Mursi woman with lip plates

Mursi boy with plugs

Amazing Plugs!

a new kind of do

the only way to carry a load


A TRIP to the MURSIx fromx the Lonely Planet

"Ok, ten minutes and then we're out of there," Abraha the driver said with great authority.

"Ten minutes? But why?" I asked.

"You don't know the Mursi. They are thieves," he said. "Thieves!" raising his voice for extra effect.

"Oh, come on, Abraha, opportunists maybe . . . "

"They would even take the shoes from your feet!" Abraha continued.

"You mean the shirt off your back? Well, no matter . . . but ten minutes?"

Abraha's attitude seemed typical of the Ethiopians' innate xenophobia - even towards fellow Ethiopians from a different ethnic group. We were off that day to the Lower Omo River in southern Ethiopia, home to several Nilotic - Omotic peoples including the Mursi, considered among the most fascinating and colorful tribes on earth.

"Of all them, the Mursi, they are the bad ones," Abraha continued. "And you know what?" Abraha looked away, deeply embarrassed. "They don't wear any clothing! The are savages!" he said raising his voice again.

I had seen photos of the Mursi; they were magnificent: unusually tall and dark, and quite naked except for a long spear or an AK-47 rifle slung over a shoulder. Scarification of the body was common, not just for ornamentation, but also to indicate prowess in battle and the number of enemies killed. Internecine warfare was still rife in this part of the world. Just two months ago, Galeb warriors had made incursions into Hamer territory to steal cattle; the Hamer then retaliated by invading Galeb territory. Around a dozen warriors were killed.

"And the women!" Abraha went on. "Plates. Plates!" he said pulling at his lower lip. Clay lip plates - often quite large - are a distinguishing feature of the Mursi women, inserted into slits in their lower lips. Anthropologists offer several theories to explain the practice: the lip plates are to deter slavers looking for unblemished girls, to prevent evil from entering the body by way of the mouth, or to indicated social status by showing the number of cattle required by the wearer's family for her hand in marriage.

Tradition remained remarkably intact here; undoubtedly because of the inaccessibility of the region. The journey had been long and arduous. From the outset, our party of two 4WDs had taken it in turns to tow each other out of the thick, glutinous mud. It covered everything - the cars, our clothing, faces, hair. Our knuckles and fingertips bled from constant digging. The heat was stifling too and swarms of tsetse flies bit mercilessly. Radiators boiled over, cooling pipes exploded, and tires punctured.

As we pulled into the first Mursi village at last, Abraha gave some final words of warning. "So, remember, we take off all watches, we lock all doors, and we stay awake. Ten minutes," he added firmly.

We left 3 hours later.

Our car had gotten stuck in the mud again. But the Mursi had proven to be a sociable, entertaining, and resourceful people with a fabulous sense of humor. As we left, Abraha in a dismal voice made an inventory of "things missed".

"One car aerial," he began.

"One lens cover," I joined in.

"One shovel."

"One Bic pen."

"Nearly one spare tire."

"Nearly one bra." (curious Mursi women)

"Some rope."

"Some hair from my head." (curious Mursi men)

Some shoes from the driver's feet.

"What?" I inquired.

It seemed Abraha's shoes had disappeared right under his nose as he lay them out to dry on the hood of the car.

"You see?" he said resignedly. "They take even the shoes from your feet."

Copyright 2001 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.