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The Mursi Tribe - Omo Valley
The Mursi are one of the most famous tribes from the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. The
main reason for their popularity is the fact that their women wear large clay plates in their lower
lips. This draws hordes of tourists, who come here in pursuit of getting photographs of
’primitive’ people that nobody else has. The Mursi themselves do not like it: ”they are coming to
take pictures of us, as if we were monkeys in a Zoo”, they told us when we asked.
As a reaction to this plight, they have learned to play it rough with the tourists, who arrive at the
nearest village, about three hours from Jinka, by Land cruiser. Then the Mursi crowd the tourists
and are ’rough’ and ’bad’. It works perfectly, even the tour guides from Addis fear them. Also,
they are all in their best ’finery’ - the stranger and more unusual is their decoration, the higher
price they can demand for the photos.
Authenticity is often deferred (even in the books of famous photographers one can find Mursi
portrayed with cow horns on their heads, etc.). The star attraction are the women with the biggest
lip plates, but children painted with colourful clays also demand attention, trying hard to get
some hand-outs, or even bluntly stealing. After about 15 minutes most tourists have had enough
of being pushed and hard-bargained about money. The pictures taken like this are seldom any
good, but they have some, so they jump back in their Land Cruiser and leave, scared out of their
wits. When they get back to their hotel in Jinka, scary tales are told about how the Mursi are
dangerous and bad.
A part of the problem is that most tourists will have paid a lot of money to a travel agency in
Addis Ababa to visit the Mursi. But from this money the Mursi themselves will get absolutely
nothing. Those few Birr (1USD was about 12 Birr in 2010) for the photos which they so
aggressively demand is their only reward. The guides are usually Ethiopians from Addis Ababa,
who don't know and surely don't want to know anything about the Mursi. They look down at
them, treat them as ’primitives’, and spread the tribe's bad reputation even more.
The truth - as is often the case - is very different. When we walked through the Mursi territory
we learned that although they are certainly very wild and command respect (not only because
almost every man carries a fully functional Kalashnikov machine gun). But if approached with
respect and in accordance with their customs, the Mursi can be sometimes surprisingly
hospitable. With help of our local guides we always explained that we want to learn about their
culture and life. The villagers were always pleased. In many places we were offered food - thick
porridge made from sorghum flour, or local coffee brewed from coffee bean peel. In return we
brought them salt and razor blades (those are highly regarded, as all the men and women use
them to create complicated patterns in their hair or to shave their heads).
The Mursi are largely herders. Livestock, mainly cattle, is their most valued possession and also
a measure of social status. The herds of cows are tended exclusively by men, who migrate
throughout the region in search of the best seasonal pastures. They also carefully guard them
against thieves (hence all those Kalashnikovs). In the peak of the dry season, water shortage is a
major problem. To deal with this the Mursi must dig deep holes in order to reach underground
sources. Once, we came to one of these wells after walking all day through this very arid land in
oppressive heat. The water hole was about 10 meters across, maybe 5 meters deep and at the
bottom was a shallow puddle of mud. And that has to suffice herds of cattle and people. Our
Mursi guide filled his bottle with this black coffee-coloured water and drank it, but we rather
plodded on (even though we had a top quality water filter) without drinking. We were lucky this
time; shortly before dark we came to a village with a cleaner spring.
After a week spent with the Mursi we did not feel like leaving. One of our best memories is how,
one hot afternoon near a Mursi village, we laid down and slept (all of us, the guides and scout
included) under a tree, because all the inhabitants of the village were at that time somewhere
tending sorghum fields, or with cattle. What woke us was a woman who brought us sorghum
porridge and a heavy kalabash full of water that she carried on her head. Before she came she
had put in her lip plate, as is customary when a woman serves food.
The difference between what the tourists are experiencing and what has happened to us could not
be bigger .....
The Lower Omo Valleyis one of the world's most unique places. Many diverse tribes live here
side by side in this relatively small area; each have their own customs and often speak very
different languages. What they have in common is that they don't want to be invaded or changed
by our modern world. They have always been fully self-sufficient. In the dry, hot climate they
have developed a system of agriculture depending on the annual floods, which leave a narrow
strip of fertile soil along the Omo river. Their traditional way of life is now seriously threatened
by the construction of a giant dam and an associated hydro-power plant (Gibe III) on the upper
Omo river. The environmental changes when it is completed will lead to the Omo tribes loosing
their livelihood and becoming dependent on international aid, with the loss of their cultural
More about protests against the Gibe III dam can be found on the Survival International website
(the movement for the rights of tribal people).