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The Mursi and their neighbours became part of the Ethiopian state in the last years of the nineteenth century, when the Emperor Menelik II established his control over the southwestern lowlands bordering Kenya and Sudan. This was an area inhabited by several small groups, with fluid identities, highly adaptable to environmental conditions and capable of absorbing outsiders easily. The Mursi as we know them today are the product of a large scale migratory movement of cattle herding peoples in the general direction of the Ethiopian highlands.   Three seperate movements may be distinguished in the recent history of the Mursi, each the result of growing environmental pressure associated with the drying out of the Omo basin over the last 150-200 years.

First there was a move across the Omo, from the west, into what is now southern Mursiland, in the vicinity of Kurum (Map 1). This move took place around the mid-nineteenth century and is seen by the Mursi as a key historical event in the construction of their current political identity (see oral text 3 and oral text 4). Next there was a move northwards, into better watered territory, further upstream, which took place in the 1920s and 1930s. The effective northern boundary of Mursi territory was now the River Mara. (Map 1)

The third move began in 1979 and took the migrants still further into the upland plains of the lower Omo and into close and regular contact with their highland neighbours, the plough-cultivating Aari. Settlements were established in the upper Mago Valley (Map 1), which had last been occupied by the Mela (Bodi) in the early years of the last century. Ten years later, the Protestant missionary organisation SIM (Service in Mission) set up a mission station here, where it continues to provide educational, medical, agricultural and veterinary services.

Each of these moves was made, initially, by a small group of families who travelled a relatively short distance to a new place on the frontier of the settled area. As the pioneers established themselves, they were followed, over succeeding years, by a drift of individuals and families. Each move was explained by the migrants as a response to environmental pressure and as part of a continuing effort to find and occupy a cool (lalini) land (ba) or place, a place with riverside forest for cultivation and well watered grassland for cattle herding.

More information

David Turton and Lugulointheno Jordomo, 'Who are the Mursi'?

David Turton, ‘Looking for a Cool Place: The Mursi, 1890s - 1990s’, in D. Anderson and D. Johnson (eds.) The Ecology of Survival: Case Studies from Northeast African History. Lester Crook Academic Publishing/Westview Press, London/Boulder, 1988, pp. 261-82.

David Turton, ‘Exploration in the Lower Omo Valley of Southwestern Ethiopia’, in M. Caravaglios (ed.) L'Africa ai tempi di Daniele Comboni. Instituto Italo-Africano, Rome, 1981.

Jerry Carlson, 'How the missionaries came to Makki'.

Documentary films

Some of the events of recent Mursi history have been recorded in six television documentaries made by Leslie Woodhead and David Turton between 1974 and 2001.

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