Joanne Coughlan

23 September 2019

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The incredible people of the Mursi Tribe

You probably know them by sight if not by name – the Mursi is one of the most fascinating tribes in Africa, widely recognised for the clay plates the women insert into their lower lips and sometimes their ear lobes. The tribe lives in the Omo Valley, one of the most isolated regions of southern Ethiopia near the border with South Sudan. According to the 2007 census, there are 7,500 Mursi who remain one of the last remaining tribes in Africa still to wear traditional dress, accessories and their renowned unique and elaborate headdresses.

Perhaps the custom of the lip plate was initially intended to discourage slavers from taking Mursi girls but nowadays, it is a status symbol and a cultural tradition to mark rites of passage. A girl’s lower lip is cut by her mother or by another woman of her settlement when she reaches the age of 15 or 16. The cut is held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals. It appears to be up to the individual girl to decide how far to stretch the lip by inserting progressively larger plugs over a period of several months. Some, but by no means all, girls persevere until their lips can take plates of 12 centimetres or more in diameter. The biggest disks are 15cms wide and must be incredibly uncomfortable to wear. Indeed they take them out to eat and to work except, of course, when tourists arrive with money to pay for photos. With no disk in place, the lower lip hangs down like a deflated inner-tube. It’s incredibly disfiguring and ensures that Mursi women cannot move out of the tribal area. I photographed an attractive 14-year-old in a blue wrap, thinking sadly that she will degenerate into an object of curiosity as she grows older.

The Mursi men, on the other hand, resort to body paint to distinguish themselves from other tribes. There is obviously no nudity taboo as they wear the briefest of hip wraps that casually expose everything at the slightest breeze. We stopped to film a group of boys who were dressed in nothing but white body paint. A popular and aggressive activity with men is the stick-fighting ceremony, the donga, which is a ritualized form of violence.

It’s a shame that tourism has made the lip plates a source of income for these people and all on our Ethiopia trip felt uneasy that we were contributing to their fate.

Regardless of my mixed feelings about the Mursi people, everyone choosing to visit Ethiopia should include the Omo Valley on their itinerary. 

Blue Dot Travel offers small group tours to Ethiopia so you can travel with us to this fascinating part of the world. Click here for details.

By Margaret Farrell – one of our Blue Dot Travel regulars

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