Mursi Tribe, Omo Valley

Way of Life

The Mursi tribe live in an almost inaccessible area between the Mago and Omo Rivers within the Valley. They are predominantly nomadic pastoral but they also engage in limited agriculture. Cattle are the Mursi tribe’s most prized possession. 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. Book your tour to Ethiopian Omo Valley Tribes with Omo Valley Travel, a local tour operator from Jinka, South Omo, SNNPR, Ethiopia.

The Mursi tribe are considered one of the wealthiest tribes 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 livestock.

Despite their reverence for cattle, the Mursi tribe 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 and consume different spices of wild edible plants with high nutritional values.

The staple diet of the Mursi tribe 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 tribe do eat meat, usually in times of drought or at ceremonial events.

Mursi Tribe Appearance

The Mursi tribe 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 tribe women reach adulthood and, therefore, reproductive age. Scarification is also practiced: a Mursi tribe 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, headdresses made from warthog tusks, and suchlike. The men can also be seen wearing bracelets made from ivory and elephant tail hair. They carry a large stick (Donga) which they use for fighting. This is, however, being replaced by the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle.

Types of Marriage By Omo Valley Ethiopia’s Mursi Tribe

The Mursi tribe have four types of marriage: arranged marriage, keimaweltabe – consensual marriage, ser – marriage through abduction, yehilma – marriage by inheritance.

Mursi Tribe Conflict / Disputes

The Mursi tribe 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. Check out our ONM Lower Omo community projects.