Along the Omo River valley in Ethiopia, one can find the women sporting enormous lip and ear plates. This unusual beauty standard of theirs has made them a popular tourist attraction. Mursi and Suri people live an egalitarian agro-pastoral life. Yet many of their girls readily decide to plug their lower lip with clay plates when they reach puberty. It requires a proper understanding of their culture to realize why someone would resort to such a drastic body modification.
The tale of the Mursi and their Surma family
The Mursi, or Mun as they refer to themselves, are a part of a larger ethnolinguistic group called Surma. Surmic ethnic group consists of the Suri subgroup, Mursi, Me’en, Kwegu and Majang people. It is the Suri and the Mursi people that wear their lip and ear plates among the Surma.
Surmic people in their oral tradition narrate how they migrated from the Sudanese-Ethiopian border to the present day Omo River Valley some 200 years ago. Despite facing hostilities from their neighboring tribes, over 11,000 Mursi and 32,000 Suri populate this region today.
Despite sharing many similarities with the Suri and often getting married to them, the Mursi identify themselves as a separate ethnic group under the Surmic branch. Some of the common practices and beliefs shared by the Suri and Mursi are-
- Enormous lip plates and ear plates are considered attractive ornaments for women. The bigger a woman’s lip plate, the more is she worth in terms of the cattle that she can get from her husband’s family.
- Women and men undergo scarification on their chest and arms, usually before marriage.
- Belief in Nature Spirits and a powerful sky deity called Tumwi/Tumu. Both tribes highly respect their priests who are responsible for communicating with spirits and making rains. Priests are not allowed to leave the land of Mursi as it is believed a great catastrophe would follow in the priest’s absence.
- Mursi and Suri tribes live on the opposite sides of the Omo river, in some of the remotest regions of Ethiopia. They practice an agro-pastoral life, where women garden nearby their houses and men tend to the cattle.
Lip plates and ear plates
Though labrets for lips and ears are not uncommon in many North and Central African countries, the lip plates that the Mursi and the Suri wear, are the most prominent because of the sheer sizes these plates can reach.
A girl’s lower lip is cut by her kinswomen when she reaches 15 or 16 and held open by a small wooden plug until it heals. In the following weeks, the size of the wooden plug keeps incrementing until the hole becomes big enough to insert a clay or wooden disc in the lower lip. A similar procedure is carried out for the ear plates that both women and men of these two tribes sport. Kinswomen cause a cut in the earlobes of children to insert wooden plugs and keep incrementing the size of plugs until the hole becomes big enough for inserting clay discs.
Contrary to popular opinion, these women do not wear their lip plates all the time. Unmarried girls and newlywed women wear them in the presence of men. They are generally worn on occasions such as serving men food, milking cows, and important rituals like weddings. Members of these tribes believe that having a lip plate will bring out the beauty of women by enhancing their elegance. Women move slower and keep their heads lower among men because of the weight of these plates. It also shows the commitment to have for their partners and on whose death, lip plates would be removed. They believe beauty dies when their life partner does.
Despite having such beliefs, Mursi and Suri lead an egalitarian life and women can choose to follow or not follow this painful initiation ritual. But many do choose to follow this ritual succumbing to peer pressure or to the money that tourists bring. Women try to look even more bizarre in the eyes of tourists by wearing elaborate headdresses and painting their bodies.
Scarification of bodies
Mursi and Suri people also adorn their bodies with beautiful but painful scars. Both men and women of these tribes get their chest and upper arms scarred with beautiful keloid patterns. Women undergo scarification with different patterns on their breasts, torso, stomach, back and face from the time of puberty to the birth of their firstborn. These scars are made with thorns and sharp razors.
The idea of beauty in some cultures can be jarring to others. But each culture is beautiful in its unique way. Mursi and the Suri have persisted despite dwindling populations and preserved their culture through these lip plates despite many hardships. Lip plates and other ornaments of these tribes not only keep their identity intact, but the money these women get by offering to be photographed by tourists, help them financially.
I am Akanksha, a budding blogger and a culture enthusiast. I’m in 12th pursuing science. Where my love for literature is undivided, my eagerness to continue studying culture and history brought me here.