The remote villages of the Mursi tribe, Ethiopia
The Mursi are seminomadic pastoralist located on the eastern side of the Omo River near the Mago National Park in South Ethiopia. Sadly, the Mursi have a bad reputation among travelers and tourists. On the one hand for many visitors the Mursi tribe is one of the main attractions in Southern Ethiopia, especially the women with the huge lip plates. But often tourists are disappointed when they meet the Mursi people on a typical day trip because of their sometimes aggressive behavior. I experienced it myself being part of a group on a day trip to the Mursi in 2008. At that time I was wondering, if it would be possible to stay a couple of weeks in a remote Mursi village to witness the authentic and real life of the Mursi tribe. Over the last 2 years I spent 6 weeks in Suri villages and more than 3 weeks in remote Mursi villages, and I confidently can say: The Mursi as well as their related Suri neighbors are not only fascinating, they are also absolutely likeable, friendly and open-hearted.
There is a lot to learn about the Mursi, starting with the language, which is fortunately almost identical to the language of the Suri tribe on the western side of the Omo River. They are eager to teach the Mursi language to their visitors, but they are also happy to learn a few words English. On the website Mursi Online even a dictionary exists in Mursi-Amharic-English which is quite helpful for the communication. The dictionary was published by David Turton, Moges Yigezu and Olisarali Olibui in cooperation with the Culture and Art Society of Ethiopia in 2008.
On the new road it takes about two hours to drive from Jinka to Maganto (Hayloha in Amharic) and Maregge. But to reach the remote Mursi villages a good 4WD car and an excellent driver are mandatory. Not all remote villages are directly accessible by car, often only a path leads to the villages, and to drive into a village sometimes it is necessary to cross a field. On the website Mursi Online a community-based map of the Mursi territory is available, which was created in collaboration with the Mursi people. One possibility to visit remote Mursi villages is to follow the field road from Maganto to Mirobe, Landi and Motoro. In the area of Motoro there is the huge maize plantation 'Dumui' owned by Mursi people who even come a long way from other remote areas to stay a couple of months on the plantation and grow maize.
It is useless to ask Mursi, or Muni (how they call themselves) about their age. They don't know, because they are formed into age grades, and that is all they need to know. The age grades exist mostly for the men, and married women get the same age grade status as their husbands. Children until they are 8 or 9 years old are called 'luci'. When they grow older the boys are responsible for herding the goats, and this age grade is called 'changalai'. At the age around 15 - 18 the members of the age group 'donga' spent most of their time as cattle herders in the fields.
By becoming a member of the age grade 'terri' the young men achieve social adulthood. Now they are fully responsible for the cattle and they participate at Donga fights. At night they are the wild dancers with their Donga sticks surrounded by clapping and singing women. It is easy to recognize a member of the 'terri': Proud young men with Donga sticks, decorated with a feather, a head band, face painting and huge earrings. Young 'terri' are unmarried, therefore the decoration is important to be attractive to the girls. When they grow older and they have enough cattle to pay the bride wealth, they marry and start their own independent life. From this moment on they try to the earn respect from the other villagers, because soon they enter the age group 'ruri', the junior elders. They are responsible for the safety of the villagers and the cattle herds, and for the peaceful running of the village community.
The leading role for public decisions in the village community plays the age set 'bari', the elders of a village. When conflicts in the village or with other tribes occur, or when they have problems with the harvest because of drought, the bari sit together and try to find a solution. Mursi don't elect a chief for the village community. Some members of the bari are more highly respected than others, but nobody has the right to make decisions on behalf of the village community as a whole.
The seminomadic Mursi integrate flood retreat cultivation at the Omo River and rain-fed agriculture in the forested areas based on a cycle of seasonal movements. Beginning of October a part of the family leaves the villages to move to the Omo River. Old women, little children and a few guards are left behind in the villages. Planting takes place along the banks of the Omo River in October and November. This season is called 'loruwey' in Mursi language. The planting is done mostly by girls and women. The young men of the age set 'terri' stay with the cattle which is kept in the Elma valley, wooden grassland between Omo and Mago River. The harvest of the flood retreat crop finally comes in January and February, this season is called 'su'.
During the 'oiyoi' season from March to June daily rain falls ensure enough water for the rain-fed crop. The people return from the Omo River to their villages, and the rain-fed crop like sorghum and maize is planted in March and April. However, the duration and the intensity of the rain vary from one year to the next. The harvest takes place in the season 'telegai'. The cattle return from the Elma valley to the villages. This season from June to September is the happiest time of the year: the families are reunited in the villages and there is more than enough to eat. The cattle stay on small cattle places directly on the compound of the families. That means enough milk everyday especially for the children. Right after the harvest when the grain is stored in the granaries the Donga season starts, the highlight for every young man of the age group 'terri'. Almost every night is a dance in the villages, and it is the time for important ceremonies and weddings.
However, times are changing, and not always for the better for the Mursi people. On the good side, there are now three primary schools in Mursi territory: in Maganto, Makki and Hana Mursi, and many Mursi children attend nowadays the school. But the Ethiopian government started in 2011 a 5 years development plan for the region around the Omo River. In Mursi territory three state-run sugar plantations and factories were built in the last two years. This investment has a huge impact on the daily life of the Mursi and their seasonal movements. The sugar cane plantations are located along the banks of the Omo River, and therefore reduce the area for flood retreat cultivation of the Mursi to a minimum. As a consequence conflicts occur between Mursi and the plantation workers, and the Mursi are partly relocated to other areas by the government. Internal governmental studies speak about up to 100.000 new jobs in this area. If this scenario comes true, it will be the end of the Mursi traditions for good.
For more pictures please visit the gallery "Mursi tribe" on my website.