The Mursi tribe of Ethiopia lives in an almost inaccessible area between the Mago National Park and Omo National Park within the valley. They are predominantly nomadic pastoral but they also engage in limited agriculture. Cattle are the most prized possession in the Mursi tribe culture. They measure wealth by the number of cattle they own and men name themselves after the color of their favorite cattle. At the same time, women tend to be named after wild animals with interesting skin colors like giraffes, leopards, zebras, colobus monkeys, kudus, etc.
Despite their reverence for cattle, the Mursi tribe of Ethiopia also practices flood retreat cultivation and rain-fed bushland cultivation. 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, chickpea, 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 these unique people 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.
Mursi Tribe Lip Plates
They 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 on 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 in Mursi history, 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 Mursi 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 women reach adulthood and, therefore, reproductive age. Scarification is also practiced: a heart-shaped 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 Mursi 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.
Mursi Tribe Marriage
They 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. A dowry is usually several cattle (around 30–40) and, more commonly nowadays, a gun. This bridewealth 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.
There are four types of Mursi tribe marriages:
• Tokoto gama – arranged marriage
• Gama – consensual marriage
• Pisiyer – marriage through abduction
• Sermay – marriage by inheritance
Cultures of the Mursi Tribe in Ethiopia
Stick fighting called Donga takes place between the 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 Mursi language and culture are similar to the Suri and they believe they and the Suri are one people. Intermarriage is not unheard of. Their next nearest neighbors, both linguistically and geographically, are the Bodi and the Nyangatom, with whom there is intermittent hostility. They are generally a feared race and their reputation amongst tourists is no better. However, if you look beyond the surface you find 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.