Surma Tribe, Omo Valley Tours, Omo Valley Tour and Travel

Way of Life

The Surma are agro-pastoralists who live in the lowlands to the west of the Omo bordering Sudan and live Surma live a similar lifestyle to the Mursi. As with the Mursi, cattle are invaluable to them. For both these peoples, it is the woman’s job to take care of the household and the land. Traditionally, their homes are constructed from wood and grasses, and most of the cooking takes place outside on an open fire. The young boys and unmarried men take care of the cattle. They spend much of the year in temporary grazing camps, returning to their established settlements for additional food and ceremonial events

Appearance

To the untrained eye it’s difficult to tell the Surma and Mursi apart. Their clothing, beautification processes of scarification, lip plates, hair design and jewelry are all similar. Like the Mursi, Surma girls are adorned with a lip plug from their mid-teens. A hole is pierced in the lower lip and plugged with a piece of wood until it heals. It is then stretched by the girl who repeatedly places larger wooden plugs in the hole until it is replaced by the clay plate. The Surma practice the art of body painting. Different clays are collected to acquire colors ranging from red, orange, yellow and white. They are mixed with a little water and painted onto face and body. The Surma are exceptional artists, although each design is both unique and only temporary. The Mursi practice this art to a lesser extent, but generally with less aptitude.

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Ceremonial Events

As with the Mursi, the Surma 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.

Enter-Tribal Disputes

The Mursi and Surma enjoy a peaceful relationship but this is not the case with their other close neighbors, their traditional enemy, the Nyangatom. The Nyangatom often join forces with the Toposa (from over the border in Sudan) for cattle raids on the Surma, leading to bloody disputes and frequent retaliation. The supply of automatic weapons has led to yet more bloodshed and violence. Recently, however, relationships have improved and there is now tentative trading between the tribes.

The Dizi ethnic group lives in the highlands around the towns of Maji and Hanna. They cultivate the land and are generally looked down on by the Surma because of their lack of cattle wealth. In the past the Surma wouldn’t think twice about pushing away their supposedly poorer neighbors but although the Dizi’s reputation hasn’t improved the bloodshed has finally waned.

The Surma are perceived as being gentler than the neighboring Mursi. They are friendly and hospitable to visitors, as well as not being quite so intimidating looking. This may be because they live in a more remote and less visited area to the west of the Omo River.

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