Mursi People

It was late afternoon when we arrived in a market town, Jinka, in southern Ethiopia. I wanted to visit a Mursi village right away and asked Ephrem whether we could do that. He was hesitant. He said that perhaps it was not a good idea to do it so late in the day. We would have to drive for a while on a dirt road and it would get dark when we get there. The area was isolated and driving at night would be risky. He said we might get robbed or even killed. I thought that Ephrem would know better what to do and agreed with him that it would be better to leave early the next morning.

We left the lodge at 7 am. It was not long when our car was stopped by two men in military uniforms. They spoke with Ephrem in Amharic. The guys were getting aggressive and yelled at Ephrem. My driver screamed back at them as he got his papers. The heated conversation lasted ten minutes. In the end, the men apologized to me in English and angrily left. I asked Ephrem what was going on. He reassured me that there was no reason to worry. I found out that the entire argument was about permission to be in that area and that they wanted us to hire a local guide for safety reasons.

Finally, we were headed to Mursi land. The Mursi people live in southern Ethiopia in a region bordering on South Sudan. There are approximately 10,000 of them living in the area surrounded by mountains between the Omo and the Mago rivers.Ethiopia occupied the land in the 19th century during the reign of Emperor Menelik II. Mursi history goes back some 150 to 200 years. They speak the Mursi language which is closely related to the Me’en, Suri, and Kwegu languages. 

We were driving on a dirt road again. The sun came up and it got warmer. Ephrem looked nervous. He was quiet and didn’t speak a lot. I asked him about Mursi women and their famous lip plates, the reason why Mursi woman cut their lips to insert a plate into the lip. Ephrem explained to me that the clay plates were originally used by the Mursi to prevent capture by slave traders. After that it became a tradition and expression of social status. The bigger a clay plate was, the more the woman wasworth, and the more cows her father could get when the woman got married. Ephrem also told me that the Mursi were not the friendliest people. Their men usually carry Ak47 machine guns. The Mursi men love fighting. They even have a ritual called Dongaa-stick, a fighting competition. The weapon is an approximately six feet hardwood pole which is gripped at its base with both hands. The left hand is above the right in order to give maximum swing and leverage. The fighter hits his opponent with the pole with the intention of knocking him down. Usually the fighters are unmarried men. The winner is carried away on a platform of poles, where a group of women is waiting for him.

After driving for about two hours, Ephrem made a stop. We got out of the car. Ephrem told me to follow him. After walking for about 10 to 15 minutes, maybe twelve yurt-like huts appeared in the middle of nowhere. We arrived at the Mursi village. We slowly approached a group of men who sat in the shade of a big tree. Ephrem greeted them in Amharic. I continued exploring the village.

The huts stood on a small opening. They were made of sticks and hay with only one small door, big enough for a human to get in. Women were cooking around a fire place. Some wore lip plates and some didn’t. Children joyfully played around them. As I walked among the huts I noticed a group of kids following me. I had candies that I eagerly shared with them. One of the kids touched my hand and with amusement pointed at my hairy hands. Obviously, he couldn’t believe his eyes that I had so much hair. 

When Ephrem came to tell me that I had permission to take photos, I asked him why some woman did not have lip plates. He told me that nowadays some Mursi women decide not to cut their lips. And that it is common to see Mursi women without a clay plate.

One Mursi man asked me if I wanted to try their locally made hard liquor called araki. He poured the drink into a mug and I chugged it. The drink was so strong I felt like I just inhaled fire. My eyes teared up. Everybody laughed, and the man asked me if I wanted another drink. I politely declined trying to recover from the first drink.

We spent a few hours walking around and talking with the Mursi. As I was exploring life in the Mursi village, I was pondering how long it would take modern technology to infiltrate their traditional lifestyle. Would they ever change how they live or would they maintain their lifestyle and traditions forever? Who knows?

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