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.

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The cattle currency of the Suri people in Ethiopia

For the Suri people in Ethiopia it seems that everything centers around their cattle. Except of their Kalashnikovs of course. But that is another story. For a Suri the cattle is a very important status symbol. And it all starts for a boy at the age of about 14 or 15. At that time a boy gets cattle from his family, usually between 10 or 15 cows, depending on the prosperty of the parents. From now on the boy is responsible for his own cattle, and if possible he should try to increase somehow the amount of his cattle. And that for a good reason: when a young man wants to marry he has to pay for the bride, and there is only one currency: his cattle.


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The Future of South Omo Valley

The South Omo Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a unique and spectacular place, located in the south western part of Ethiopia. The Omo Valley hosts some of Africa's most fascinating and colorful nomadic and semi-nomadic ethnic groups like the Mursi, Kara, Hamer or Bodi tribe.


Many of the tribes, mostly small in size, are pastoralists and they practice flood-retreat agriculture along the Omo River. Until now the indigenous ethnic groups of the Omo Valley are some of the most traditional in Africa. But this can soon be over. The Ethiopian Agriculture and Rural Development State Minister Aberra Deressa claims: " .. at the end of the day we [do] not really appreciate pastoralists remaining in the forest like this ... pastoralism is not sustainable ... we must bring commercial farming, mechanized agriculture, to create job opportunities to change the environment."

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