Surma Lip Plates

[intro]Living in the mountains, southwest Ethiopia, approximately 0.8km on 45 square km, is a tribe of approximately 2500 nomads who are called the Surma. They are related to the Maasai and the Nubians of Kenya and Tanzania. The Mursi are most likely found in the Omo-Valley neighboring the Surma. These tribes are mostly pastoralists. They value cattle and practice crop growing for instance, Millet, Sorghum and Maize. These tribes are always in conflict with the enemy local tribes and therefore mostly are warriors. However a tourist visiting the Omo valley would straight away recognize their unique tradition of Lip plates wearing among other traditions like body painting.[/intro]

Lip Plate Tradition

Of all indigenous tribes, the Surma and Mursi are the most likely among the most few tribes who still continue to indulge in this unique tradition of inserting lip plates in the lower lips. Other tribes which practice this are the Chai and the Tirma. For the Mursi and the Surma, it is a tradition to wear the large clay or wooden pottery lip plates or discs that are put in the girls’ lower lips. A tourist visiting the Omo valley may find this tradition very odd and recognizes these tribes normally by this unique tradition. It’s only the women who wear lip plates and they may remove them while talking but only in the absence of men.lip-plates

Apart from serving as a touristic attraction, the Lip plates serve a more significant purpose among these tribes’ culture. When the girl is at16, another tribes-woman, in most cases her mother, cuts the girl’slower lip. Then a wooden plug will hold the lip in place after the incision and allows the cut to heal such that the incision remains open. It is up to the girl to decide whether she wants to widen the cut. Over time, larger and newer lip plates may be inserted. Some of the tribes-women may have Lip plates with a diameter of 12 centimeters and even more.

[pullquote position=”left”]It takes place when the girl is between 16 and 20 years old prior to marriage. The lip is perforated and a small plate is introduced at first. Later on the disc is progressively replaced with a larger plate.[/pullquote]

The Lip discs or plates may be made of clay or wood. Clay lip discs have become a tradition among the Mursi and Surma tribe. The tribes men fashion the wooden lip-plates. They are considered less fashionable and more traditional accessories. The Lip plates are also considered to be stylish and therefore, are colored and decorated depending on the desired style of the women wearing them.

There are four kinds of Clay lip plates, (Shauna LaTosky). They include:

  • The red clay lip plates/Dhebi a Golonya
  • Reddish brown clay lip plates/ Dhebi a Luluma

The above kinds of clay lip -plates are then fashioned by putting them in hot charcoals and then dousing them using the sweet Gongui trees bark which is commonly found in the forest.

Black clay or Dhebi a Korra. They are plain lip plates which are put in hot charcoal and then rubbed with Linnui (grass) so that they darken the color.

  • White clay lip plates or Dhebi a Holla. They are only fired but aren’t rubbed with grass. They are polished and decorated with milk, metal or pumpkin seeds.

Importance of the Lip plate among the Surma and the Mursi

As said earlier, these accessories don’t only serve as decoration items but have significant cultural importance as well. They include:

Bride Wealth

The lip plates have significance in valuing the bride price of the woman. The larger the plate, the more the dowry (Cattle). This is a very ancient tradition. The biggest plates may be as big as 5 inches in diameter, the parents may ask for more than 50 cattle for their girl’s hand in marriage. However this has been heavily debated by historians since bride wealth is decided before even the girl gets the lip cut. But if two men are vying for the same girl, the size of the lip-plate may increase the bride price.

To Ward off the Slave Traders

Another importance of the lip plates is considered to be to drive away the slave traders. It is considered that women, who have distorted the nature and size of their lips by inserting lip plates, look less attractive and therefore this lowers interest of the slave traders for their business needs. Although nowadays slave trading is dying out, they still continue to practice this lip-plate tradition. Also other tribes which practice this tradition have the men also wear the lip plates. For example, the Kayapo tribe of Brazil, where only the highly ranked older men of the tribe have the privilege to sport the lip plates. Therefore, wearing lip plates so as to drive off slave traders may be something of the past and nowadays it remains to be just a significant norm among the Mursi and the Surma.

Source of Self esteem and Validation

It may seem that wearing lip plates may be a source of oppression and stigma among these tribes. However the lip-plates which are worn by women are considered to represent self esteem and validation. They express reproductive potential and social adulthood. Among these tribe the ability to remain calm in difficult situations, hardworking and proud to belong in their status as a woman. Lip-plate tradition has enhanced the qualities of these women.

If the girl gets pregnant either outside marriage or when she is not married, she loses the right to wear the plate.

It takes place when the girl is between 16 and 20 years old prior to marriage. The lip is perforated and a small plate is introduced at first. Later on the disc is progressively replaced with a larger plate.

The Lip plates signify the economical and social status of the tribe. Among the Mursi and the Surma women, it is often indicated that the larger the plate the bigger the size of the cattle as the bride price of the woman. Other historians believe that the lip plates represent the woman’s self esteem and strength to withstand any situation and this is reflected by the Lip plate tradition which has not yet died among the Surma and the Mursi tribes.