Many of you requested we run Wraps from our Ethiopia trip last year. So before we begin our next on-the-ground series in Eastern Europe, we are running back one of the most popular installments from Ethiopia. We hope you enjoy!
Life is changing quickly in the Omo Valley.
Ethiopia’s population is divided between 80+ ethnic groups. The largest of those number in the tens of millions and have their own states; others number in the thousands and don’t.
Eight ethnic groups coexist in the Omo Valley. The valley surrounds the Omo River, which runs from northern Ethiopia to Kenya. Mountainous and traditionally without roads, the valley’s eight tribes – sometimes separated by no more than a mountain or a river – developed totally distinct customs and languages. Those tribes lived untouched by the outside world, including the Ethiopian government, until recent decades.
The tribes have since been discovered, though, and now face intense pressure to adapt to the times.
Last year, Roca’s editor and writer visited five of these tribes, beginning with the Mursi.
We left the regional capital before dawn and drove on a dirt road into the savannah. Rain turned the road to mud, and part of the way to our destination, our truck spun out and got stuck in the mud.
Once we had freed our jeep we continued on to the village.
A few miles short of it, we came to a roadblock, where a man in a toga-esque outfit holding an AK-47 waved us down. A woman with a sheet over her then approached the car, staring at us through the window.
We couldn’t help but stare back: She had a deformed lower lip that drooped to her chin, exposing all her teeth. A woman with a similar deformity approached from the other side.
They all said something in a language we didn’t recognize then waved us through.
These were the Mursi people, an Omo tribe famous for their lip plates.
Traditionally, when a Mursi girl reaches puberty, a woman in the tribe uses a knife or stick to cut a hole in the girl’s lip. A clay disc is then inserted into the hole, stretching the lip . At one time, the tradition was mandatory and all women had to regularly wear the discs.
Today, the practice is optional. Women now typically only wear the discs when feeding their husbands or on special occasions, but even when the disc isn’t inserted, the lips dangle.
We had hired a guide to help us converse with the Mursi, yet as soon as we arrived, they surrounded us not to talk but to sell trinkets.
A man came and asked for some money and told us that if we paid him, we could take as many pictures as we wanted. He assured us that even if the people didn’t want their photos taken, we could still take them.
There was one Mursi woman with whom we were able to have a proper conversation. She had lived in a city and spoke some English. When asked if she preferred village life or the city, she didn’t pause: The city, because it’s easier to get water and hygiene is better.
In the Mursi villages, water comes from a river and people live in huts made of sticks covered with grass. They farm and raise cattle, and life revolves around securing grazing and water access for them.
Around 4,000 Mursi people live like this near Ethiopia’s border with South Sudan.
There’s no doubt that this lifestyle is changing: In recent history, the idea of a woman moving to a city would have been unthinkable, the government had no say in local customs, and outsiders never visited.
Like most nearby tribes, the Mursi didn’t even use money. Now, foreigners are paying them for photos.
Is that a good thing?
Let us know what you think at [email protected]!