Surma or Suri (as they call themselves) are sedentary pastoral people
living in south west of Ethiopia, on the western bank of the Omo
river. These breeders tribal groups have a cattle-centred culture.
They breed their cattle, mostly cows, on their traditional lands,
located in the Omo Valley. The economy of the Suri is based on
breeding and agriculture. They grow cabbage, beans, yams, tobacco and
coffee. Cows are tremendously important in Suri culture. They do not
see cattle simply as a material asset but as a life-sustaining and
meaningful companion. Suri even sing songs for them and make fires to
warm them. These cows are not bred for their meat and are usually not
killed unless they are needed for ceremonial purposes. The Surmas very
rarely eat the meat of their cows, they actually breed them for their
milk and their blood, which they both drink. Cows also have a social
and symbolic meaning in Suri’s society. Suri men are judged on how
much cattle they own. In desperate times, Suri men can risk their
lives to steal cattle from other tribes.The average male in the Suri
tribe owns from 30 to 40 cows. Every young male is named after their
cattle, which they have to look after since the age of 8. Men are not
allowed to marry until they own 60 cows. Cows are given to the bride’s
family after the wedding ceremony.
This central role of the cow in their way of life accounts for the fierce independance they want to preserve and explains their warlike culture. Indeed, it’s quite common to see men and even women carrying weapons which are part of the daily life. Their remote homeland has always been a place of traditional rivalries with the neighbouring tribes such as the Bume (Nyangatom) or the Toposa. who regurlarly team up to raid the Suri’s cattle. These fights, and even sometimes battles, have become quite bloody since automatic firearms like AK-47 have become available from the parties in the Sudanese Civil War. This conflict has pushed neighboring tribes into Suri’s land and is a constant competition to keep and protect their territory and their cattle. Gun battles are more common during the dry season, because around that time the Suri move their cattle down south to find new ground.
The 40 to 1,000 inhabitants villages of the Surmas, are led by a ritual chief known as the Komoru, dressed in colourful robes and wearing a crown of baboon fur. Village life is largely communal, sharing the produce of the cattle (milk and blood). Decisions of the village are taken by the men in an assembly. These debates are led by the Komoru, who are merely the most respected elder in a village even if they can be removed.
Although their traditional remoteness and autarky is threathened, only few Surma are familiar with Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and their literacy level is very low.
© Eric Lafforgue