Suddenly, two elaborately painted young boys appear, joyfully hopping around on self-
made stilts. "They belong to the Benna tribe", Destaw explains. It means that we have
arrived in that 'other world' of Ethiopia.
Don't mess around with a Mursi
One of the most iconic tribes from the Omo Valley are the Mursi. No matter how many
times you've seen them on National Geographic, nothing can prepare you for an encoun-
ter with them. The Mursi have jet black skin, their bodies are angular and they smell like
the soil that is caked to their calves and feet. The coarse cloths they have half-heartedly
wrapped around themselves still leave little to the imagination. Nipples are readily avai-
lable for hungry babies. When we get out of the jeep, the tribe members look at us with
grumpy, almost hostile faces. Needless to say, we are quite intimidated. It's not for
nothing that the Mursi tribe has a reputation for belligerence. Many tribe members walk
around with AK-47s, which don't go unused. Instinctively, we take a step back as the
group approaches us. Before we realise, they are all over us, unabashedly. The women
are pinching our arms, ruffle our hair and continuously spit on the ground. We try to cre-
ate an arm-length of distance, but for the Mursi that is not an option. Their hands even
disappear underneath our shirts, to places we really don't want them to be.
Meanwhile, we stare at the huge clay disks that adorn the lower lips of the Mursi women.
There are many theories as to why the women wear these lip plates. The size of the plate
might determine the size of the dowry, or it might have been introduced to scare off the
slave traders. The Mursi themselves reject all these theories, and instead claim that the
lip plates serve to distinguish themselves from the other tribes and to please their men.
No matter what the reason, inserting a lip plate doesn't happen without a struggle. The
moment a girl reaches sexual maturity, an incision is made between the lower lip and the
mouth. During the next couple of years, the opening is increasingly stretched, until it's
large enough to insert a small clay disk. The stretching continues, the hole growing big-
ger and bigger. Eventually, some women even manage to fit in a disk of 15 centimetres.
That's the size of a dessert plate!
On top of that, in order to create enough space, the two front lower teeth have to be
pulled. And there's no anaesthesia in these parts. But the Mursi – and by extension also
many other tribes in the Omo Valley – have an unusually high pain threshold. Their sca-
rifications are a testament to this. Both men and women cut their skin with razorblades,
and rub sand and ash in the wounds. This hampers the healing process, making the scar
tissue thicker. We have to admit though; the patterns are intricate and made with an eye
On pictures, the Mursi women can always be seen with a beautifully decorated plate in
their lip, but in reality, the plates are not worn as often, as they are heavy and – who
would have thought – uncomfortable. The sight of a plateless lip rather unappealing. What
remains is a strange piece of loose lip flesh, that reminds us of the dangly bits of a mus-
sel. Not very attractive, to say the least.