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Surma kids with decoration - Kibish Ethiopia

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.


Body paintings unfortunately also show the increasing impact of foreign turists. Suri people have developed and created new body paintings as well as new dress codes in order to attract tourists. They have understood that tourists would be more eager to take pictures from them with such decoratives paintings and ornaments, and to pay for it. A few years ago, Suri boys started to disguise by wearing flower headdresses, while Mursi girls started to wear small metallic rollers in their hair, that were formerly worn furing menstruation periods. These dress codes, invented for some of them, have lost their social and cultural meaning.

Noticing these strategies were successful neighboring tribes and villages started to imitate the Surma. These « ethno » tourists influence the material culture of the Omo Valley people and its expression, and by doing so, cause changes, they paradoxally don’t want to see happening.


© Eric Lafforgue

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Taken on July 5, 2010