The Surma (Suri) Tribe
Omo Valley - 2010
As well as the Mursi, with whom they are closely related in both language and culture, the Surma are well known for the large clay plates their women wear in their lower lips, decorative scarification, and also because the men paint their bodies with white clay.
Each young Surma girl will cut her lip and insert a wooden ’plug’ in it. Each plug is gradually changed for a bigger one until the lip is stretched enough and a clay (or occasionally wooden) plate can be used. To make the plate fit in well,
2-3 lower front teeth have to be pulled out. Some women can wear lip plates up to 30 cm in diameter!
Today, nobody is exactly sure when and why this tradition started, although there are various theories. Nevertheless, today it is an important sign of beauty and prestige, which is why most girls choose to wear a lip plate even though they are not forced to do so. Surma men have to pay their bride's family for their wives (traditionally with cows and Kalashnikovs) and the bigger the lip plate the better the wife, and so more expensive. And that's why I still didn't manage to get one .....
People often ask me if the women wear the lip plates all the time and how can they eat with them. The answer is no, they don't wear them all the time. On the contrary, usually they only put them in when serving meals to their men, and also for ceremonies and other special occasions. That means they eat without the plate, meaning their stretched lip hangs down, sometimes even under their chin.
As with all the other tribes in the Omo Valley, the Surma men spend most of their time looking after their precious herds of cows. They guard them against thieves from neighbouring tribes with the machine-guns they carry (these days it is typically a fully loaded AK-47, Kalashnikov). Traditionally the men are completely naked but their latest ’fashion’ is to wear a big colourful pieces of cloth wrapped around them or tied across on their shoulder. The cloth doesn't always have to cover intimate parts, but it is definitely practical as a blanket against the night chill. The Omo men always carry a small wooden chair which they use to sit on and as a pillow. The chair's shape and decoration is specific for each tribe and they are often beautifully carved.
Young warriors often spend many weeks or even months away from the village with their herds. At those times they eat only milk mixed with blood. To draw the blood they shoot a short arrow into a cow's neck, opening a vein. They also paint each other's naked bodies with white clay. They look beautiful in their decoration but the main reason is to look menacing and command respect. The body painting is also important for tribal celebrations, e.g. the famous Donga fight - a highly prestigious event at which the men demonstrate their strength and skills in fights with long sticks.
In many Surma villages we noticed that some of the children painted their faces white when we came. We were told that they were the chief's kids and they do this to separate themselves from other children when there are visitors in the village.
The Surma live west of the Omo river which creates a border between them and the Mursi. Their neighbours in the south are the Nyangatom, who are also their biggest enemies. Only recently, it seems, the two tribes agreed to keep peace. And so we could see the Nyangatom caravans of donkeys travelling to the market in Kibish, the Surma administrative centre.
Nowadays, Kibish is a small town where the Ethiopian provincial administration and army post are settling in, trying to gain more control over the Surma territory. But always free and fearless, the Surma don't like anyone to rule them, and certainly not something as abstract for them as is the government.
However, a big problem is alcohol, homemade locally or brought in from distant Ethiopian towns. We saw many drunk people in Kibish and this makes them really dangerous. Shooting incidents are common, and although they usually don't shoot at each other (although perhaps they occasionally do) it's mostly showing off and shooting from the waist, but with so many people around, someone is often hurt.
During our last night in Kibish we heard some shooting in the town. The following morning we learnt that a drunk Surma man randomly shot a few times among the houses, the bullets easily penetrating the thin walls. One killed a woman inside and another injured our guide's brother, going through his shoulder. We transported him to hospital, 8 hours away, the first part of the journey by the local missionary's car, but the rest in a very old bus on a bumpy unpaved road. The injured man was pale from the loss of blood but didn't complain at all.
Later we also learnt that his wife was killed in a similar incident a few years before, and he himself had lost an eye!
Surma - Expedition 2011
We returned to the Surma (and also to the Nyangatom) in July 2011. We chose this month on purpose because it is the rainy season and therefore time for the famous Surma fights, called Donga. We walked once again with our friend/guide far into Surma territory.
But over the last year many things have changed for the Surma - and presumably elsewhere in the Omo Valley too. Unfortunately we couldn't but notice the huge pressure the Ethiopian government is putting on the Surma (and also on the other tribes) to abandon their culture. The agenda behind it is to suppress their culture and independence because of the growing interest in the Surma's land which now, thanks to modern irrigating technologies and western investments, could be commercially used. This is land which, until recently, nobody wanted. And the Surma, together with other tribes, are in the way of ’development’. Development which leaves no space for tribal culture and identity. Naked tribesmen with machine guns cannot be easily manipulated ...
We learned that six months ago the Ethiopian government banned the Donga fights as well as decorative scarification and even the lip-plates!
Nevertheless, we set off looking for a Donga which, we'd heard, was going to take place despite the ban. But a big problem emerged; how to find out when and where the Donga would happen, as the Surma were afraid to tell us the exact date and place. Maybe they were worried that we might report them to the authorities ...
Eventually we got the information and went there. Even at the location itself the things were still very uncertain, it almost looked as if the people themselves did not know ... So we gave up and set off to search elsewhere. On our way we met a group of dancing and singing Surma men carrying sticks, clearly ready for Donga. And so we joined them. First, they headed to a stream where they painted themselves all over their bodies with white clay, then we followed them all the way to the traditional Donga place where the fights have happened for possibly hundreds of years.
Soon enough, a few hundred people from about five different villages gathered and we had to negotiate a price with the chiefs for permission to photograph the event. This part in itself was quite dramatic. Before we reached an agreement a few disputes broke out among the Surma: it even looked like they were going to shoot at each other. We were warned that shooting in the air is normal and common, but if the Surma lie down then it is serious, and we must do the same immediately. Before the fights began this happened at least three times. Luckily no shooting followed ...
But once the Donga started all conflicts were forgotten at once, and for almost two hours I was photographing one of the most amazing events of my life.
And then, all of sudden, everyone laid down on the ground and we expected a gun fight. But the next second they were all up again and running into the bush. Then the army arrived and, because all the Surma were hiding in the bushes with their machine guns at the ready, we were the only ones arrested and taken back to Kibish.
There we were interrogated at the police station. They wanted to see my photos (when they learned that I still use slides they wanted to confiscate my films, but eventually they abandoned the idea) and then they tried to implicate that we had arranged and paid for the whole Donga ourselves (a few hundred people!!!). We insisted that we just happened to pass by when the Donga took place (mainly for our local guide's sake as he might have more trouble with them).
In the end we received a long and thorough explanation about good and bad culture .....