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Omo Valley Journeys – The Real Suri

Nagudo

Suri, or Shuri, is the name of a sedentary agro-pastoralist people and its Nilo-Saharan language. 

They inhabit the Bench Maji Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) in Ethiopia as well as parts of neighbouring South Sudan. 

A young Suri girl decorates her hair with Poinciana blossom in Kibish

There are some 34,000 Suri in the south west of Ethiopia. Suri is their self-name that comprises of two separate groups called Tirmaga and Chai. 

An extremely traditional Suri man. This is how the Suri looked before they do now. It is extremely unusual to find Suri like this in the Omo Valley

A third group, speaking a somewhat different language, are the Baale (or Balesi, or Kachipo), who also live partly in the Republic of South Sudan and move regularly across the border, following interests dictated by trade, intermarriage or the occasional search for better pastures in the dry season.

Portrait of a Suri woman with her baby. She is wearing wooden billets to stretch her ears. I met her at a stick fight and her appearance, especially with the adult Waterbuck horn she was carrying, was so striking!

The Suri area was conquered by imperial Ethiopian troops in 1897.  The region was then formally incorporated into Ethiopia and was the frequent target of cattle raids by highlanders and imperial troops based in the newly established villages. 

Portrait of an elderly Suri woman in remote southern Ethiopia. Her bottom lip hangs down where a disc would normally be inserted.

Their society, while now more integrated into national Ethiopian structures of administration and more under the control of the state, previously had a fairly autonomous political structure, headed by the elders of the reigning age grade as well as a few ritual chiefs or ‘priests’ , called Komoru, as among the Mursi.

Barshamu with his extreme Suri scarring

The Suri have a traditional belief system with a supreme sky deity called Tumu (like the Himba with Mukuru).  The Komoru is the mediator between humans and Tumu, acting as a contact point with the sky god that brings rain and fertility.  But Suri have no public religious services of any kind dedicated to Tumu.  Ancestors of clanlines are also recognized as having powers and as influencing the health and destiny of living people. 

Portrait of an elderly Suri man with the horns of a cow

In the past 15 years, Evangelical Christianity has gained adherents among the Suri (some 200 – 300), notably among those in the town of Kibish and those that left the area to study.

A Suri lady and her baby in Turgit


The Suri have lived in the Ethio-Sudan border area for many generations, successfully surviving through a combination of livestock herding (cattle, goats and sheep), some hunting and gathering, rain-fed cultivation of a variety of field crops like millet, corn and sorghum and the garden cultivation of legumes, spice plants, peas and beans. 

Are you done with taking photos yet?

Migration has been restricted due to armed conflict, state pressure and some very serious droughts which have led to food shortages and even famines in the past few decades. 

A beautiful young Suri girl wearing clay billets in her ears to stretch her lobes

Since the late 1980s the Suri have also gained cash income from the sale of alluvial gold to highland traders in nearby villages.  During the last five to seven years, this trade has suffered from strong competition from highlanders and army related people, who have tended to push the Suri out of business.

Walking down the street of a remote Suri town you can find so much beauty

The post 1991 ethnic federal Ethiopian regime has formally accorded the Suri political autonomy a separate woreda (district) but the leadership of this district is carefully groomed and controlled by the authorities.  The state does not really consult the Suri community leaders on any matter and has appointed its own advisors. 

Nakalamche

Ethiopian government gave a collective name for the Suri, Mursi and Me’en groups that inhabit the south-western part of the country.  This name is Surma.  All three groups speak languages belonging ot the Surmic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family.  Some authors have used the terms “Suri” and “Surma” interchangeably or for contradictory purposes.

As time goes by many Suri are dispensing of some of their ancient traditions. Embarrassed by wearing a lip disc, some Suri women are stitching their bottom lip so they don’t wear it anymore

In a bizarre ritual, female members of the tribe have distinctive clay discs inserted into holes in their bottom lip, which are considered signs of beauty. 

Incredible Naguru with her traditional Suri scarring

To have the discs inserted, their bottom two teeth are removed before the hole is cut.  The larger the plate, the more cows the girl’s father can demand in dowry when his daughter marries.  The average man owns between 309 and 40 cows.  In order to marry, he needs 60 cows to give to his wife’s family.

A Suri girl with her ear discs and scarring
Suri men traditionally shave their foreheads clean
The haunting beauty of Nagudo

2 thoughts on “Omo Valley Journeys – The Real Suri

  1. ingrid hendriksen says:

    Stunning images Inger , where are these trybes ? marcel and i are flying in africa next year may

    • inger says:

      Hi Ingrid, they are amazing. They are on the southern borders between Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. It’s better to see them on land though! 🙂

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