Under the cover of the secluded Omo Valley in the southwestern part of Ethiopia, lie simple people who live simple lives. Meet the Mursi Tribe, a community composed of roughly 10,000 people. With their lifestyle surrounding the livelihood of raising cattle, they are nomads, moving from one place to another as their livestock graze the land. Lush-green trees and sandy soil surround their village. Huts made from mud, dried leaves and twigs lie scattered around the camp’s clearing. In nine to eighteen months, they will set off again to find a new settlement after their cows finish off the vegetation in the area.

The Mursi Tribe’s famous lip plates

Meet the Mursi Tribe a nomadic community in Ethiopia

Portrait of a Mursi woman wearing the symbolic clay plate they are famous for.

But one thing that sets them apart from other indigenous groups, as well other people from around the world is their colorful tradition of wearing painted clay plates in their lower lip. And by “into” we mean that the plates are applied into the area of the lower lip, as it is punctured and allowed to heal over time. This is one peculiar adornment that most of their women subject themselves to. We will delve more into detail with that later.

History and culture of the Mursi Tribe

Why they’ve developed this tradition is still up to speculation. Many have thought that perhaps the men from the tribe wanted to make sure that the women looked uninteresting to the slavers, an origin rooting from colonialism. Though the Mursi men seem to not think the same as this tradition still persists up until now.

Related: Exploring the colorful culture of Kenya’s Rendille Tribe

Meet the Mursi Tribe a nomadic community in Ethiopia

The bigger the lip plate the more beautiful the woman is considered.

Another usual thought is that the lip plates increase bride wealth, but this has been disproven as the women are already promised to their perspective partners beforehand. The amount to be paid by the husband’s families is agreed upon even before they decide to start wearing their lip plates.

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These lip plates, named dhebi a tugoin, are also being worn by two other known tribes: the Chai and Tirma. The Kayapo of Brazil also has this type of traditional adornment, except it is the senior males who wear it. The choice on whether a girl should wear these adornments lies with the girl herself, proving the idea that the Mursi are an egalitarian community in a lot of areas. Some girls feel a bit of peer pressure but some marry without going through the process. Some decide to do it after having children, and so the motivations are complex and depend mainly on the women.

Meet the Mursi Tribe a nomadic community in Ethiopia

Mursi tribes woman with her lip plate.

Like other forms of body adornments and alteration seen among different cultures, the Mursi lip plates can be best thought of as a symbolic expression of social adulthood and reproductive potential. Culture-wise, the integration of the individual as an adult to society is one of the important milestones in their life.

The Mursi Tribe lip plate process… ouch!

At the age of fifteen or sixteen, a girl’s lower lip is cut by her mother or another woman in the village. It is then held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals, which usually starts out with a one-centimeter diameter. The girl decides how far her plates should be stretched, and this is done by progressively increasing the size of the wooden plugs over a period of several months. The girl would be the one to find wood and carve her own wood plates.

Meet the Mursi Tribe a nomadic community in Ethiopia

Mursi tribe woman’s side profile.

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No doubt, the lip plate process is drawn out and very painful, taking some serious motivation to go through with, particularly for the girls who achieve the size of twelve centimeters or more. However, although the initial 3-6 months are painful, once the lip has healed with the help of herbal ointments, there is no pain involved. It does inevitably affect their speech, but somehow not their ability to communicate and sing. On the plus side, the Mursi Tribe lip plates are said to affect their gait and give them a certain grace as they slow the women down.

Mursi tribes men

Meet the Mursi Tribe a nomadic community in Ethiopia

Portrait of a Mursi man. Mago National Park, Omo River Valley, Ethiopia

As for the Mursi men, they have a tradition of going into ceremonious battle against men from other villages. Only armed with a two-meter stick named a donga, they clash amongst each other. These battles sometimes last for days and as with all things violent, blood is sometimes shed. The Mursi tribesmen adorn themselves with decorative scars to look more battle-ready. For these people, becoming a living embodiment of art and self-expression is important in their development as a person and as a part of the community.

Meet the Mursi Tribe a nomadic community in Ethiopia

A group of Mursi Tribe boys.

The downside of tribal tourism

The Mursi Tribe’s traditional looks with their jewelry, colorful clothing, the Mursi men’s scar tattoos and of course the women’s lip plates are all a sight to behold. They are wonderful people with their own unique set of traditional aesthetics and rituals. With that, tourists often visit them to see their lives up close, and to catch a real-life glimpse of the famous lip plates. And these tourists bring money. The entrance fee, travel costs, travel guide and scout fee can easily empty out a tourist’s pocket and there are no guarantee’s that the tourist’s guide will distribute the money fairly amongst the tribe.

Meet the Mursi Tribe a nomadic community in Ethiopia

The Mursi Tribe, Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

The influx of tourists has affected how these people live. Money that the tourists provide helps them buy goods and weapons from nearby sellers. In the early 2000s, when Westerners started touring around the Mursi lands, the tribes’ people realized that they could market their looks and pictures for money.

Meet the Mursi Tribe a nomadic community in Ethiopia

Resourceful kids from the Valley of the Omo River begging for money on the road.

In truth, the cash that they earn when selling their pictures per-person and even for group photos has more profit as compared to breeding cattle. In a press of a button, they get instant cash. This lucrative new way of living has discouraged them from doing traditional work. Agriculture and livestock raising seems unappealing to them now. And there were some reports that even their lip plates are now largely made in China.

Guns & schnaps

The Mursi men usually spend their earnings on guns from neighboring countries such as Kenya and Sudan. Alcohol is also a new import that the people often buy with their money. In fact, they are known for their alcohol-induced behavior and so visitors come to the villages with caution and protection from scouts. Areke, a maize-based drink that the people brew, is a common beverage consumed around the place. Schnaps and Western alcoholic drinks are also available.

Mursi Tribesman

A Murci tribesmen from Omo Valley, Ethiopia with his AK-47 which is used to protect themselves from other tribes stealing their cattle.

A dying tradition?

Their way of life is now prone to being forgotten. With this decline, it is concerning to think how the next generation could still learn and develop the old ways of their tribe. The way that their culture is being treated by tourists right now incurs the higher possibility that they would decline in their development. Without tourism and its financial aspect, perhaps the people could have adapted to the way of living in cities and assimilated into the modern lifestyle of today. Perhaps the children would be more inclined to go to school, and the adults would have been more eager to accept jobs around the area.

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These people are a wonder of traditional beauty, ideas and lifestyle. If visiting them, please respect their customs and lifestyle. We can only hope that their traditions live on and their people develop themselves to keep up with modern society, all the while not forgetting who they are as people – the unique Mursi of Omo Valley.

Have you visited the Mursi Tribe yourself or would you consider doing so in future? Share your own experiences and thoughts on the subject in the comments section below.

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Meet the Mursi Tribe a nomadic community in Ethiopia

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