The Mursi tribe live in an almost inaccessible area between the Mago and Omo Rivers. They are predominantly pastoral but they also engage in limited agriculture. They live in approximate area of 1,900 square kilometers with an approximate population of 7,500. The altitude of Mursi territory varies from 460 meters to 1666 meters having semi-arid to arid climate. They have 12 clans.
Way of life of the Mursi Tribe
Cattle are the Mursi’s most prized possession. They measure wealth by the number of cattle they own and name themselves after the color of their favorite cattle. They measure wealth by the number of cattle they own and men name themselves after the color of their favorite cattle while women tend to be named after wild animals with an interesting skin colors like giraffe, leopard, zebra, colobus monkey, kudu, etc. The Mursi tribe of Omo Valley Ethiopia are considered one of the wealthiest ethnic groups in the area as they own greater numbers of cattle.
Virtually every significant social relationship, most notably marriage, is marked and validated by the exchange of cattle. The dowry is usually a number of cattle (around 30-40) and, more commonly nowadays, a gun. This bride wealth is given to the bride’s father by the groom’s family. For this reason, female children are seen as a blessing because they will eventually contribute to their father’s wealth. This doesn’t mean that male children are any less important as they will be responsible for looking after the animals. Despite their reverence for cattle, the Mursi also practice flood retreat cultivation and rain-fed bush-land cultivation. It has been suggested that if they were to be denied access to the Omo River they could only survive by becoming dependent on food aid. Their main crop is sorghum, but they also grow maize, beans, chick-peas and tobacco. They are also known to hive bees for honey.
The staple diet of the Mursi is a kind of dry porridge made from sorghum or maize. This is supplemented with milk and blood (taken either directly from a wound made into the neck of their cattle, or stored in a calabash gourd). Although it is uncommon, the Mursi do eat meat, usually in times of drought or at ceremonial events.
The Mursi tribe of Omo Valley Ethiopia are a tall, striking race, with an aggressive reputation. The men only wear a blanket tied over one shoulder, the women a similarly fashioned goatskin. Both sexes cut their hair very short and shave designs into it. The women are famed for wearing large plates in their lips (round clay plates placed into a cut in the lower lip) and ears. There is much controversy surrounding the origins of the lip plate, ranging from ‘disfigurement to discourage slave raiders’ (National Geographic magazine, Sept 1938) to having it as an object of beauty.
It has often been suggested that the size of the lip plate correlates to the amount they are ‘worth’ in terms of bride-price. These theories have, generally, all been rejected on good evidence. It probably signifies when the Mursi women reach adulthood and, therefore, reproductive age. Scarification is also practiced: a common design is usually found on the left shoulder of the men and announces their passing into adulthood. The small dots that make up the scar are made with a razor blade. Dirt is then rubbed into the wound to make it stand out. The women have similar designs across their chests. They wear a lot of jewels, mostly metal armbands, bracelets and anklets. Particularly during festivals, the women also adorn themselves with animal skins, head dresses made from warthog tusks, and suchlike. The men can also be seen wearing bracelets made from ivory and elephant hair. They carry a large stick (Donga) which they use for fighting. This is, however, being replaced by the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle.
The Mursi have four types of marriage:
- tokoto gama -arranged marriage
- gama -consensual marriage
- gnisiye- marriage through abduction
- sermay-marriage by inheritance
Ceremonial Event of Omo Valley Ethiopia’s Mursi Tribe
Stick fighting called Donga takes place between the Mursi men. A long wooden pole is used in combat by the two men. Holding the stick at one end, opponents strike blows at each other. It is a dangerous, fierce and artistic confrontation. The same event is practiced by the Suri tribe. As with the Suri, the Mursi tribe practice ritual stick fights or Donga. A long wooden pole is used in combat by the two men. Holding the stick at one end, opponents strike blows at each other. It is a dangerous, fierce and artistic confrontation. The fights are held so that young men can prove themselves to the girls and find a wife. But they’re more than just a place to meet. Dongas can be used to settle disputes between individuals, clans or even whole villages. Dongas can take place at any time of the year but they are most common during and after the rains when food is plentiful. Referees monitor the fight and keep the spectators at a safe distance. The fighters are adorned with protective clothing, usually woven shields over the fingers of one hand, as well as on the knees, shins and elbows. A helmet is often fashioned from the same woven material.
Conflicts / Disputes
The Mursi are culturally and linguistically similar to the Suri and they believe they and the Suri are one people. Inter-marriage is not unheard of. Their next nearest neighbors’, both linguistically and geographically, are the Bodi and the Nyangatom, with whom there is intermittent hostility. The Mursi tribe are generally a feared race and their reputation amongst tourists is no better. However, if you look beyond the surface you find an inquisitive, audacious, jovial and welcoming people. Even in this most remote and inhospitable place there is resoluteness about the people – perhaps it derives from their simple determination to survive – and yet, underlying this tough exterior, is a lighthearted and frivolous community.