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Surma warrior with AK-47 near Turgit - Ethiopia

The classic way for the Surma / Suri: naked, with just a piece of tissu on the back, with a Kalashnikov. First , you feel uncomfortable when you see them, then it becomes easy to live!

Surma are not circumcised, so they are very curious about the ethiopians from Addis for example who are cut. My guide told me that when he fist came in Turgit, he could not take a shower without having 50 people watching at him!

Big ads campains for circumcision are made around Gambella as it seems that it helps to prevent from Aids.

Body paintings are central in the culture of the Omo Valley ethnic groups, in Ethiopia, like the Suri or the Mursi. These paintings made with clay and water, by sliding the fingers on the body, do not only have a decorative purpose. Indeed in these cultures body paintings have a social role and are part of several rituals. The first periods of a girl, the birth of the first child for a woman, the death or a disease of a family member, or the killing of an enemy are circumstances justifying the decoration of the body with paintings. Forms and colours of body paintings in the culture of the tribes of the Omo Valley have a specific meaning. For instance, white color is related to the action of herding cattle. Surma sheperds fully coat themselves with white in order to locate each other from far distances.

Body paintings are especially made during the long periods spent in the camps where the cattle is kept by young men and women. These camps are located far away from the village and the pratice of body painting is an informal and play event seen as an expression of liberty and independance for these young people.

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

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Taken on July 3, 2010