If you imagine seriously-tribal-Africa – as it was 200+ years ago – then it still exists in south-west Ethiopia, in the Omo Valley. Human safari – stupid tourism, voyeuristic or not, I wanted to witness this aspect of humanity – before it’s gone.
The Mursi tribe are well-known for their women wearing lip-plates. Teenage women (not all, but most still) get their lower lip sliced and inserted is a clay or wooden lip plate, that progressively gets bigger as to stretch the lip and thus, prestige is often measured on who has the biggest lip plate. Size can substantially increase the value of the bride price.
The current bride price (according to our Mursi guide) is 38 cattle + a Kalashnikov AK-47 machine gun (usually bought from neighbouring South Sudan). Why guns? Well, before it was more traditional, but in recent decades guns obviously have an advantage in tribal conflicts.
The main conflicts are with rival tribes in the Omo – all who are also pastoralists, that is rising massive herds of cattle – not for hamburgers or sale or such, but as measures of wealth, much like westerners collecting classic cars, fine art or Rolex watches. Along with cattle stealing clashes, there also occur conflicts over grazing land, water access, and perceived insults.
This is an untamed land. Guns are used regularly. People are killed in tribal clashes. The central Ethiopian Government does not interfere (unless it threatens wider regional interests) and killers are left to be … Actually, it is totally normal, accepted, and off course heroic to kill your enemies (as it was centuries ago). Fighting to defend your cattle, your tribe, your honor. Warriors use body scarification and other symbolism to show how many enemies (or dangerous animals) they have killed.
[ I didn’t see this – but the Mursi are also famous for donga fights – severe, stick-fight beatings to prove manhood and eligibility for marriage. These days, it’s not to the death. ]
A rare and interesting fact (from Mursi guide) is: that unlike other tribes in the Omo Valley, who value virgin brides, the Mursi disdain such an idea. In fact, the only reason for divorce in Mursi culture is infertility on the wife’s part or being an inexperienced virgin. Young people are expected to play around and get experienced, before they find the right one, and settle. If a man cannot conceive, then his brother will help out. Apparently, infidelity within marriage is non-existent …
What is the future for the Mursi? Dunno … Safari tourism is moving in (only way to travel this region). Money has been introduced to a cashless society (foreigners pay for individual photos + village entrance fees, on top of vehicle hire, guide, etc). But largely, once your short visit is over, they return to their nomadic ways.
However, influence is creeping in: Christian NGOs are trying to stop the lip-plate tradition. Next, will they will be housed and reading bibles?
The Mursi group we visited, in a temporary-seasonal settlement, obviously had been exposed to foreigners before, yet it was a pleasant experience. They knew how to “dress-up” and pose for pics, sure. But also there were a few laughs, silly banter and cross-cultural playfulness.
All I can say that is after one week of travelling around the Omo Valley amid various tribes is that the Mursi visit was the highlight (although the Hamer stay and ceremony was also amazing). It was truly authentic – them and their lifestyle, yet as a visitor it was equally shallow, controlled, and voyeuristic. However, it was also unique, strange, mesmerizing. And in my opinion: unmissable.
Travels in Ethiopia – 2013