The Ethiopian South (continued)

The Mursi
The second of the southern tribes we visited were the Mursi. Compared to the Hamer (see previous blog), who number around 30,000, the Mursi population is very small, around 5000. Their way of life and existence, along with those of other small tribes in the area, are under direct threat from the construction of the huge Gibe III hydroelectric dam, upstream on the Omo River, due to be completed this year, which will deprive them of the annual flood waters on which they depend. The Lower Omo Basin where they live will be planted with sugar, and within a few years it seems inevitable that this culture will be extinct, or simply “museified” as a tourist spectacle. Thirty years ago, these people had no idea that they were part of Ethiopia, had no knowledge of money or the modern world. Now development is about to roll over them, as it continues to do inexorably all around the world. To see them while their way of life is still a reality, albeit altered by tourism and politics, is a privilege, though one occasionally tinged with queasiness and unease.

The Mursi was the group that – on the basis of previous travellers’ tales – we were most chary of meeting. We were told that they have embraced their own self-commodification with the greatest enthusiasm, not just agreeing to be photographed for money, but demanding it, often aggressively. And while elsewhere in Ethiopia, the going rate for a photograph, though negotiable, is usually one or two birr, the starting price for the Mursi is 5 birr, payable not in the smelly, faded, crumpled and often carefully mended bills that are happily accepted elsewhere in Ethiopia, but in brand-new notes, only obtainable in exchange for dollars at the last bank before entering the South Omo region… so after a trip to the bank we picked up our guide and were off.

The drive took us across dusty plains and lush mountains before returning to more dusty plains carved by surprisingly full rivers. We passed through agricultural lands where simple ox-pulled hand ploughs are the nearest you get to a machine, cattle and carts the other road users (spot the lady driver!) – and the occasional roadside café (and why did the guinea fowl cross the road?). Throughout this region we saw children providing entertainment for drivers in the hope of cash returns. Bizarre but energetic dancing and stilt walking were particular favourites!

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While the warnings of Mursi financial expectations proved to be true, we were relieved that our human interactions with them were quite friendly, for which we in large part have our guide to thank. On this occasion he was a lad in a baseball cap who looked as if he should still be in school, and appeared to fall asleep the moment he got into our vehicle. However, he came into his own once we arrived at the village, giving us the excellent advice to put cameras away and walk around, just observing and listening. We were taken directly to meet the chief of the village, a large, somewhat intimidating but surprisingly youthful figure, whom we found talking with his advisers and chewing on a piece of barbecued meat, near a smouldering fire on which lay a charred ox skull. He welcomed us courteously, though we declined his offer of a spare rib to chew on. Mitiku, in particular, seemed to establish a friendly relationship, since the chief, unusually, spoke some Amharic.

The male rite of passage among the Mursi is a face-to-face battle with wooden poles, around two metres long, which are held near the base with the aim hitting one’s opponent with the shaft (never the point) hard enough to knock him over, something like the quarterstaff fights immortalized in the legends of Robin Hood. For young Mursi males, these ceremonial duelling sessions between men from different local groups, are an opportunity to impress unmarried girls. We didn’t see one of these contests and don’t know if tourists are invited to observe, as we had had the opportunity to do at the “Hamer” bull jumping.

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Apropos of the queasiness we mentioned, you may not have heard of the Mursi, but you will probably have seen photos of their best-known cultural practice – the “lip plates” worn by the women. Around the age of 15, girls will have a small incision made in their lower lip, held open by a small plug. Gradually, larger and larger plates are inserted to stretch the skin, until in some cases plates with a diameter of up to 6 inches can be worn. While a plated lip exerts a certain weird aesthetic fascination, the sight of the unplated skin, left hanging or apparently stretched over the back of the head for convenience, is an all too vivid reminder of thinginess of mortal flesh. We heard 2 stories about why lip plates are worn – needless to say, both about attraction. The first is to beautify – the bigger the lip plate, the better the dowry at marriage. The second – the opposite – to uglify – to put off would-be adulterers or slave traders. The anthropological consensus, however, is that, like many other traditions (neck tie, anyone?), it evolved through cultural transmission, becoming hypertrophied in the process. Unlike other disfigurements carried out in the name of culture or religion, it seems that the lip plate is not a requirement, and we were told that, as their contact with the outside world increases and they become aware that their appearance is not universally admired, many Mursi girls today are choosing not to undergo the procedure. Seeing them in town, away from their villages, they looked a sorry sight to us with their lower lips dangling emptily.

Both men and women of the Mursi tribe also have their bodies decorated with elaborate, swirling patterns of scarring, made with thorns, this time more of a wince than a cringe… So we enjoyed a casual walk around the village, which was a relief, but when it came to photographs the Mursi adopted formal poses. They appeared to have formed their own ideas about which photographs would go down well. The men formed a line leaning on their duelling sticks and the women, often amazingly decorated, stood face on frequently with children at their breasts, posing with and without their lip-plates. Nobody smiled but who does when sporting the ultimate in body art? They knew exactly who had taken whose photo, so reimbursement was dealt with efficiently. Despite the lack of opportunity to capture a more informal record of the people and context, this was – at least in retrospect – another fascinating encounter with the radically “other”.

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If you would like to know more about the Mursi, there is an excellent Oxford University website: http://www.mursi.org/.

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

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