The Suri are an agro-pastoral people and inhabit the mountains of the Great Rift Valley in the plains of south-western Ethiopia. As a people, they pride themselves on the scars they carry.
In this remote Ethiopian tribe, members undergo extremely painful rituals including lip plates, scarification and dangerous stick fighting all.
Scarification is the act of “covering, disguising and transforming the body” by creating wounds in one’s own flesh in order to cause indelible markings. It is perhaps one of the most misunderstood body modification procedures done today. It is largely perceived in Western society as a harmful cultural practice.
Scarification is widely practiced in some manner in almost every society in Africa and has held a strong cultural significance in many civilizations including the Suri.
The Suri pride themselves on their scars and how many they carry. Their women perform decorative scarification by slicing their skin with a razor blade after lifting it with a thorn. After the skin is sliced the piece of skin left over is left to eventually scar.
When girls hit puberty they have their bottom two teeth removed before a small hole is cut into their bottom lip.
A clay disc is then inserted into the hole, which is steadily increased.
Having a lip plate is a sign of female beauty and appropriateness; a common thought is that the bigger the plate, the more cattle the woman is ‘worth’ for her bride price, though this is denied by some.
On the other hand, the men traditionally scar their bodies after they killed someone from an enemy group. Together with stick-dueling (Donga), such a custom, which is quite painful, is said by some observers to be a way of getting the younger Suri used to seeing blood and feeling pain.
The ‘Donga’ or stick fight – a combination of martial art, ritual and sport – has traditionally been a way men impress women and find a wife.
The participants fight with little or no clothing, and the violent clashes sometimes result in death. As well as providing an opportunity to attract a partner, the fights aim to get young men used to bloodshed – which communal leaders believe comes in handy if they clash with other tribes.
Battles usually take place between Suri villages, which can consist of between 40 and 1,000 people.
Religion and Beliefs
The Suri have a sky god named Tumu. The Suri also believe in spirits and take recourse to (female) ‘diviners’ as well. Another belief of the Suri is in rainmaking. This skill is passed down through heredity and is only given to one male in specific clans. When his services are needed, the men collect chips from a specific tree. These chips are then masticated and the remaining juice is then mixed with clay. This combination is poured and smeared over the man’s body. After this process, rain is expected to fall.
Danger of Displacement
According to “tribal peoples advocacy groups” (Survival International and Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees), the Suri are still in danger of displacement as they are being denied access to their traditional grazing and agricultural lands.
The current threats to Suri and neighbouring groups’ livelihoods are massive state-led ventures like construction of the Gibe-3 (Omo) dam that was completed in 2016. The project eliminated river-bank cultivation and led to water scarcity, this as well as other ongoing construction have seriously affected livelihoods, biodiversity, resources, and space, and do not lead to human development of the Suri people.