Mursi in the Omo Valley: between tradition and tourism
The Mursi live in Ethiopia, more precisely in the south-west of the country, which is crossed by the Omo river: the main source of subsistence and survival following the seasonal floods that favor the harvest of sorghum, corn, maize and beans along the banks but above all the breeding of cattle, goats and sheep whose products are used on a large scale and exchanged between the tribes.
The main products derived from breeding are, of course, meat, milk and blood as well as skins for making traditional clothes. The river, with its floods, also favors the migration of fish, many tribes located in the Omo Valley live not only of hunting and gathering but also and inevitably of breeding and fishing. This subsistence is put at risk by the imminent construction of a dam that will prevent the river from continuing on its natural course: it will increase the risk of drought for the river and for Lake Turkana and will endanger the same biodiversity. The Omo Valley is known to be the only ethnographic museum still intact, but will it be? With the advent of mass tourism, the constant search for the exotic and the remote many things have changed.
Who lives in the Omo Valley?
The Omo Valley, with its heterogeneous landscape of savannahs, forests and lakes embedded in the Rift Valley, is mainly inhabited by the following tribes:
- Hamer: they exceed 20,000 units, live in the east, mainly in mountainous areas and because of their habitat subsistence is based on agriculture but, mainly, on pasture;
- Karo: they number about 2500 units, they live thanks to fishing and the cultivation of sorghum along the banks of the Omo river, they are frequenters of the nearest markets like that of Jinka and they also trade with the aforementioned Hammer; their body is marked by different scars that have a different meaning depending on the social condition of the person. The ear incision indicates the achievement of adulthood for boys but the other scars may want to be a sort of reminder about the number of animals killed;
- Surma: they are very similar to the Mursi, culturally and linguistically. Young women in fact wear rings on their earlobes before getting married and are used to paint each other’s body as a sign of friendship and affection.
The Mursi, protagonists in the Omo Valley
They define the fruit of numerous migrations whose main objective was to find the ideal place to live “bha lalini” or a place that was crossed by a river that made the fertile soil and green grass so as to allow the cultivation and breeding.
Despite the cultivations and the search for a suitable place, the Mursi are known to be a nomadic people that has about 8500 units of mursi language, a linguistic lineage deriving from the surmic languages of the sub-saharan area. They have a strong oral culture that allows them to transmit and pass on the history, culture and life of the Mursi themselves. Owning cattle is a source of wealth for them, with the advent of mass tourism the Mursi understood that with the money they earned they could buy livestock more easily.
The Lip-Plate, between tradition and theatrification
On a visual level, the Mursi are a well-known community and it is difficult to never have seen a picture of them on the net, their main characteristic is not given only by the painted skin and the striking ornaments of bone, ivory, wood, bark or seeds but, in the in the case of women, the clay lip-plate is inserted into the lower lip following a number of supports or sticks of different sizes.
This clay dish is a symbol of identification for girls and women and demonstrates their maturity, the transition from girl-hood to woman-hood; they are also a form of aesthetic expression that demonstrates the strength and pride of the wearer. The lip-plates are of different sizes, the bigger the lip-plate the higher the value of the future bride, wearing the lip-plate the girl becomes a “bansanai”.
The types of lip-plates
These objects vary in size and shape even if the round shape is characteristic of the Mursi. There are four types of lip-plates:
- Red: called “dhebi a golonya”
- Reddish Brown: “dhebi a luluma”
- Black: “dhebi a korra”
- White / Natural: “dhebi a holla”
The lip-plate is worn by Mursi women in public because only in this way they can walk with their heads held high, bring food to their husband and visit friends and relatives. It is not uncommon to find girls without a lip-plate, with the lower lip intact, and this comes from a personal choice that will inevitably influence their status and their condition within the group.
The symbolic values of lip-plates
Wearing the lip-plate is not only a means to attract more tourists but, within the Mursi community, it is a distinctive sign; those who do not wear the lip-plate are defined as “Karkarre” or lazy, not to wear the lip-plate is highly prejudicial, a married woman is obliged to wear it even if this is inconvenient and heavy on the occasion of rituals, celebrations, dances, competition donga or at the time you use food. It is appropriate for Mursi women to wear the lip-plate in public, at the market or in any other place as a Mursi can walk without fear of being judged, of being called lazy but rather aware of having its own identity.
The Lip-plate today
The lip-plate is the subject of studies by numerous researchers and today, within the Mursi, it is no longer as used as it used to be. The cases in which girls decide not to get their lower lip pierced are not rare: how much they would like to move to big cities like Jinka and study, despite the pressures of their parents, many girls decide to become citizens of the state and not to wear a labial disc. This mentality goes against the morality of the Mursis who try to claim their right to be “indigenous” even if the State would like them to integrate without wearing lip-plates. The will of a girl not to wear the labial disc is a blow to the family because the girl will be somehow without an Mursi identity and can no longer be considered as such unless she decides to follow the tradition.
Contentioned identity: between being Mursi and child of the state
In an essay Shauna La Tosky reports some conversations between her and several Mursi girls who entertained the researcher with a strong and heated debate on the meaning of wearing a lip plate and not having the lower lip and pierced ear lobes. There are those who want to have a normal lip, study and learn about Amaric and the “foreigner’s language”, wear clothes and not animal skins and those who, instead, boast of wearing a lip-plate because without that they could not be considered part of of the Mursi. One of the two interlocutors insists that she, too, while wearing a lip-plate, is the daughter of the state (child of the State) with the only difference that, going to any other country wearing the lip-plate, she will always be recognized as Mursi and the tourists who will visit the Valley of Omo will pay to have some photos.
Mass tourism: forgery of authentic or authentication of the fake?
Since the 80s tourism in the Omo Valley was present, few were those who ventured on board jeeps in search of the Mursi or their neighbors. Today tourism for the Mursi has become a real form of gain, a job that allows them, especially women, to sell their products to buy cattle. The Mursis await the arrival of the tourists and “prepare” for them wearing the most beautiful clothes and jewels.
They are themselves waiting for them outside the village by running to meet them or, sometimes, waiting for them under a tree. It is from this awareness that a doubt arises about the role of tourism in areas such as the Omo Valley: from the moment the tourist observes the authentic this turns into falsification and theatrification even more when the Mursi dress up for tourists.
Can we talk about Performance?
The roles between guest and host are well differentiated, tourists perform their “performance” in response to the previous “performance” given by the Mursis. Women scream and make their way to get as many photos as possible, they know that the more conspicuous the clothes, the larger the lip-plates the more money they will earn; older women are sitting and rarely someone takes their photos, the young are the ones to grab the scene.
Theatrical reality and re-adapatation
The locals have therefore created a theatrical reality so as to control the tourists who are not certain of seeing “the authentic” but rather are aware of attending a re-adaptation of it which will satisfy their curiosity. Tourists are aware of being in a sort of theater precisely because what they observe is not part of Mursi’s daily life but a construction of the same wanted by them, needless to say that there is no theater in everyday life and in routine unless this is not built or adapted. There is no strategy in all this, the Mursi use rather “tactics” useful to them and to the tourist. It is almost an exchange: the tourist wants photos and some object to take with him, the Mursi in exchange for there they ask for a small fee that sometimes, unfortunately, is not granted to them.
Tourism in places such as the Omo Valley originates in response to expectations created in the same tourism market. It is not uncommon to browse through catalogs of travel agencies that offer trips to remote places such as the Omo Valley or in Polynesia, offering tourists the possibility to be in contact with “reality” and indigenous. This is not a field research but a purely commercial attitude that tends to satisfy the interest of the traveler by presenting the Mursi the opportunity to create their own stage where they are the real protagonists reflected in the target.
- Abbink, J., 2000, Tourism and its discontents: Suri-tourist encounters in southern Ethiopia, «Social Anthropology», 8 no. 1: 1-17;
- Bruner, E., 2005, Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago-London;
- LaTosky, S., 2004, Reflections on the lip-plates of Mursi women as a source of stigma and self-esteem, in Ivo Strecker and Jean Lydall (eds.) The perils of face: essays on cultural contact, respect and self-esteem in southern Ethiopia, Lit verlag, Münster;
- Régi, T., 2009, From “First Contact” to Tourism: The Alien in the Mursi Oral Tradition, Paper presented at the Anthropology and History along the Omo AHRC Project workshop, African Studies Cenre, University of Oxford;
- Régi, T., 2014, The Anthropology of tourism and development in Africa: mobile identities in a pastoral society in South Ethiopia, «Int. J. Tourism Anthropology», Vol. 3, no. 4;
- Régi, T., 2013, The art of the weak: performing for tourists in Africa, «Tourists Studies», Vol. 13, no. 1, pp.99-118;
- Turton, D., 1980, The Economics of Mursi Bridewealth: A Comparative Perspective In: The Meaning of Marriage Payments, ed. J. Comaroff, pp. 67-92. New York and London: Academic Press;
- Turton, D., 2004, Lip-plates and ‘the people who take photographs: An easy encounter between Mursi and tourists in southern Ethiopia, In: «Anthropology Today», 20 no. 3: 3-8;
- Turton, D., Exploration in the lower Omo Valley of southwestern Ethiopia between 1890 and 1910, revised version of a paper first published in Maria Caravaglios (ed.), «L’Africa ai Tempi di Daniele Comboni», Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Studi Africani, Istituto Italo-Africano e Missionari Comboniani, Rome, 19-21 November (1981);