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Ethiopia

The Mursi People of the Omo Valley and their King

When we arrived at the Mursi village, several women came to our vehicle to show us their lip plate. They were eager to show us because the Mursi people charge a fee for being photographed.

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And they made sure they had the money before photos could be taken. With the money in her hand, one lady proceeded to show us her famous lower lip and how far she could pull it down and how wide she could stretch it. They collect money from the tourists for photos for their income.DSC_0120And next, it was show time. She took the terra cotta lip plate from her hand up to her lip, stretched it wide and down to open it into a circle.DSC_0121 And then in 2 seconds she just slipped the disc into that circle and there was an iconic Mursi lady with the lip plate extended from her mouth. When the lip is cut for extension, the 2 middle lower teeth are also removed to accommodate the clay lip plate, also call a labret. And she then was considered beautiful and strong by the Mursi tribe members.

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We met this beautiful lady on the road to the Mursi village and she showed us her long lip loop, long ear loops, body scars and metal bracelets.

 At age 14-16, the Mursi girl’s Mother or family friend cuts a small hole in the her lower lip and inserts a small stick. Then, larger and larger plugs/discs are inserted to stretch the lip until the large disc plate can be inserted after several months. Ladies with the largest disc in her lip gets the biggest bride price for her family when she marries because the husband-to-be must give many of his cattle to her father for the marriage to occur. The lip plate is the Rite of Passage event from a girl to a woman who is ready for marriage. This has been the custom of the Mursi for hundreds of years. Each lady makes her own lip plate out of clay or wood and decorates it with geometric patterns and colors and then seals it with her breast milk. And if it breaks, she just makes another one.

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The Mursi are also known as the Most Fascinating tribe in the world because of their unique headdresses, are one of 2 or 3 tribes that wear lip plates, the stick fighting ceremony by the males which is ritualized violence because the one standing or alive at the end of the fight has the right to marry. Also they are fascinating because of their bartering and sharing goods with other tribes, and finally, the Mursi speak Nilo-Saharan a language spoken in their immediate area and many cannot read or write.
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Besides the lip plate, also called  a labret, the Mursi ladies are famous for their headdresses. The Mursi people are know as the most fascinating tribe in the world.

Just as soon as the Mursi lady had shown us her lip plate, our Mursi guide told us we have to get back in the vehicle. We did, but didn’t know why but did say the Mursi ladies would not negotiate a reasonable price for photos because they were drunk. We rode and rode into the bush on a dirt road full of large and small mud puddles with it splashing all over our vehicle as we sped up the site.

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A beautiful Mursi lady without her lip plate because meeting with their King was a private ceremony and they only wear the plate in public. Their scars show how they are strong, are adults and can stand the pain of childbirth.

We then walked and walked through the muddy water and cow manure to a site where hundreds of Mursi people had congregated. Our Mursi guide wanted us to see a special celebration the Mursi attend once a year. This was a private Mursi celebration and they only wear their lip plates in public. We were allowed to attend if we again paid another fee. We paid it and we were the only outsiders at the important yearly ceremony. But first, we had to shoulder greet the village chief.DSC_0149

 

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The King’s bodyguards.

When we first saw him, he was visiting with the village chief underneath a shade tree. Hundreds of cows were everywhere in the bush, grouped together by their owners. The day was super hot and muggy after all the rain.

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The leaders of each of the 9 Mursi tribes gather to watch the prediction proceedings.

 

All the rain, mud and cow manure didn’t bother the 200 plus people gathered at this annual 4-day Blessing of the Cows by King Bitongay.  Nine clans of the Mursi people in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia each sacrificed a cow this day. This was an honor event for the Mursi because a cow is a treasured member of the family like a child.

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King Bitongay points out his reading.

 The village chiefs from the clans were sitting and squatting in a circle intently watching the King’s every move as he pointed out lines and meanings of the lines. Every move he made and every word he said meant the future of each Mursi clan for one year.

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Another cow’s entrails arrive for the King to interpret for the coming year.

Now that each clan had sacrificed a cow in honor of their King, the entrails of each cow was brought to the King and chiefs one at a time and laid out in the middle of their circle. Then, the King would read the entrails, looking at and studying every turn, bulge, indention, color, shape and size of the entrails of that one cow. By this method, he could determine the future of that clan. A bad or good reading would be the final prediction. When he finished reading the entrails of one clan’s cow, then another cow’s entrails were delivered for its determinations until all 9 had been read.

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They are asking the King to schedule the stick fighting ceremony for the tribes so they can get married.

 

While these readings were being studied, a group of 10 men, all dressed in black and carrying 2½ meter long sticks, were running back and forth over and over singing a song in their language. The men were singing about their Rite of Passage from a boy to a man and asking for their ceremony to be held soon, for the winner could then be declared a man and eligible to marry.

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Nine Mursi tribes wait for the King to read their cow’s entrails and then bless the cows for the coming year.

 

The Rite of Passage Ceremony is two 18-year-old men from different clans about the same age, height, weight and strength fighting each other with a long stick. And the winner of the match is declared a man and is eligible to marry. The fighting men have places they can and cannot hit on their opponent’s body. Delicate areas like the head, private parts, knees, ankles, elbows and wrists are protected with a cotton cloth and were not allowed to be hit. Other than these areas, they were free to hit them over and over and over until the opponent gave up or died.

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The Mursi put dirt and ash in the body scars to make them pucker. The different scars signify strength, adulthood, belonging, strength, and show they can take the pain of childbirth.

The village chief served as the referee and set the rules which the 2 fighters had to follow. He had the absolute authority and final decision in each fight. The rules could be about anything anywhere on the body, or about time or place. If it appeared that one man was beating the other man to death, or it was obvious the other man was not able to finish the fight or was down and not getting up, the chief could end the stick fight and declare the winner a man. And the winner then would get to pick a woman to marry.DSC_0190

If the loser is going to marry having lost the stick fight, he has to pay his bride’s family 40-50 cattle. On the other hand, the winner pays 20 to 30 cattle to his bride’s family. Should the loser not desire to marry, he can fight next year. And if he should win the fight one year later, he has to pay 20-30 cattle to his bride’s family and he is now a winner.

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The King Bitongay and I were happy to meet and greet each other. He had arrived from the reading of the animal entrails behind us.

A Mursi man can marry several women and are the richest tribe in the Omo Valley because they have the most cows. But the King was the richest of them all and had several thousand cows, therefore he was the King. He inherited the title from his brother who had died. And the brother inherited the title from his Father upon his death.DSC_0160

The entrails had been interrupted from each of the 9 sacrificed cows and the determinations were made for each clan’s future. A bad reading meant famine and no food for them or their cattle and diseases for them and their cattle causing a clan to alter their ways and do different things to make it through another year until the entrails are read again. A good reading would mean food for them and their animals and they could continue on for another year like they had been doing with no changes. All of the clan’s entrails readings turned out to be good and the Mursi were very happy and thankful for a good year to come.DSC_0172

In another area of the bush, the 9 sacrificed cows were being cut into small sections for all the Mursi to take home with them. One had the skin, another had a leg, another one had part of the head, shank, sirloin, chuck, ribs, brisket, round, short plate and loin until every bit of the cow was gone. Each one was happy that they sacrificed their animal to honor their King and to have food to eat. But the Mursi only eat their animals when there is a drought, weddings, famine, and special occasions because they eat mostly porridge and blood. So this was a special occasion for their King and each one was honored to have another good year.

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Each tribe’s cows circle around and around the King as he bless them all.

 

The king now was ready to bless the 1200 cows from the clans in attendance on this first day of the 4-day celebration. As he prepared a Calabasas gourd with water and ash for good luck, the cattle were circling around and around him. As a clan’s herd approached, the King would sprinkle the ash water on them until all had been blessed.

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Taking the cow’s back to the tribal village.

Then the keeper of the herd would lead them back into the bush where they would wait until it was time to go home. Herd after herd of cattle was blessed by the King.

 

Standing by the King were the hundred or more Mursi women who had been resting in the shade. They wanted to be close to their King as he blessed their cattle for another good year. So they joined him in the blessing ceremony in the center of the bush area.DSC_0307

The celebration was almost over and the Mursi could go home with their meat and begin their daily ritual of drinking their special home brew. They had refrained from drinking in honor of the King this day, but now in their huts and village, they could drink the brew until drunk. And they do this every day until the King’s Blessing of the Cow Celebration next year when they will go without drinking for half a day in honor of their King. But they were happy for the King’s prediction of another good year for the people and the animals.

Photo Copy ©2016carolyntravels.com 

 

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The Mursi people greet each other by touching shoulder to shoulder.
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Thomas Yilma, our excellent guide with Ethiopian Kibran Tours (kibrantours.com) (thomasethiopian@gmail.com) showed some curious Mursi ladies their photos with the huge circles in their ears.
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The mud puddles mixed with cow manure flew all over our vehicle as we hurried to make it to the celebration in the bush.
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The beautiful Ethiopian landscape where the Mursi people live in the Omo Valley is all green from the rains and the crops are producing food for the people and cattle. Only the northeast part of Ethiopia in the desert has little rain and occasionally experiences drought and famine.
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King Bitongay greeted me with a handshake.