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The Mursi of Ethiopia: One of Africa’s Most Captivating Cultures

Africa is blessed with a rich heritage and blend of exemplary peoples’ and cultures. Each region has a variety of distinct cultures and among these is the beautiful tribe of The Mursi of Ethiopia.

The Mursi tribe found in southern Ethiopia are mostly nomads who live in the lower parts of Africa’s Great Rift Valley also called the Omo Valley. They live side by side other tribes who don’t want outside interference and are a relatively self-sufficient people.

Landscape over southern Ethiopia

Landscape over southern Ethiopia – Marc Veraart/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The beautiful people of Mursi have their own language called “Mursi” which is “Surmic” in other languages. They are about 200,000 in population and live an egalitarian lifestyle where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. Although the Mursi people are perceived to be aggressive, on closer assessment, this could be explained as a reaction to exploitation from tourists and invaders.
The Mursi tribe maintain an ancient way of bartering and sharing goods with other tribe members. For instance, the Mursi clan barter photographs of themselves with tourists for razor and other basic materials they deem essential.

Beauty In Peculiarity

One amazing and distinctive feature of the Mursi tribe is their dressing. They put on ornaments of different kinds and tattoo their bodies with ash after which patterns are drawn on them. Like the Himba tribe of Namibia, they rub their entire body with clay to protect their bodies against the harsh weather conditions of the arid region and as a form of beautification.

Since most of them are bald including women, headgears made from dry plant, bones, insects, wood and clay are worn. These headgears beautify their attires. Oftentimes, cow horns are even worn.

Mursi Dressing Accesories - (1) - Limboko ... (2)- Mursi Woman, Mago-Rod Waddington/Flickr -- CC BY-SA 2.0.jpg

Mursi Dressing Accessories
Limboko(2)– Mursi Woman, Mago-Rod Waddington/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Peculiar also to the Mursi people is a certain smell. A mixture is made from dead plants and other secret ingredients and applied to their bodies to give them a unique smell. It is believed that this smell does more than accentuating their appeal, rather, it also help to ward off parasites.

The most distinctive and unique feature of the Mursi clan is the wearing of lip plates by their women. These lip plates or saucers are made from clay and are traditionally called “dhebi a tugoin”. According to Godman Oche, an African writer, he explained that like other forms of body decoration and alteration in the world (like ear piercing, tattooing, and circumcision), the lip plate worn by Mursi women is best seen as an expression of social adulthood and reproductive potential. It is a kind of ‘bridge’ between the individual and society – between the biological ‘self’ and the social ‘self. It is part of the “rites of passage” from adolescence to womanhood. This is done by removing the two lower teeth and inserting a hole in the lower lip. This is allowed to heal for about a month (healing balms are applied). Clay disc is then inserted progressively until it is about 12 centimeters long.

This lip disc is believed to accentuate their beauty as well as increase their status and wealth. Is is however the choice of teenage girls to have their lips pierced. Obviously, like all teenagers, they feel some degree of peer pressure, but many girls marry happily without piercing their lips, even if they sometimes change their minds and decide to go ahead with the process after they have had one or two children. So the motivations are complex.

It is often claimed that the size of the lip plate is correlated with the size of a woman’s bride price However, David Turton, a writer has argued that this not to be the case. For example, the marriages of many girls have already been arranged, and the amount of bride price to be paid by their husbands’ families has already been decided, before their lips are cut. Another common idea is that the practice of cutting and stretching the lower lip originated as a deliberate disfigurement, designed to make women and girls less attractive to slave traders. This ignores the fact that the Mursi themselves do not give such an historical explanation.

A Culture Of Ritualized Violence

Donga is a stick fighting ceremony for men in Mursi. It is a form of ritualized violence to prove their masculinity. Often times, these fights are engaged to prove love for a lady. It is also known as Zagne; donga is the name of the stick and the fight itself. It is also a way through which warrior’s get girlfriends or settle dispute. Through the donga, courage, virility and resistance to pain is shown to the female folks. It is engaged in by about 20.-30 people on both sides. Recently, it has been discovered that the Mursi young men seldom engage in stick fighting.

(1) & (2)- )Mursi Warriors, Ethiopia with donga -Rod Waddington /Flickr -CC BY-SA 2.0

(1) & (2)– )Mursi Warriors, Ethiopia with donga -Rod Waddington /Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0

The Mursi clan also engage in what is known as “scarification”. This is a ritual performed by slicing the skin with a razor after lifting it with a torn. It is left to heal and the scar remains. Also, after killing an enemy, a scar is deliberately put on a warrior’s body to show bravery. They pride themselves by the number of scars they have. Although this ritual is extremely painful, it is done as a way of adapting the younger children to be fearless and brave. It is also a way of adapting to the harsh conditions of the Great Rift Valley.

Decorative Scars- Mursi Tribe, Ethiopia - Rod Waddington/Flickr -- CC BY-SA 2.0

Decorative Scars- Mursi Tribe, Ethiopia – Rod Waddington/Flickr — CC BY-SA 2.0

The incredible people of the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia is one of the many rich cultural offerings Africa has in store. Their peculiar cultural practices make them a major tourist attraction in Ethiopia.

The Conversation

Male Warriors of the Mursi Clan

Male Warriors of the Mursi Clan

[Header image]Bryan_T/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Moderate adaptive changes were made to the original creativecommons images in this article to suit swaliafrica media specifications

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