About good and bad culture

I thought that we live in an age in which all people should be equal, at least officially, and everyone should have the right to live their own way, be it an American from a city or a tribesman living deep in the jungle. Recently, Ethiopian officials showed me that I was wrong. It was during my last visit to the Surma (Suri) tribe.

The Lower Omo Valley region is interesting because of the many tribes living there, each of them with its own unique culture. Many still live their traditional semi-nomadic cattle-herding lifestyle and they would like to keep it that way. However, this is not consistent with the government's plans for economic development of the region. A massive hydro-electric dam is being build on the upper Omo river (Gibe III), tribal land is being leased to foreign companies for agricultural or mining projects, and there are plans for a new road from Southern Sudan. Traditional cattle herders are in the way of the ’progress’.

Since our previous visit in 2010, the Ethiopian government has visibly increased pressure on the Surma people to abandon their culture, which makes them very independent and difficult to manipulate, and to assimilate. The authorities are building schools (which stay empty) and they ’teach’ the Surma intensive farming (although they are not interested). On the other hand they declared cultural practises like decorative scarification, traditional stick fights Donga, or the lip plates illegal and punishable.

It is not important what we think about such practises; for the Surma people they are important parts of their ethnic identity and it should be up to them if they want to continue stretching their lips (the girls are not obliged to do so), or scarring themselves using sharp razor blades. For example, if young Surma men cannot fight in Donga they have no way to win their position and prestige in the community. And serious injuries during the fights are rare (it could be compared with boxing).

The problem is that the Ethiopian government is suppressing the rights of tribal people and, more importantly, the reasons why they do so. Officials are not really concerned about better living conditions for the Surma or their women, but they want to turn them into helpless beggars who would give up their land for a small handout. The Surma are not interested in financial compensation (even if the government really was going to pay any, which I doubt); they need their land for their livestock, which is their biggest wealth. They would spend most of the money on alcohol anyway, which is a sad fact.

Surma woman with beautiful scaryfication and lip-plate

”... this is not a human!”
Said the policeman ...

Even worse is that the Ethiopians feel they have the right to ban tribal cultures from the position of a superior culture. ”This is not a human being”, a policeman said to us in Kibish with a smile, pointing at a Surma woman with a lip plate. We were disgusted by this but not surprised, since earlier we had already had a thorough explaination all about good (Habesha) and bad (Surma) culture by the Kibish police chief!

The Surma are not alone in this, all the other tribes in Omo Valley have a similar story, and many others around the world, too. The Botswana government cannot tolerate the ’primitive’ Bushmen who want nothing else but to live their own way in the Kalahari. The Indonesian government is suppressing Papuan tribes because of their land, timber and the mineral riches of west Papua. One could go on and on ... Moreover, in most countries traditional tribal ’nakedness’ is illegal under law.

All these tribal people, when ’civilized’, gain very little in exchange for the loss of their cultural identity, their independence and their place to live.

Surma tribe

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Here I would like to thank our dear guide-friend for an excellent guiding in the Surma land.

... and also the Ethiopian authorities for finally
opening my eyes ...