Return to Africa Gallery top

The Surma People of the Omo Valley : Ethiopia

The Surma People (also spelled Suri : the Ethiopian government's collective name for various clans with similar language and customs : the Chai, Timaga, and Suri Baale ) are a community inhabiting the fertile part of the Omo Valley area of southwestern Ethiopia, very near to the border with South Sudan, from where scholars believe they actually originated. The area is called Suri Woreda (or district), and is in the Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR). The economy of the Suri is based on livestock herding and agriculture. They keep cattle and goats, the main source of wealth. Crops planted are sorghum, maize, cassava, cabbage, beans, yams, spice plants and some tobacco. During the dry season, the Surma also collect honey. The Surma pan gold in nearby streams which they sell for cash to highland traders. Suri women also used to make earthenware pots and sell them to neighbours, like the Dizi, and they also sell produce of game hunting, but these activities have sharply declined in the past decades. They now also produce local beer (gèso) for sale. The average married male in the Suri tribe owns somewhere between 30 and 40 cows. These cows are not killed unless needed for ceremonial purposes. Every young male has a "favourite cattle" name, or nickname : his friends will call him by the name of his favorite cow. Cows are very important to the Surma - economically, socially, symbolically - and at times they risk death to protect their herd. Suri men are also judged by how much cattle they own. Men are not able to marry until they have a sufficient number to pay the dowery to the bride's family. Cows are given to his prospective wife’s family during and after the initial wedding ceremony. To praise their cattle or mourn their deaths, the Surma sing songs for them.

Piercing lips and lobes and inserting lip plates are a strong part of the Suri culture. Only the women have lip plates. At puberty most young women have their lower teeth removed in order to get their lower lip pierced. Once the lip is pierced, it is then stretched and lip plates of increasing size are then placed in the hole of the piercing. Having a lip plate is a sign of female beauty and appropriateness; a common thought is that the bigger the plate, the more cattle the woman is "worth" for her bride price, or dowery, though this is denied by some. There are also rumours that say that this custom began with some taboo related to oral sex. More and more young girls are trying to resist this custom... but many men definitely find the women more attractive with lip plates. Some scholars say that this custom began as an effort to make the women less desirable to slave traders.

The Surma pride themselves on their scars and how many they carry. Women perform decorative scarification by slicing their skin with a razor blade after lifting it with a thorn. After the skin is sliced the piece of skin left over is left to eventually scar. On the other hand, the men used to traditionally scar their bodies after they killed someone from an enemy group. Together with stick-duelling (see below), such a custom, which is quite painful, is said by some observers to be a way of getting the younger Surma used to seeing blood and feeling pain.

Surma Stick fighting or "Donga" : A sport and ritual the Suri take very seriously is ceremonial duelling with sticks. Each "team" is comprised of exclusively unmarried men who hope to gain respect from their families and community by proving their bravery, but it is also a nuptial ritual. The fights usually take place between two villages during harvest time, draw large audiences, and start with 20 to 30 representatives of each side, all of whom get a chance to duel against someone from the other side. During these fights there are referees present to make sure the rules are being followed. The young men of each village come to the special Donga site each with a group of young unmarried women "cheerleaders". As the winner of a combat from one village has the right to choose one of the "cheerleaders" from the opposing village : Each team member is therefore actually wagering his sisters and female cousins : this is very much a nuptial ritual : giving the young an opportunity to "hook up" with unmarried youths from other villages. If you watch carefully, you can see some of the "cheerleaders" discretely raising her hand and smiling shyly to attract the attention of the winner of the combat in order to indicate that she wants to be chosen. It is not uncommon for stick fights to end within the first couple of hits, ( if one of the combatants falls to the ground he is defeated ) but at the same time, the violence can be extraordinary and deaths are not unheard of, especially from hits to the stomach. The closest hospital is generally at least 170 kilometers away depending on the location of the villages. As the injuries can be very serious, and the fact that deaths are not rare, the Donga was "officially" at least delared illegal in 2010.