ETHIOPIA: MEETING THE MURSI

Posted July 16, 2013 by Rahul Aggarwal

For the first time on this trip it rained the entire night so the roads were waterlogged in places and what was solid red road had become a bed of mud by the incessant rain. I was supposed to be meeting the most famous tribe of all, the Mursis, the infamous lip-plating tribe of the Omo Valley. Like most, I had only seen and heard about them in documentaries and seen the odd picture in coffee table books.
 

It was quite an intriguing journey to see them, as the tribe were located on the other side of Mago National Park in the southwest of the country. The park itself was amazingly green, not surprising considering it had months of rain. We approached the park from quite a height and I never realised just how huge the park was. There were just trees as far as the eye could see. In amongst these trees are supposed to be the Abyssinian lion (Ethiopian lion which is slightly blackish in colour), leopards, kudu, other wild deer, and other endemic wildlife. The chances of seeing any of these animals was extremely rare given the small numbers apparently left in the wild and the sheer thickness of the undergrowth. Kofi told me that he had only ever seen two lions in the last 14 years, so I was going to be holding my breath! I did see a bunch of baboons occupying the road, which soon scattered as soon as our jeep got closer. Again, I noticed that an amazing diversity of birdlife, although I am yet to know the names of the birds I’d actually seen and photographed. We picked up our scout and guide shortly before entering the Mursi village.







I had heard mixed opinions about meeting the Mursis. Some people were amazed to see that people still practised and lived such a life, and I had heard stories of others too scared to get out of their jeeps as the sight of these people was too alien to them! I would be lying if I did not admit to being curious to see their way of life and did they really cut their lips, stretch them and insert such huge plates? And why?

As we got closer to the village I saw a naked boy emerge from the forest screaming at his cattle in the pouring rain. This added to the sense of mystery and that I was indeed entering another world where ancient beliefs and customs were still practised in their most basic and bewildering form.







 

We stopped to pay the entry fee to enter the village and the first few thatched huts came into view. The rain was still beating down and immediately some children came running to the jeep, some covered with a sheet and others totally naked. I got out of the jeep with my guide, and he escorted me to the hut, explaining about Mursi culture. There are believed to be about 8000 Mursi and like the majority of the tribes in Southern Ethiopia, they are totally self-sufficient. They are renowned as fierce people and proud defenders of their way of life. The government has apparently banned the practice of lip-plate wearing, but my guide explained that the Mursi will continue to do so. There are various theories as to why the Mursi do this – some say it is to indicate social status and commitment to their husbands. Others say that the practice may have started to prevent Mursi women being taken as slaves. I clumsily entered the hut which had a very small entrance (my inflexible body was not used to such small gaps) and that is where I came face-to-face with these legendary people. The lady had just returned from the fields and had brought home sorghum (the local crop) which she was going to prepare the meal from. It was hard to avoid noticing her distended lip which was hanging below her jaw. Her ears had also been stretched. She explained to the guide that they were a family of five who shared the hut along with their goats!

I could not even imagine so many people and livestock sharing such a small place. As it was already feeling a little tight in the hut we went outside. Another few tourists had also arrived armed with cameras too … and this is where everything took a turn for the worse, in that it all descended into a free-for-all. Tourists (like myself) come here to see their way of life and their lip plates. The Mursi living at this end of the village are all too aware of this and charge for the privilege of us taking photos. Suddenly a few other Mursi arrived, some grabbing my arm demanding I take their photo in exchange for cash. Tourism can do wonderful things for local communities, but here I felt that they had not yet come up with a system where tourists could visit their village (for which a fee had already been paid), interact through local guides with the villagers, and yes, take some pictures. At the same time, the Mursi should not feel they are not the victims of this ‘human safari’, then maybe they would not be so aggressive in their demand for money. This was a sad anti-climax to a much anticipated trip, and with a tinge of disappointment I left the Mursi behind and headed back across the park, probably never to see them again.


This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the link below to navigate through this journey.

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