Trip report: 4 weeks Suri tribe, Ethiopia

I just returned from a one month magnificent trip to the Suri tribe in the South Western part of Ethiopia. To reach Kibish it is still a 3 days drive from Addis over Jimma, Bonga and Mizan. There are two roads from Mizan to Kibish: the old road via Bebeka Coffee Plantation and Dima, or the new Waji-Maji road via Tum and Koka. From time to time the roads are blocked because of rain, so you should better ask in advance which road is open. Drivers usually prefer the new road, although the new road is a detour and the old road is well maintained and the scenery is by far more beautiful. But there are security issues between Dizi and Suri people around Dima and sometimes government cars are attacked, but for tourists it should be safe. Beginning of October only the old road was passable so we had no choice.

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The countryside in October after the raining season is lush and green, and more diversified than the more commonly travelled South Omo. In four weeks I only met a handful of tourists. The area around Kibish, Tulgit and Koka is still quite untouched, and there are plenty of opportunities to see and experience the traditional life of the Suri tribe.

The Suri people love to sing and dance. First day on the trip we had car trouble, the leaf spring was broken, so we spent the afternoon in Tulgit where a Suri mechanic repaired the spring. Luckily there was a big dance in Tulgit this afternoon. But suddenly a fight between young men started during the dance, and from one moment to another I was in the middle of a pretty violent stick fight. The stick fights are called Donga, and the government banned the Donga for Suri people. But a Donga is still a very important tradition for young Suri men, so the Suri keep on fighting secretly. October is Donga season, so almost every day there is a Donga somewhere around Kibish, Tulgit or Koka. And obviously the young men on the dance still had to settle an outstanding score of the last Donga. Lucky for me to get at least an impression of a real stick fight, since I'm not allowed to join and watch a Donga as a tourist.

Kibish is the main town of the Suri area. Basically Kibish is a big road with a cell tower (although most of the time no signal), a clinic, a school, the tourist office, a police station, some restaurants and little 'shops'. Right next to the big road there are some small Suri villages, for instance Anjo village, only a 5 minute walk from the main road. The next bigger village is Regge, a 15 minutes drive from Kibish away.

Bargoba village is a beautiful small village, located between Kibish and Regge. There is a very small campsite on the edge of the village, 'Bargula campsite', named after the chief of the village, Bargula. There was a long negotiation about the price: 30 Birr per night (which is cheap), additionally a present for the chief in form of one liter bottle high percentage liquor and the chief insisted to be our scout, although we had our own scout with us. Suri are excellent business people, there is no doubt. Anyway, we accomplished a mutual consent and spent four days in the village, and it was really great.

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In the villages you can see the daily life of the Suri, mostly women, young girls and little children. The boys and young men are usually at the cattle places. There are not many old people in the villages, only some old women, and sometimes you can see an old man. Very often you hear about families without father, because the father died in a Donga fight or in a fight between Suri and other tribes. The day before we arrived in Bargoba village, 3 Suri men died in a Donga fight and one Suri man died at a wedding ceremony.

If you are lucky you can witness scarification of girls or boys with razor blade and a thorn. Or you can watch the blood drinking ceremony, a ritual where a Suri man shoots with a bow and arrow the jugular vein of a bull and drink its blood. And of course you find everywhere the children with their painted faces and the really creative use of local plants. All in all a wonderful experience. My 17-year old Suri guide was not only a brilliant Donga fighter (recognizable at the bunch of beautiful necklaces, all presents from girls for victories at Donga ...), he was also an excellent Suri cook. Therefore we had often Suri dinner, like for instance corn porridge (maize) with cabbage. The corn porridge is wonderful, first the corn is roasted, then finely ground with a stone, and salt added to the porridge, which is cooked on open fire. Suri men learn to cook, when in dry season the cattle places are far away from the villages, and the girls only bring once or twice per week food ingredients instead of complete cooked dinner (which they do in case the cattle place is near the village).

I said my guide was 17 years old, well here is the truth: he told me, that his mother thinks he is 17 years old, because the Suri don't know years or months or seasons like winter/summer/spring/fall. Hence they don't know exact birthdays or year of birth. A Suri knows about the raining and dry seasons as a cycle, and a 'month' is represented by the moon cycle. A word for the number '1000' exists in Suri language, but this word varies, is very complicated and very often the people don't know it at all. To simplify things for the Suri, numbers above hundred are often a combination between the Amharic and Suri language: 'mato raman' means '200', 'mato' is Amharic, 'raman' is Suri.

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Another fascinating experience was the trip to the gold mining area. We visited Bashagi, this gold mine is 40 km away from Kibish. Especially young people are going to the gold mines to earn some money. They walk in groups for almost 2 days from Kibish to the gold mines, and stay there for 8 -10 days. On the one hand it looks like a big fascinating adventure trip for the young Suri people, the youngest are about 12 years old. On the other hand it is really hard work, and it doesn’t bring much money to the young miners, all in all something like 400 Birr in 8 days. But also older people are working in the gold mines, especially when they need money like for instance buying more cows for the price of their wedding. In the evening there was a big dance at the police station of the gold mines, where most of the people were sleeping. The dancers were mainly singing a specific Bume song which I heard very often during the whole trip. Singing a Bume song is also a good sign that nowadays the Suri and Bume tribe live in peace together.

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