Sunday, June 15, 2008

African Adventure: O merci, its the MURSI people!

Before you start to read, you might want to scroll down and look at the pictures and place the images in your mind as you read. Southern Ethiopia has many different tribes, most are visually, linguistically and culturally different despite living so close to each other. In fact it was not until quite recently that some of the more remote tribes had even heard that a country called Ethiopia existed! One of the more bizarre tribes are the Mursi people because of the large clay lip plate worn by most of the women. We visited a Mursi village located in Margo Park in south western Ethiopia close to the town of Jinka and this is what we saw and learned about these people.

They are now used to visits by westerners and when we arrived they ran out to the Landy. The chief, quite a young man, was the only person who spoke any English and he approached us wearing just a small blanket around his waist and an AK47 on his shoulder. He said hello and that if we wanted to take photographs we had to pay him 20 birr each (that's about $2.50) and we must pay 2 birr to each person we photograph, and 5 birr to each to take video. Within a few minutes we were surrounded by about 20 or 30 people, many of the women with lip plates, some with interesting head dresses, and many of both the men and women with white body paint. Every man had an AK47 draped over their shoulder, all with clips full of ammunition. This is an much a status symbol as anything and I never saw it used in aggression.

I could not get a straight answer on the reason for the lip plate, but the consensus opinion seems to center around making the women as unattractive as possible so once they are married, no other man will find them physically appealing enough to commit adultery. The other reason I was told was so the women were made to look grotesque to prevent being abducted by slave traders. I am not sure to which slave traders this refers, but this area is quite close to the border with Sudan where people are still taken as slaves for the north.

How is the lip plate inserted? Well the best way to find this out is to look at the video clip where we show a plate being inserted! A hole is cut in the lower lip and to start with a small plate is inserted. Then over time progressively larger plates are used which stretches the lip. The lower from teeth are also punched out using some kind of chisel to make room for the plate.

Another tribe in southern Ethiopia, called the Samura, also have lip plates. However, the larger the lip plate the greater the price the brides will fetch when she is married.

Although it was fascinating visiting the Mursi people, and I really hit it off with some of the men as I helped fix some of the guns that were broken and traded a new bag strap (which they used as a gun strap) for some bracelets, over all it was an exhausting experience. Of the 7 hours one day and 4 hours the next morning we spent with the Mursi people, we were constantly poked, pinched, and pulled about with requests to take photos for which of course they want payment. But the real kicker is that after you have taken the picture, they usually refused the money you offered and wanted more. Without exception, and even when the amount of money was made very clear before you took the photos, they asked for more. Most of the time the chief or one of the men would intervene to settle the dispute. I asked Bob & Merlin (the missionaries with whom we are staying) about this as they have worked in this area for years, and they said that the Mursi people have little sense of truth, honesty, or agreements. In fact I felt really bad for one little boy. I had some keyring lights (given to us by ASU) which we would give to some of the kids. This one little boy loved the little light. So I gave him one after I took his picture with the digital camera (which I the showed him) and he was delighted, literally elated with a huge smile and ran around with his new toy. However, a few minutes later, a woman came to me and handed back the light with the poor little boy next to her
almost in tears and demanded money. Once again this was settled by one of the men (actually the tough looking guy in the top row of the pictures below) and the little boy got back his light much to his delight.

What I have found ironic time and time again, is that the things we often do not like so much about the places or people we visit are actually a product or rather caused by us visiting the place or people. For example, most of the Mursi women want only to have their picture taken so its almost impossible to interact with them. But this is because just about every visitor to the village wants to take pictures (us included). However, irresponsible tourism can make the situation much worse. For example, many visitors feel sorry for the people because they live in grass huts and have skins as cloths etc, so give them things like cloths, money, sweets, and almost anything they ask for.

This simply teaches the people to expect any visitor to give them things they for which they ask, to look at visitors only as a source of money and material items, and to be blunt, it turns the people into beggars. I am glad we adopted our philosophy of generally not giving handouts, but to give something in return for help, or as a trade. This is not because we "want" something in return all the time, but I want to try and not turn the people we meet into beggars who beg for handouts.

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