Surma

The Surma ,who live on the western bank of Omo River along the western edge of Omo National Park, have the Sudan in their west ,the Mursi and Bodi in their East,the Bume in their south and the Majangir in their North. They are about 42 thousand in Number.

The Surma, who are agro-pastoralists, primarily live on milk and blood ,and plant ,sorghum ,maize and Millet to subsidize their diet. Living in a dome shaped huts and Donga stick fight are the two typical distinctive features of these people which they share with the neighboring Mursi people. Infact, the Surma ,who are from the Nilo-Sahara linguistic group, are the largest from the Surmic family which includes the Mursi, the Chai,the Tirma,and the Bale.

 

Like their neighbors , the Surma also paint their bodies. They create a variety of designs on their necked bodies using their finger tips which helps them to expose their dark skins.The painting could have both a beautifying and opponent frightening purpose. As one studies these body paintings whirls, stripes ,flower and star designs are noticeable. The girls also get painted by Surma men who are generally believed to be expert artists.The deadly iron Wrist knife ,which is used in cattle raids and during fightings against their sworn enemies ,is a vital weapon for the Surma.

The lip plates of Surma and Mursi Women

A new sect of people from Europe and other parts of the world who pierce their lips and other parts of their body in aspiration to be like some tribes in the wilderness of Africa are coming in to the scene. Apart from this new trend in the modern society, there are very few groups of societies in the world whose women wear labial and lobular plates. The Mursi and the Surma, who live in the lower Omo valley region of Ethiopia, are the most typical ones.

The plates, made from red or black mud or wood, are produced into different sizes by the mursi/surma women themselves. The shape varies from circular to trapezoidal, some of them being hollow-centered, and with decorative incisions.

These plates are worn by a mursi or Surma young woman in her twenties. First, when a mursi or surma girl is contemplating of marriage, about six months prior to her engagement, the lower lip will be cut into which a small wooden or clay disk is inserted. Gradually the plates or disks will be progressively replaced until the required plate size is attained. The plates have a symbolic function.The bigger the lip plates the higher the bride price. These plates should be worn all the time except when sleeping and at private mealtime. It is also possible to remove the plates when there are no Mursi or Surma men around.

Concerning the tradition, there are a number of beliefs as to why the Mursi/Surma women ended up wearing plates. Some say it is a strategic measure taken by the Surma fore fathers to discourage the Arab slave traders who were looking for unblemished slave girls. The second suggestion is related to the belief of the Surma/Mursi people themselves. These people believe evil spirits possess a person entering by way of his mouth. So lip plates are taken as a preventive measure. The third and most likely theory is to declare social status of the girl's family by showing the number of cattle expected for her hand in marriage.

The Donga of Surma and Mursi people

The Mursi are believed to have evolved in to a new group from the source Surmic people sharing some common culture like the ritual dueling of stick fight which is an art that allows young boys to win the honor among the community and hearts of young girls for marriage.

The duel is conducted with a purpose of showing strength and masculinity with out a serious risk of death as a result of the fight. In fact, if the duelist, either knowingly or by mistakes, happens to kill his competitor there will always be a serious consequences like property confiscation ,being banished from the village, and giving their daughters as compensation for the deceased family or close relatives.

On the day the duel is to be conducted , many people from the society including the relatives of the competitors will gather together in a specially prepared forest clearing. The duelists ,painting their faces with the intention of intimidating their opponent with their fierce look, approach the area chanting and covering their susceptible body parts meticulously with cotton clothing and holding ,high in the air, a six feet tall stick on their hands. Small hand and elbow protection shields will be worn by the combatants. The fighting stick, which is the only weapon used on the duel, will always have a kind of phallus carving at its tip signifying masculinity.

Holding the stick with their both hands at its base they begin kicking one another fiercely until on of the duelist is unable to continue the fight. It is possible that both of the fighters might sustain a sever injuries but killing one another is strongly forbidden-the only rule of the game .The referee might intervene if he believes an opponent might deliver a fatal blow.

On a single stick fight ceremony day as many as forty duelists might participate and each one of them should compete at least once. Winners will continue to fight with other winners until a final victor emerges. But losers are expected to accept their defeat gracefully and withdraw from the field. The final victor will be carried up on a platform of poles and taken to a group of unmarried young girls, one of whom will choose him as her future husband.

Donga stick fight is conducted every year at the end of a successful harvest. The ceremony begins at the end of the rainy season and continues for three months(November-January).


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