The Suri of Ethiopia: Chapter 2, Rituals of the Cattle Camps

WARNING:  This post contains photos that are graphic and may be unsettling to some.  It depicts the tribal ritual of bleeding cattle for food.  However, the cattle are unharmed.  They undergo minimal discomfort and survive to roam and be bled another day.  This is normal life in the Suri cattle camps of southern Ethiopia.


The Suri tribe lives in small villages made up of a couple hundred people each which is mostly made up of women and children. Here they tend meager subsistence gardens comprised of basic foods such as corn, cabbage, cassava, squash, and beans. Men spend most of their time at cattle camps that are located some distance from the village. In fact, the location of the camps is moves frequently as these pastoralists move to find available forage for their cattle.    Life in the cattle camps is highly traditional and they still practice many rituals centered around the cattle and donga (which I will discuss in a separate blog).  The care of cattle is primarily the responsibility of men and young boys although sometimes young girls can also live and assist at the camps.  Men often come and go from the camps sharing responsibilities with their close male relatives so they can occasionally return to their wives and families in the villages.

 Young Suri man in cattle camp.

Young Suri man in cattle camp.

Cattle are the Suri’s most prized possessions and an important centerpiece of Suri culture.  Cattle ownership in fact equals wealth.  Suri do not typically eat cattle, although they can be sacrificed for specific ceremonial reasons such as a funeral.  On a more routine basis, they do drink milk and blood as important food sources.  While milk can be removed and/or drank by women, it is forbidden for them to drink cow blood.  Fresh blood is only removed in a specific corral constructed for this purpose and drinking involves a highly ritualized ceremony that involves chanting, dancing, and blowing a horn fashioned from cattle horn.  A fire is first fueled with green brush and dung to create plenty of smoke to discourage flies and mosquitos. 

 A young Suri man prepares a fire with green brush to generate smoke and control the flies and mosquios.

A young Suri man prepares a fire with green brush to generate smoke and control the flies and mosquios.

 A horn is often played as part of the blood letting and drinking ceremony.

A horn is often played as part of the blood letting and drinking ceremony.

While present day Suri cover their bodies with a woolen blanket which they wear over one shoulder, men generally do not wear any clothing while in these camps.  The cover their naked clean-shaven bodies with ash and often add striped marks of soil and/or cattle dung across their bodies. 

 Blood drinking is highly ritualized.  These Suri men cover their shave and naked bodies in ash prior to partaking.

Blood drinking is highly ritualized.  These Suri men cover their shave and naked bodies in ash prior to partaking.

 The Suri may also mark their bodies with clay or in this case fresh cow manure.  Note the body scars.

The Suri may also mark their bodies with clay or in this case fresh cow manure.  Note the body scars.

The cattle are then corralled and the ones to be bled are marked on their horns and/or hides with ash, dung or pigments from stones and minerals.  The selected cattle are restrained, and a tourniquet is applied around the neck before a bow and arrow is the used to puncture the jugular vessel.  The blood spews forth quickly and forcefully into a receptacle such as a gourd or cup, from which the blood is immediately drank. These men have a close emotional bond with their cattle.  The wound is superficial and the cattle are unharmed.

 The carotid is pictured using a bow an arrow.  The wound is superficial and the cattle are unharmed.  

The carotid is pictured using a bow an arrow.  The wound is superficial and the cattle are unharmed.  

 The blood is usually collected in a vessel made from a gourd.

The blood is usually collected in a vessel made from a gourd.

Drinking of blood can also be followed with drinking of fresh milk, either from a vessel or directly from the cows udder.  The heartiest of warriors may also attempt to drink the blood directly from the spewing artery itself.   

 This man drank directly from the bleeding vessel to demonstrate his virility.

This man drank directly from the bleeding vessel to demonstrate his virility.

 This warrior appears almost drunk after drinking a large amount of cow blood

This warrior appears almost drunk after drinking a large amount of cow blood

This highly ritualized ceremony of drinking blood is for men only and it is forbidden for women to partake in its consumption.  The blood is shared amongst the group and even with the dogs who assist in herding and defending the cattle.

 The dogs also enjoy a nice taste of cow's blood

The dogs also enjoy a nice taste of cow's blood

After all the preparation, cattle marking, body painting, blood letting and drinking, the men celebrate by dancing and singing.

 Suri men dancing after the blood drinking ceremony

Suri men dancing after the blood drinking ceremony