Tribes Where Women Put Wide Plates In Their Lips For Beautification - SALIENT TIMES ONLINE

Tribes Where Women Put Wide Plates In Their Lips For Beautification

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Surma is a collective term for three ethnic groups — Chai, Timaga, and Suri Baale — living in southwestern Ethiopia. Suri is composed of three subgroups; Chai, Timaga and Baale groups (self-names), politically and territorially different, but all speaking 'South East Surmic' languages within the Surmic language family, which includes Mursi, Majang, and Me'en languages.


The Suri groups share a similar culture, and show social and historical kinship with the Mursi and Me'en groups. Within Ethiopia, their homeland is relatively remote, located in semi-arid plains, valleys and foothills. There are traditional rivalries with neighbouring groups such as the Nyangatom and the South Sudanese Toposa, constantly raiding into Ethiopian territory. In recent decades, these conflicts have become quite bloody, with multiple use of automatic firearms (now present in significant numbers), no available overarching structures of mediation, and lack of effective government action. Major sources of the weapons have been the parties in the Sudanese Civil War. At times, the local police only allows foreigners to travel there with a hired armed guard. Local Suri authorities have also been imposing hefty tourist 'travel sums' on foreign tourists visiting the area.


The Suri are a self-conscious and culturally proud people, with, among others, a liking for stick fighting called saginé. This is more properly called 'ceremonial duelling', and serves as a rite of passage for male youngsters and brings great prestige to men — it is especially important when seeking a bride — and they are very competitive, at the risk of serious injury and occasional death.

At a young age, to beautify themselves for marriage, most women have their bottom teeth removed and their bottom lips pierced, then stretched, so as to allow insertion of a clay lip plate. This has become the hallmark of the Suri - as for the Mursi - and the main reason they have been sought out by tourists interested in the 'exotic'. Some women have stretched their lips so as to allow plates up to sixteen inches in diameter. Increasing with exposure to other cultures, however, a growing number of girls now refrain from this practice. Their children are sometimes painted with (protective) white clay paint, which may be dotted on the face or body.



Suri villages normally range in size from 40 to 1,000 people, but a few may reach 2,500 people. Suri life is egalitarian. The Suri 'chiefs' (called komoru) have a ritual function and are merely the most respected elders and have no executive powers. They are elected from within certain clan lineages. Few Surma are familiar with Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and their literacy level is relatively low. In recent decades, however, schools have been built and the number of literate Suri is growing, with several now working in the local administration's district capital, and others studying in various towns.


According to Suri oral tradition, they came to their present territory about 200 years ago from the West (Sudan-Ethiopia border lands). First they came to the Akobo (eastwards from the Nile); then they moved in two directions, to the lower part of Kidhoa Bo and the upper part from Kidhoa Bo to Mount Shologoy. These migrants also absorbed local groups. Since the late 1890s, the Suri were constantly harassed by the Ethiopian imperial troops and northern settlers. As a result of this (politico-economically driven) harassment, numerous Suri went to the Boma Plateau in Sudan, especially after 1925.

The Suri are obviously not the only ethnic group in the south of Ethiopia: there are around 12 more, and with some of them tensions exist. The Suri have one primary enemy, the Nyangatom, a people south of them and member of the large Ateker population cluster. On a regular basis the Nyangatom and another enemy of the Suri, the Toposa (also of the Ateker group) team up to raid the Suri’s cattle. The Second Sudanese Civil War has taken additional toll on the Suri.



These conflicts have pushed neighboring groups into the Suri territory and there a constant competition to defend what they have in terms of land, water sources and pasture. Clashes are most common during the dry season. Around this time the Suri move their cattle down south to find new grazing land. State authorities have been attempting to create awareness about conflict resolution and have occasionally called a 'peace conference' (as in 2008).

But they also have been the main source of conflict and antagonism themselves, e.g., by confiscation of huge tracts of land for commercial agrarian projects on local groups' land and inefficient or absent mediation in cases of dispute. in recent decase teh Surti have received a raw deal indeed from the Ethiopian government. The growing autonomy of the Southern Ethiopian Regional State after Ethiopia's internal troubles in the past years has not increased but deeply aggravated their predicament (cp. Wagstaff 2015), due to fierce 'ethnic' competition and rivalry on the local level.

The Suri have a sky god named Tumu. The Suri also believe in spirits and take recourse to (female) diviners as well. Another belief of the Suri is in rainmaking. This skill is passed down through heredity and is only given to one male in specific clans. When his services are needed, the men collect chips from a specific tree. These chips are then masticated and the remaining juice is then mixed with clay. This combination is poured and smeared over the man's body. After this process, rain is expected to fall.

The Suri have a sky god named Tumu. The Suri also believe in spirits and take recourse to (female) diviners as well. Another belief of the Suri is in rainmaking. This skill is passed down through heredity and is only given to one male in specific clans. When his services are needed, the men collect chips from a specific tree. These chips are then masticated and the remaining juice is then mixed with clay. This combination is poured and smeared over the man's body. After this process, rain is expected to fall.

Piercing lips and lobes and inserting lip plates are a strong part of the Suri culture. At puberty most young women have their lower teeth removed in order to get their lower lip pierced. Once the lip is pierced, it is then stretched and lip plates of increasing size are then placed in the hole of the piercing. Having a lip plate is a sign of female beauty and appropriateness; a common thought is that the bigger the plate, the more cattle the woman is 'worth' for her bride price, though this is denied by some.



The Suri pride themselves on their scars and how many they carry. Women perform decorative scarification by slicing their skin with a razor blade after lifting it with a thorn. After the skin is sliced the piece of skin left over is left to eventually scar. On the other hand, the men traditionally scarred their bodies after they killed someone from an enemy group. These rituals, which are extremely painful, are said by some observers to be a way of getting the younger Suri used to seeing blood and feeling pain.

A sport and ritual the Suri take very seriously is ceremonial duelling with sticks. In most cases, this is engaged in by young men to get respect from their families and community. The fights usually take place between two villages during harvest time, draw large audiences, and start with 20 to 30 representatives of each side, all of whom get a chance to duel against someone from the other side. During these fights there are referees present to make sure the rules are being followed. It is not uncommon for stick fights to end within the first couple of hits, but at the same time deaths are not unheard of, especially from hits to the stomach. Shooting incidents have occasionally erupted between men who have other disputes in real life.

Each household in the Suri village is managed by a married woman. The women prepare the food, take care of the children, and cultivate their own fields and gardens, and are allowed to use their profits however they wish. There are also age grades. Young men (Tegay) are the 'warrior grade', not yet fully responsible adults. They are mainly responsible for herding and defending the cattle. Junior elders (Rora) are the dominant decision-making age-grade and entrance is gained in an initiation ritual that is held every 20 to 30 years. During this initiation the young men to be 'promoted' are tried and tested by elders, and are sometimes whipped until they bleed. Decisions in the Suri community are made by men in an assembly. Women are not allowed to voice their opinions during these debates but are allowed to do so before or after the debates take place. These debates are closed and summed up by the community’s ritual chief (the komoru).