Surma or Suri are sedentary pastoral people living in south west of Ethiopia, on the western bank of the Omo River, in the Kibish and Tulgit area.
These breeders tribal groups have a cattle centred culture. They grow cabbage, beans, yams, tobacco and coffee and breed their cattle, mostly cows, on their traditional lands, located in the Omo Valley. Cows are tremendously important for the Suris. 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. They use 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 40 cows. Every young male is named after their cattle, which they have to look after since the age of 8. Cows are given to the bride’s family after the wedding ceremony. Usually 20 cows and they offer also a Kalashnikov as wedding gift.
This central role of the cow in their way of life accounts for the fierce independence they want to preserve and explains their warlike culture. Indeed, it’s quite common to see men and even women carrying Kalashnikovs, 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 from Sudan who regularly team up to raid the Suri’s cattle. These fights, and even sometimes battles, have become quite bloody since automatic firearms have become available from the parties in the Sudanese Civil War. This conflict has pushed neighbouring tribes into Suri’s land and is a constant competition to keep and protect their territory and owns.
Like their neighbours, the Surma also paint their bodies. They create a variety of designs on their necked bodies using their fingertips, which helps them to expose their dark skins. The painting could have both a beautifying and opponent frightening purpose. As one studies these body paintings whirls, stripes, flower and star designs are noticeable. Surma men who are generally believed to be expert artists also paint the girls.
A ritual chief in the villages known as the Komoru, dressed in
colourful robes and wearing a crown of baboon fur leads the Suri.
Village life is largely communal, sharing the produce of the cattle
(milk and blood). The men in an assembly take decisions of the
Although their traditional remoteness and autarky is threatened, only few Surma are familiar with Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and their literacy level is very low. Lip plate and Donga stick fight are the two typical distinctive features of these people, which they share with the neighbouring Mursi people.
Suri women wear giant lip plate, a sign of beauty, like in Mursi tribe, and also a prime attraction for tourists which help to sustain a view of them, in guidebooks and travel articles, as an untouched people, living in one of the last wildernesses of Africa. When they are ready to marry, teenagers start to make a hole in the lower lip with a wood stick. It will be kept for one night, and is removed to put a bigger one. This is very painful at this time. Few months after, the lip plate has its full size, and the men see the girl as beautiful. The lip plate is made of wood or terracotta. They have to remove the lower incisors to let some space for the disc. Sometimes the pressure of the plate breaks the lip. This is a big problem for the girl because men will consider her as ugly, she won't be able to marry anyone in the tribe apart the old men or the sick people.
The Sagenai, called also donga ritual is a combat that brings both
wounds and honor to both the winner and loser. The men bodies are
decorated with ritual drawings and their heads are protected by a sort
of helmet. For the boys participating to the donga, this challenge is
a true moment of glory. The combat is taking place in a middle of a
circle made by the crowd. The rules are simple and can be summed up as
follows: the person who manages to stay on his feet is the winner, and
one must absolutely not kill his opponent. The winner will be honored
by the entire tribe and can choose girls to date.
The lands of the Suri are stolen by the Ethiopian government to be rented to foreign companies. A Malaysian company, Lim Slow Jin, runs the Koka plantation near Kibish on the east side of the Omo. The lands are confiscated and rented out for 1 euro per hectare for a year.
© Eric Lafforgue