Photos and article written by Yusuf Hashim
Apart from Harar, The Danakil Badlands, the Afar Triangle, Lalibela and Erta Ale and Dallol Volcanoes in the North, a major destination for our PhotoSafari to Ethiopia in 2014, was to visit and explore the mysterious Surma lands, deep in the south-western belly of Ethiopia, where soggy and often impassable tracks, disease, tsetse flies, and the absence of civilized facilities, will deter most normal tourists from ever going there. The land and the tribal people that live here are rough and tough, and they do not always welcome visitors. Often rival tribes clash violently among themselves, and usually the root cause will be cattle stealing. In fact the first time the Suris allowed any outsiders to come into their villages was only about 30 years ago when a German explorer discovered them. We were fortunate to be able to enter their cattle camps and villages, only because my good Ethiopian friend knows a senior Suri tribesman who actually spoke reasonable English, which he learned from some missionaries working and living with the Suris.
Young men and boys are usually tasked with looking after the cattle herds of their families. The take the cattle to grazing areas often very far from their villages and they stay at cattle camps for long periods. They are usually stark naked.
Surma is the Ethiopian umbrella term for the Suri, the Mursi, and the Mekan people who live in the Omo National Park on the west side of the Omo River. They are semi-nomadic cattle herders whose lives revolve around their cattle. Their second most valuable possession is the Kalashnikov, or AK-47 often known as the widow-maker, and the favourite weapon of modern terrorists. Almost every adult male, and some females, all own and carry a Kalashnikov, which they use to defend their cattle herds from cattle thieves from other tribes. Usually the cattle are not eaten, except when they have a big ceremony or celebration. The cattle are used for milk and blood which they drink.
It was fascinating watching the process of bleeding a cow, collecting the blood, mixing it with milk, and drinking it. A major blood vessel of the cow is first punctured with an arrow fired from a small bow.
Then the wound on the cow’s neck is closed by rubbing something on it, and the blood is either mixed with milk or consumed direct from the bowl.
Like the Mursi, Suri women wear plates in their lips. At age 15 or 16, the girl’s lower lip is pierced by her mother or another woman and a simple wooden plug is inserted to keep the cut open until the wound heals. After that the plug is replaced with progressively larger plugs over a period of several months. The first clay plate is inserted when the diameter of the orifice is about 4 cm. It is a cruel and painful custom, because as bigger and bigger plates are inserted, often the four lower front teeth has to be broken to accommodate the plates. Thankfully, these days, the government is stepping in to discourage the Suris and Mursis from piercing their lips to wear lip plates, which are regarded as an expression of social adulthood and self-esteem for a Suri woman.
est all the feminists out there cry foul, they’ll be pleased to know that Suri men also subject themselves to body piercing. They pierce their ear lobes and insert plates into the openings too.
And both Suri men and women endure scarification in a demonic belief that a scarified body is beautiful.