The term Surma is the Ethiopian government’s collective name for the Suri, Mursi and Me’en groups that inhabit the southwestern part of the country, with a total population of 186,875. All three groups speak languages belonging to the Surmic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Some authors have used the terms “Suri” and “Surma” interchangeably, or for contradictory purposes.
Suri or Shuri is the name of a sedentary pastoral people and its Nilo-Saharan language. They inhabit the Bench Maji Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR) in Ethiopia as well as parts of neighbouring South Sudan. Some are also found west of Mizan Teferi. Population: 20,622 (1998 est.).
Mursi or Murzu is the name of a closely related sedentary pastoral Nilotic people whose language (Mursi) is over 80% cognate with Suri. They are located next to the Suri, in the center of the SNNPR and the lowlands southwest of Jinka in the Debub Omo Zone. The Mursi do not regard themselves as Surma, despite the cultural and linguistic similarities. Population: 7,500 of whom 92.25% live in the SNNPR (2007 census).
Me’en is the name of a closely related sedentary pastoral people whose language, Me’en, is over 80% cognate with Mursi. They are located in and around Bachuma, and in lowlands to the south, near the Omo River. Population: 151,489 of whom 98.9% live in the SNNPR (2007 census).
All three peoples share a similar culture. Their homeland is remote, located in desolate mountains, and traditional rivalries with their tribal neighbors such as the Nyangatom have become quite bloody as automatic firearms have become available from the parties in the Sudanese Civil War. The police allow foreigners to travel there only with a hired armed guard.
They have a fierce culture, with a liking for stick fighting called Donga or Saginay bringing great prestige to men — it is especially important when seeking a bride — and they are very competitive, at the risk of serious injury and occasional death. The males are often shaved bald, and frequently wear little or no clothes, even during stick fights.
At a young age, to beautify themselves for marriage, most women have their bottom teeth removed and their bottom lips pierced, then stretched, so as to allow insertion of a clay lip plate. Some women have stretched their lips so as to allow plates up to sixteen inches in diameter. Increasing with exposure to other cultures, however, a growing number of girls now refrain from this practice. Their children are sometimes painted with white clay paint, which may be dotted on the face or body.
Their villages normally range in size from 40 to 1,000 people, but a few may reach 2,500 people. Village life is largely communal, sharing the produce of the cattle (milk and blood, as do theMaasai). Though their chiefs (styled komaro) may wear the fur crown of a pagan priest-king, they are merely the most respected elder in a village and they can be removed. Few Surma are familiar with Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and their literacy level is very low.
According to Suri oral tradition, they came to their present territory near Mount Naita about 200 years ago from the banks of the Nile River. First they came to the Akobo (eastwards from the Nile). Then the Meyun clan (part of the Suri at the time) went south to settle at Boma while the remaining Suri traveled across the border and settled at Koma. Around 1890, the Suri were constantly harassed by the Amhara, Gimira and Tirma. As a result of this harassment, numerous Suri were forced to join the Meoun clan (at Meyun). In 1925, not long after this incident, the Suri settled on the Boma Plateau.
The Suri is not the only tribe in the south of Ethiopia. There are around twelve more, and all are surrounded by tension. Each tribe has its own share of weapons, making battles more violent. The Suri have one primary enemy, the Nyangatom. On a regular basis the Nyangatom and another enemy of the Suri, the Toposa, team up to raid the Suri’s cattle. The Second Sudanese Civil War has also taken a toll on the Suri. This conflict has pushed neighboring tribes into Suri’s land and is a constant competition to keep what they have. Gun battles are most common during the dry season. Around this time the Suri move their cattle down south to find new ground. State authorities haven’t made these hundreds of deaths their priority or provided any form of justice for those involved.
The Suri have a sky god named Tuma. The Suri also believe in spirits and use medicine men to undertake sacrifices or prayers and directly send them to Tuma. Another belief of the Suri is their rainmaker. This position in the tribe is passed down through heredity and is only given to one male in the tribe. When the tribe feels 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 a man’s body. After this process, rain is expected to fall.
Piercing and lip plates are a strong part of the Suri culture. At the point of puberty most women have their bottom teeth removed in order to get their lower lip pierced. Once the lip is pierced, it’s then stretched and a lip plate is then placed in the hole of the piercing. Having a lip plate is a sign of beauty and the bigger the plate, the more cattle the woman is worth. This is important when the women are ready to get married.
It is still unknown why and how lip plates came to be used. One theory says lips plates were used to discourage slave owners from taking the women who had them. In recent years, some young women are refusing to have their lips pierced.
The Suri pride themselves on their scars and how many they carry. Women perform 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. On the other hand, the men scar their bodies after they kill someone from an enemy tribe. These rituals which are extremely painful are said by some anthropologists are a type of controlled violence; a way of getting the younger tribe members used to seeing blood and feeling pain. It is also a way of adapting these young children to their violent environment. The Suri also paint their bodies white for some occasions.