Surma: The Suri people in the southwestern part of Ethiopia

Surma is the official Ethiopian umbrella term for three ethnic groups in South Ethiopia: the Suri people, the Mursi people and the Mekan people. Very often the name 'Surma' is used for the Suri people as well, but this is wrong, a Suri would never call himself a 'Surma'. The Suri people are semi-nomadic cattle herders and live on the west side of the Omo River in the southwestern part of Ethiopia. This area is still much undeveloped, only an unpaved road leads to the heart of the Suri settlements: Kibish.

Suri people have a cattle-centered culture, the wealth of a family is measured by the number of animals owned. Usually the animals are not eaten unless a big ceremony takes place. The animals are used for milk and blood which they both drink. Sometimes Suri warriors are preparing a mixture of cattle blood and milk for a ceremonial rite called 'cow bleeding'.


Like the Mursi people the Suri women are wearing lip plates. The girl's lower lip is cut when she reaches the age 15 or 16. The girl's lip is pierced by her mother or another woman of her settlement and a simple wooden plug is inserted. The cut is held open by the wooden plug until the wound heals. After that the plug is replaced by a bigger one. The stretching of the lip continues by inserting progressively larger plugs over a period of several months. At a diameter of about 4 cm the first lip plate made of clay can be inserted, the final diameter ranges from about 8 cm to over 20 cm. Nowadays the girls in some Surma settlements decide for themselves whether to wear a lip plate or not. However, wearing a lip plate is still an expression of social adulthood and self-esteem for a Suri woman and demonstrates respect for the men.

The Suri tribe is used to conflict, like for example the constant conflict with the neighboring Nyangatom tribe over land and cattle. The Suri culture demands that the men are trained as warriors as well as cattle herders. Stick-fighting events like the 'Zegine' (or 'Saginay', also commonly known as 'Donga', like the Mursi call the stick fights) take place to train boys and young men and also to allow them to meet women. However, in the past a new 'gun culture' emerged among the Suri men. The Kalashnikovs are omnipresent and threaten to destabilize their society. Many ceremonies like weddings or funeral celebrations look more like a military ceremony these days with a lot of Kalashnikovs and many gunshots. Even the stick-fighting events 'Zegine' are accompanied with gunshots, sometimes deadly in case too much local beer was involved. As a result the Ethiopian government banned the stick fights, which now have to take place secretly and without presence of tourists.

When you visit the Surma area you probably follow the road from Tum to Koka and Tulgit and finally Kibish. Most of the tourists are going directly to Kibish, which is the biggest settlement in the area with a police station, a tourist office, two small restaurants, some shops, and, if you are very lucky, a cold beer. Around Koka, Tulgit and Kibish there are many small Suri villages which can be reached easily by foot.

In Tulgit and Kibish you find many children by the riverbank waiting for photos in the afternoon. The usage of flowers for decoration is a wonderful habit of the children. The kids decorate themselves with flowers, blossoms and green plants they can find everywhere around the villages. However, as nice as it looks, the decoration with the flowers is not an old tradition, you cannot see this kind of decoration in remote Suri villages. The kids, also the boys, are doing it for photos and for getting a little money. But anyway: it is beautiful and funny. Especially the boys are very creative, they climb any tree they find and make bizarre faces or funny poses just to attract the tourists for a photo.

Take a look at the complete gallery of the Suri people in the gallery section.