursi possess a different definition of beauty and the competition is fierce. The most beautiful woman will get the most photos and may be willing to share the limelight with another but never willing to share the Birr. Guides have tried to pay a sum to the village for the right to tour and photograph, but the Mursi are not willing to share 4000 Birr among the village. The woman want to be paid individually. It is 5 Birr per person per photo. Mama and baby earn 5 each. No exceptions. The women and children can get quite demanding for you to take their photo. The competition is fierce.

Women do take the plate out at night and for routine duties. However, for the public and special occasions, the plate is worn. The men want their women to have the plate and are willing to pay more for wives who wear one. Most don’t mind the woman’s propensity to drool. And yes, it looks incredibly uncomfortable and useless.

Women can also be seen wearing gigantic bull horns both on their heads and dangling from their ears. Many paint their bodies and faces. Some women are fully dressed while others are comfortable with uncovered breasts. Certainly the children are minimally dressed. The men can be seen sitting under the trees wisely letting their women do their thing. These are a tall people and the men look quite elegant in a colorful blanket draped over their shoulders, bathing trunks and spear. Occasionally I see someone with an AK-47. The blankets are mass produced and seem incredibly hot.

The men weren’t as adorned, but some do wear ear plugs and tunnels. There is some body painting on the young and I see much scarring on children, women and men. The scars resemble thick welts upon their backs, shoulders, arms and torsos. These scars, added intentionally, are a sign of strength. Many children also wear uniquely shaved and sculptured hair.

So what is to be believed about what I am seeing? Are these very primitive beehive huts of straw real or just for show? I am told the women dress especially for tourists as the more decorated, the more photos. At 5 Birr per photo, a Mursi woman can add a small sum of cash to the family’s coffee jar. Women ask for their photo, children try to attract my attention, women group for photos. It is hard to believe what I am seeing and even harder to understand its appeal. Eventually, I just point at the women I want to photograph and they happily pose for me then snatch the 5 Birr. The photo shoot goes smoothly, we spend our Birr, and we escape. I see the women heading back into the fields, not to the primitive huts but elsewhere. Going to get comfortable now that the silly tourists are gone? Probably.

Ceremonial dueling, a form of traditional male sparring, is a highly valued and popular activity of Mursi men, especially unmarried men. Donga dueling sticks are over six feet long and made of sturdy wood. The dueling is a serious flailing match and a means for men to prove themselves, and perhaps attract a mate. Young men will fight someone of another village and the winner gains much status. It is one on one with each attempting to protect any sensitive parts. Drinking cows blood and milk, dancing, singing and chanting builds their courage. But it is the alcohol which makes the sparring deadly serious and can result in injury or death.

This pastoral life is not without modern-day threats, beyond the AK-47, which is killing more young men than blows from the Donga sticks. The African Parks Foundation and government park officials are accused of coercing Mursi into giving up their land without compensaton, making them illegal squatters on their own lands within the boundaries of the Omo National Park. Their lives and livelihood are endangered.

But more than anything, it is their discovery by tourist that has wrought the biggest change. As a step towards survival, the Mursi declared their territory a community conservation area in 2008 and have begun a community tourism project. Kind of like out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Increasingly, these people are dressing and decorating their bodies, not for marriage and beauty, but to attract tourists in order to earn money. It is an argument that rages within me. I see the damage we tourists are doing to this culture as opposed to my desire to capture the colorful, unique people by modern technology. Initially shy, me more than them, once a camera comes out, bunches of Mursi will approach wanting their picture taken. It is almost too much as they compete for my attention, casting call style. Woe to the photographer who tries to sneak a photo and not pay. The Mursi are known as one of the more aggressive peoples among the tribes and this is evident. They want the money. I came prepared with many 5 & 10 Birr notes (about 15-30¢) so I can take everyone’s photo and just hand out the money. Does that make me an equal opportunity employer?

Usually anthropoligical/ethnological museums don’t excite me much. Today is different. I am in Jinka, home to just this sort of museum. The difference is that during my travels this week, I am meeting and experiencing some of the peoples and cultures of the Omo Valley who are discussed in this museum. For once, the subject will be up close and personal.

Maybe too personal. This museum is a research center sponsored by Germans who are studying the Omo Valley tribes. The research is fascinating and exceedingly depressing at the same time. The traditions of the tribes such as the Mursi and Hamar are not what an independent westernize woman can quite wrap her head around.

There are the usual artifacts representing the tribes including a type of carved headrest used by the Omotic tribes, spears, kitchen utensils and pottery. There are also several videos one can watch. The video we saw was about the men and their dueling Donga sticks. Some men wore protective head gear but others nothing much. Yet the battle was brutal. This is definitely not a game for the weak or timid. But it is the placards explaining the research that draw my attention.

The researchers invited a group of women from eight different Omotic tribes, including the Karo, Mursi, Hamar and Bashada. Interviewed were both unmarried and married women, old and young girls. The subject was the life of the woman within these tribes. Discussed were their traditions, treatment, duties, and expectations. The dialogue was straightforward and honest.

What struck me was the degree of servitude these women experience and accept. “A smart woman” waits on her husband and pleases him or she is beaten and that’s okay. It is shameful to let the village see you are not pleasing the man. Whipping is common and “deserved” if the woman does not perform her duties appropriately. One of her duties is to bear children and in a polygamist society, if she does not bear children then she will raise the children of a younger wife. The younger wife is to hand over her child and go get pregnant again.

The young unmarried girls know what is expected. If her father receives a dowry, the girl is to go with the man. If she hesitates, he can drag her away and whip her, basically into submission. It is a shame on the girl and her family if she does not cooperate.

The tradition of the lip plate was discussed. The girls do fear it and some desire not to cut their lip. However, community pressure is great. A few girls may choose not to do it, but the men want it and value them less. The same with female circumcision. This practice continues and all girls accept it as part of being a woman. Women even go so far as seeing the continuation of these traditions as “necessary.”

The first year of married life, the husband makes the woman’s life as difficult as possible. It appears he is training her how to be obedient and subservient to him. She removes his shoes when he comes home, prepares his food and lays with him. Any displeasure on his part and the whip is used. So she learns to try harder.

The women talked about the government trying to ban lip cutting and circumcision. The women themselves said they would agree but continue the practice anyway. Because that is how it has always been done and it is the expectation. Pain, cruelty, degradation and illogic aside.

There is no doubt tourism and exposure to westerners has already effected change in these tribes. Just witness the endless hands out and young children who learn “pen” and “money” as their sole vocabulary. Is it reality or is it a 45-minute stage show? I am torn between trying to lessen my impact here and helping their economy. It is a difficult dichotomy to resolve.

The Mursi – not as hostile or aggressive as expected but my western sensibilities are reeling.


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