Mursi tribes women with her lip plate

Endangered Indigenous Mursi Tribe in Ethiopia

A boom in technology is appreciated but not at the cost of destroying plantations and green spaces which are homes for various ethnic tribes and animals. For instance the Mursi tribe. The most dangerous tribes in Ethiopia who reside in the valleys of lower OMO rivers are feeling worried. They fear the construction of the Gibe III hydroelectric project, lots of deforestation. The tribe existed to stay over a century there, accustomed to the harsh environment. Moreover, losing their livelihood and starting afresh in a suburban area has left them feeling devastated.

Mursi tribes woman with her lip plate

Where does the Mursi Tribe Stay?

In the lower OMO valley in Ethiopia, the indigenous Mursi tribe can be found. They are residing for centuries together. Similarly, other tribes have also spent centuries of life. To locate the exact position to find the Mursi people of Ethiopia, the territory is bounded by the west of Sudan and the Mango river on the east. Additionally, OMO Wenz river on the south and the north Mt. Nayalibong Korea. The height of Nayalibong Korebta mountain is 1611 meters, also the western forefront of Mursi’s territory. However, the mountains are not preferred, but for easy access to food and water, the Mursi’s preference is the Great African Rift Valley.

To the far south-east corner of Ethiopia, the Mursi tribe are found. The OMO River forms the northern border of Kenya. In the remote OMO valley, paleontologists have discovered the remains of bodies of ancient people living on earth besides those from tribes who exist even today.

Mursi tribes woman with her ear plate

About the Mursi Tribe

The Mursi tribe has set up a developed management system for limited crop consumption. As far as history goes Sorghum is the staple diet for Mursi’s, the tribe feeds on livestock itself. Why Sorghum? Because it has better heat sustaining capacity. As well as remaining usable for a longer period. The Mursis prepare porridge from them after being grounded and cooked in firewood. 

Besides beans, chickpeas, and millets are also used by the Mursi as crops. A recent survey estimates the tribe contains about 10000 members. The language that belongs to the Nile-Sahara people is used by the Mursi tribe. However, the ill practices of the external world like alcohol, greed, and envy corrupted the warriors largely. The warriors get drunk. It reflects the grudge even behind their smile.

Tumwi, the eternal force of the sky is considered the most powerful above humans. Shaman or 

Komoru is the central figure who regulates the village. The Mursis strongly believe that shamans enable communication between Tumwi and villagers. Hence, the Mursi tribe believe the presence of komoru would be beneficial to their village or any place on Mursi land.

A group of Mursi Tribe boys

Age of Mursi tribe

During the reign of Emperor Menelik in the 19th century, Ethiopia assembled the Mursi Land as well. The Mursi tribe was formed 150 or 200 years back. Moreover, various nomadic races were involved to build the group. Today the Mursi tribe has gathered immense popularity because of its valuable traditional custom.

 Endangered Mursi Tribe In Ethiopia

Customs of Mursi Tribe Women

For testing perfection, for marriage and fertility, it is a custom for women to insert decorated plates of various sizes within their lower lips. It would be hard to confirm when the custom started but expectedly began[ in ancient times when slave trading became popular. Consequently, the Mursi took action to protect their women by making them look ugly. Hence the tradition of piercing lower lips got introduced in the Mursi tribe.

Method Used

The custom is prevalent within women who have attained puberty between fifteen years or sixteen years of age. Another woman from her clan slits the lower lip. Then insert wooden sticks in place. Furthermore, the number of sticks is increased. Every night the subject woman goes on repeating the process to stretch her lip to fit the plate. 

The plates are made of clay or wood. Generally, single or married women of the Mursi tribe have their lower lip stretched maximum of up to twelve-centimeter radius. Newlyweds and single ladies mostly wear the plates while serving food to guests, marriage events, participating in festivals like Donga or dancing. With age, the plates can be removed. The plates are completely removed for widows.


Wearing the size of a lip plate also relates to the dowry system. However, the dowry is not by cash, but kind. That is the exchange of a certain number of cattle, The cattle symbolizes wealth. As per the general belief, in the Mursi tribe, it was women with no disc in lips must be lazy and will fetch lesser wealth. However, those with bigger discs would be brave and perseverant. Besides, they will fetch a bigger amount of wealth. 


This unusual custom of wearing lip discs has attracted visitors a lot. Contributions made by the visitors have benefitted the tribes to sustain a living. Moreover, it is a source of income as well.

Modern Age

Progress in the modern world has impacted the views about old customs. It is highly questionable whether the custom would continue or not? Not only the government, but the women from the Mursi tribe feel the custom of lip discs is backdated. Some visitors also think so. Whereas some feel it is an old heritage practiced by Mursi to distinguish themselves from other tribes.

A wedding ceremony in the remote Mursi village Landi, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

The tradition of Mursi tribe Men

Omo valley is known as an arid region. High temperature, combined with low rainfall and droughts is common. As a protection to the harsh climate outside the clay paintings are applied to men’s bodies. The body paints contain clay and minerals derived from the earth. Not only sun guard, but the limestone content serves as an insect repeller. Hence, the tradition of body painting among men became important. Various designs and impressive artworks are displayed. As the mirrors are not available, the members of the Mursi Tribe men take the help of others to apply the paint.

Mostly, men of tribal families take care of the cattle herds. The conception is bigger the herd greater is his wealth. Moreover, if a father has an unmarried daughter he has to take extra care to ensure dowry requirements. Besides milk and meat source, the cattle were used for trade as well. In case of emergencies, the cattle can be exchanged in return for food crops.

A Festival of Mursi tribe Men, Ethiopia

Dressing of Mursi tribe

Traditionally goat skins were preferred for dressing by the Mursis. But modernization has largely affected the Mursi tribe. The introduction of cotton has led to the manufacture of designer garments for the people of Mursi. Both civilians and warriors of Mursi can be seen using colorful fabric around their hips. However, the women have stuck to goatskin as earlier.

Young Boys Mursi Tribe of Ethiopiawith zebra print on their body

Donga Festival of the Mursi tribe

Donga is a form of ceremony for dueling. Moreover, it is a platform where young Mursi men can display their worthiness to their would-be wives. Umoga is a dueling kit the contenders are provided. Besides being decorative the shin protectors are made from leopard skin that hangs from the torso of the contenders. Generally, cotton headgears are provided. Further, cattle -bells are tied to their waist, The duel fight involves wooden sticks which are almost two meters in length. The stick fight continues till the opponent is defeated.

Festival of Mursi Tribe Ethiopia

Future of Mursi tribe

About 200,000 tribal populations including the Mursi tribe have been living in southwest Ethiopia i.e. besides the lower OMO river valley. Further, seven more tribes can be accounted for. However, the hydroelectric plant Gibe III has been constructed by the Italians in 2006. In this project, a vast amount of plantation has been destroyed. Tribes of this area have been forced to vacate their space. Plans for Gibe IV and V are under consideration. Livelihood and dependence on the river and its annual floods will be highly impacted.

Bank Issue

In 2010 after a preliminary study of Gibe III, the African Development Bank and European Investment banks refused to fund Gibe III. But, the Industrial and commercial bank of China was interested in sponsoring part of the Gibes III project. Moreover, The drawing of power lines from the dam is being funded by the World bank.


The Omo valley is arid, tribes living have a rustic life here. The river waters were the sources of irrigation of plantations. Moreover, the resources of livelihood got affected. The long canals diverted the flowing water of the OMO river. Researchers, various national or international organizations, and hydrologists expect a large catastrophe in the region.

Resourceful kids from the Valley of the Omo River begging for money on the road

Life of Tribals in Omo Valley

The large variation in the ecosystem has made the OMO valley a spectacular location. The valley consists of one among few ”pristine” forests with wildlife existence. Further, the valley contains volcanos and grasslands. The main portion of livelihood for the tribes is possible because of annual flood cycles on Omo. These annual floods in Omo were a source of biodiversity, yearlong livelihood, as well as food supply, could be ensured. Cultivation was based on the flood retreat process. The silt left on the banks of the river after the flood subsided was fertile enough to grow the crop.

 Like the Mursi tribe, rearing sheep, goats, hens, and cattle herds were essential. Especially maintaining cattle included marriage value. Hence, cattle rearing was most common among the other tribes as well. 

Plate that Mursi Tribes use for ear and lips

Kuraz Sugar Project and its Impact on Mursi tribe

The Italian, Malaysian, Korean, and Indian companies were being leased by the Ethiopian government in 2011. Moreover, these lands were dedicated to growing cash crops like jatropha, cotton, maize, and palm oil. The Mursi tribe along with others like Kewgu and Bodis were evicted to resettlement areas. An assessment of the growing Kuraz Sugar Project from 150,000 hectares up to 245,000 hectares which needed more free land. As a result, immense destruction was carried out for most places that were apt for livelihood.

Ethiopian Mursi Tribe with lips plate

Grievances of Mursi Tribe

There were several points of concern the Mursi’s and other tribal groups had.

  • The Mursi tribe and others had lived for centuries in those areas in lower Omo. Over time, they have developed techniques to survive challenging situations
  • They were derived from the decision finalization before the dam was built
  • They lost their livelihood and needed government assistance to live
  • Subsequently with the reduction of land and resources the peaceful coexistence with other tribes like Suri, Hamar, and Tarkuna got disrupted. Hostility between tribes got increased, Each tribe began fighting for their rights
  • In the name of evacuation, a lot of property was destroyed by the military. Including rapes and murders
  • Cattles are an important asset of the tribe and were allowed a few only at resettlement areas
  • Allowed formation of National Parks in the 1970 and the 1980s
  • Couldn’t control their land, they were excluded from resource management 
  • There was no protest against the government leasing out fertile lands to foreign 

companies. They used them for cattle grazing and cultivation at one point in time

  • Full consultation was guaranteed by the Ethiopian commission but it was not in a proper fashion
  • Researchers were there at OMO lower valley to estimate the human rights of the tribals but those were in vain and no actions materialized afterward.
  • Low literacy hampered the Mursi tribe to understand and voice their discomfort
  • Food and aid promised by the Ethiopian government were not met in actual
  • They knew nothing about the Dam. This fact was exposed by a USAID official who visited the lower OMO valley in 2009 to analyze the effects of the dam.
Ethiopian Mursi Tribe Women with her baby in lap

About Gibe III

The biggest hydroelectric dam in Ethiopia is Gibe III. The Ethiopian government signed a treaty with ITALIAN company Salini Costurri in 2006. However, there was a violation of Ethiopia. The agreement was signed because of no other competent bidder. The Italian engineers started building the dam in 2006 only. Moreover, the Ethiopian government started filling water upstream in 2015. The construction of the dam brought an end to natural floods that used to occur every year and allow benefits for tribesmen.  

There were no artificial floods that year. In 2016 there was a flood but not much to suffice the livelihood of the tribals.

Portrait of a Mursi man. Mago National Park, Omo River Valley, Ethiopia

How Does it Satisfy Anthropology?

The Mursi tribe has an ancient origin in Ethiopia. Their presence has gained impetus in years around. This ancient tribe of Mursi is well known for their lip discs worn by women. Though the custom is bizarre, it is a cultural heritage that is distinguishable from other tribe groups. They are residents of an African arid region with risks of droughts. Rainfall recorded for ages is lowest. Courtesy the yearly floods of OMO river allow their livelihood. Cattles are a vital category of households. They are used for dowry. The decorative clay discs do not have any origin. However, it might have originated from the days of the slave trade. Sadly enough the tribe along with others in the OMO lower region are in trouble. Construction work has created a major shrinkage for their existence. Additionally, modernism and rural developments reflect a changed tomorrow.

Portrait of a Mursi woman wearing the symbolic clay plate they are famous for

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