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Omo Valley Journeys – Mursi

A few hours drive west of the town in Jinka, southern Ethiopia, lies the beautiful national park of Mago.  Although it has some wildlife, perhaps the biggest reason why people visit it are the Mursi.

Originating in South Sudan, the Mursi, or Mursu or Mun as they refer to themselves, are a Nilotic pastoralist ethnic group in Ethiopia.  Their territory of around 2000 square kilometres lies in the South Omo zone of the southern nations, nationalities and peoples’ regional state (SNNPRS), roughly between the Rivers Omo (Warr) and Mago (Mako), close to the border with South Sudan.  According to the 2007 national census, there are around 7500 Mursi, 448 of whom live in urban areas.  Surrounded by mountains between the Omo River and its tributary, the Mago, the home of the Mursi is one of the most isolated regions of the country.  Due to the climate they move twice a year between the winter and summer months.  They herd cattle and grow crops along the banks of the Omo River.

Their neighbours include the Banna, the Bodi, The Karo, the Kwegu, the Nyangatom and the Suri.  They speak the Mursi language as a mother tongue and it is classified as Surmic, which is a branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family.  Ceremonial duelling (thagine), a form of ritualised male violence, is a highly valued and popular activity of Mursi men, especially unmarried men, and a key marker of Mursi identity. Age sets are an important political feature, where men are formed into named “age sets” and pass through a number of “age grades” during the course of their lives.  Married women have the same age grade as their husbands.

The men practice light scarification on their shoulders after killing an enemy, and shave geometric patterns on their head. During dances and ceremonies they adorn literally every part of their body with white chalk paint.  Young unmarried men practice group stick fights, after which the winner is carried on the top of poles to girls waiting beside the arena, who decide among themselves which of them will ask his hand in marriage.

When a young Mursi girl reaches the age of 15 or 16, her lower lip is pierced so she can wear a lip plate. The larger the lip plate she can tolerate, the more cattle her bride price will bring for her father. 

Men of the Mursi also use white paint for their bodies and faces.  Just like any other ethnic tribe of the lower valley, the men must pass a test before they can get married. 

Life for the Mursi is often arduous and sometimes dangerous but they have learnt to live well and there is much time for relaxation, chatting music and gossip.  They have a rich oral tradition through which they preserve and transmit their history, philosophical knowledge and moral stories.

Religion and healing are very much interconnected for the Mursi.  A knowledge of illness and of the divine emerges from people’s experiences of the natural and social world.  Priests provide the context for a healthy community and it is the priests as well as members of other lesser ritual families who are sought out to treat epidemics, drought and crop pests.  The Mursi also have a healing tradition based around the powers of women healers.  The religion of the Mursi people is classified as animism, although there is a Serving In Mission Station in the north-eastern corner of Mursiland, which provides education and basic medical care.

A Mursi Cattle Camp

During our visit with the Mursi we were invited to walk out and see a nearby cattle camp. The Mursi worship their cattle and the general welfare of their animals is of great importance. As we left a community of Mursi, I instantly spotted a young child walking back to the huts with a bowl of fresh milk. Walking behind us was a young man with a mixture of grains and liquid that would serve as medicine for the cattle.

The Mursi will drink both the milk and blood of their cattle. They also eat the meat and the skins are used for huts, to sleep and to sit on.

We watched a cow being blood let by a Mursi man using a bow and arrow. Watching the children drink the blood afterwards was a little confronting and neither of us tried it, but we found it fascinating anyway.

Returning to the camp we stayed for a while to buy jewellery and take photos of the women with their intense decorations before we drove back to Jinka.

Over the past few decades, the Mursi search for a “cool place” has come up against the much more power ‘place making’ activities of the Ethiopian state.  Mursiland was first incorporated into the Ethiopian state at the end of the nineteenth century, when the Abyssinian king Menelik II expanded his kingdom southwards and established Ethiopia’s modern borders with Kenya, Sudan and Somalia.  But it was not until after World War II that the centre began to establish the kind of political control over the periphery that allows us to speak realistically of state incorporation.

Perhaps the most significant early step in this direction came ion the 1960s with the establishment of the Omo National Park.  Improved transportation has also drawn the Mursi further into the market economy, where trade in cattle and increasing numbers of tourists provide money which the Mursi use to buy cloth, medicine, coffee, spices and agricultural tools. 

Today, the process of state building in the lower Omo appears to have reached a new level of intensity, with the construction of a huge hydroelectric damn in its middle basin.  This will eliminate the annual flood upon which the downstream population has always depended for cultivation and pastoralism and make possible large-scale commercial irrigation schemes.  These will require the forced displacement and resettlement of thousands of people and irrevocably transform their environment and way of life.

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