While a good number of relatively hearty travellers have made a visit to the closely-related Mursi tribe on the eastern bank of the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia or a number of years, the western side of the Omo Valley to which the Suri call home is significantly less accessible and therefore far less travelled. Visiting this tribe from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa requires a full three days of driving over often-rugged roads. The group I joined elected the relatively faster route utilizing a charter flight from Addis to the town of Mizan in southern Ethiopia followed by 5-6 hours of driving on mostly unimproved roads to reach our mobile camp. To put the number of visitors to this area in perspective, every year more people attempt to summit Mt. Everest than take the steps necessary to visit the Suri. This may change soon as the Suri become better known and major road construction underway will undoubtedly bring easier access in the coming years. More and more frequent visitors will undoubtedly accelerate changes to this unique way of life. Despite external influences, the independent and strong-willed Suri will likely ensure it all happens on their own terms. While a part of Ethiopia, the Suri only nominally recognize the government has any function or authority in this region. A visit to this area requires a full team of local guides and armed protection to ensure safety and an insightful understanding of Suri life. Soldiers have historically been frightened in this area due to the massive number of automatic weapons held by the locals who have "law and order" in their own hands. Kalisnakovs have become a new form of currency, wealth and status. An automatic weapon can be purchased for the equivalent of $1,000 USD or roughly 4 head of cattle.
For now and the foreseeable future, a visit to the far western Omo provides an opportunity for an up-close look at a truly raw and primitive tribal tradition. My impressions of this amazing experience I will share in the coming weeks in 3 separate blogs.
Body Adornment and Creative Capacity
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, body painting and/or display of various decorations for photographers has become a serious source of revenue for the Suri tribe.
Others have written how photographers have “spoiled’ the Suri and created this ‘problem” through their willingness to pay increasing sums to secure beautiful photographs of their elaborate body art which is no longer “authentic”. While photographers are undoubtedly the driver for this cottage industry, the Suri have seized on this quickly and aggressively, so has been to the mutual benefit of both photographer and subject. Also, while Suri body art has evolved rapidly to be ever more elaborate, it does have a strong root cultural basis.
The Suri are artistically creative and males and females excel at body painting and is still done for ceremonial purposes (during events such as donga, weddings and blood drinking). This perchance to create beautiful and sometime elaborate painted and decorative designs celebrating the physique of their bodies (especially of adolescents).
The ear and lip plates with their sometimes intricate designs have been practiced for hundreds or perhaps thousand of years. Ear piecing begins at about 8-9 years of age which lip piercing does not begin until the girl is closer to 15 or 16 years of age. The larger the lip adornment, the more cattle her father is said to be able to obtain from the grooms family when she is married. Despite this, many younger girls are beginning to abandon the practice of lip piercing (which also requires extraction of the two lower front teeth).
The Suri possess an inherent creative capacity combined with a uniquely adaptive, aggressive and independent nature in the face of limited resources. A unique combination of cultural characteristics sets them apart to result is a uniquely beautiful expression of body and nature.
There have actually been a relatively small number of photographers (or tourists of any kind) who have ventured to the western part of the Omo where the Suri live. Nonetheless, the Suri quickly matured their decorative body arts to more and more elaborate patterns while engaging in creative positioning amongst wild plants to attract the eye of the photographer with the goal to out compete his neighbors for the resulting currency.
The body and face painting and other adornments have their origins in tribal ceremonies and is a legitimate form of creative expression. This artistic form has rapidly evolved to more and more elaborate displays for the primary objective of generating revenue. So is it authentic? I argue yes it absolutely is. It is what the Suri “do” even if they have been strongly encouraged and inadvertently taught to push the boundries by photographers looking for unique images. The Suri used their core strengths and capabilities to deliver a quality product to a willing buyer. Like it or not, it is now how it works when you visit the Suri.
Regardless of who is to “blame” for the current situation, Suri body art is indisputably beautiful and unique. It requires a serious commitment to capture such images and they cannot be created anywhere else. The Suri are masters who have developed a uniquely fantastical capacity for body decoration and human artistic expression.