Unlike the Hamer, or the Khonso or the Dorze, the Mursi tribe has no organized way of dealing with tourism. This is a shame, considering that they’re arguably the most interesting tribe in Ethiopia; they’re famous for their plate-lipped women, honey-hunting and blood-drinking.
According to some Ethiopians I spoke to, they’re also savages, lacking any religion (animism isn’t considered a “religion” in the eyes of some Christians and Muslims), prone to theft and lacking any respect for outsiders. The fact that clothing never really caught on with them also seems to demean them in the eyes of other, more progressive, tribes. One man, in the nearby town of Jinka, said “my people are civilized; we use clothes.” He told me of a hoary feud in which the Mursi killed a member of his tribe (I think he said he was Suri), and an elderly Mursi woman was killed in return.
Indeed, before visiting the Mursi village, we picked up an interpreter and an armed guard to accompany us.
But before all this, we had stopped at a Karo village. It was very picturesque, overlooking a magnificent river and ravine. These people had it good, but they were not opposed to collecting a few extra Birr from tourists looking for some nice photos:
The Karo, like the Hamer, practice bull-jumping – but they no longer whip their women. Other than than, I didn’t learn much about them; we spent very little time in their village.
The Mursi are mountain people, and the drive up to their area held some nice views. As we approached our target village, it started to rain. This made it extremely difficult for me to shoot photos from the car, something that I always endeavor to do, if not always very successfully. Shooting from the car means that I get candid images of local people, not posed, staged, shots. I’ll post a couple of these. It’s unfortunate that the quality isn’t good, but it does give them a certain spooky character. These were my first glances of the Mursi:
As soon as we arrived at the village, many women and girls gathered around us (I was with 2 Japanese tourists) and very aggressively prodded us to take their photos. Each photo would cost us 5 Birr (only a few cents). They grabbed our arms, pinched us, placed themselves directly in front of us, all the while announcing “discount! 5 Birr!” or other words to that effect. It was awkward to say the least, and somewhat dehumanizing as well. On top of that, in an effort to gain the attention of tourists, they’d wear their most outrageous costumes; obviously, they don’t go about this way normally. My understanding was that these costumes are intended for ceremonies. But we did get some interesting shots, and they did make some money, so I guess everybody won.
I had to venture to the outskirts of the village to find some Mursi men to photograph. These guys didn’t make themselves up for tourists; this is how they normally go about:
They spend their days exposed to the elements, their skin is rough and they are sturdy. The British man, who was living with the Hamer, told me the Mursi are “scary people.” I began to see what he meant. I approached one of their huts at random and took this photo:
I asked about the significance of the jaw bone near the entrance, and was told that it’s simply leftover food. I imagined Mursi women, lacking lower incisors (they’re taken out, at an early age, for the plates), gnawing on the jaw and then casually discarding it on the floor.
Here are a couple of shots my Japanese friends took. They just emailed them to me:
While wandering about (actually, trying to get away from the ladies), I saw a heavyset man sitting by a hut. He appeared, at the time, to be the only sane person in the village. It turned out he was the village chief, his name is Oli and he’s well-traveled. He spoke English, so we chatted a bit:
Oli has two wives. They would have cost him a total of 120 cows or so – unless there’s a bulk discount.