The Bodi live in the Omo valley north of the Mursi. They number about 10,000 people. They speak the Me’en language (Me’enen or tuk de Me’enuny) and call themselves Me’en. The Me’en are composed of several local groups of about 70,000 people whose territory stretches from the Omo River to the highlands north and northeast of Maji. Two groups of Me’en, the Mela and the Chirim, live in the lowlands east of the Omo and are known to the administration and foreigners as ‘Bodi’.
The Bodi, and more specifically the Mela, are considered by other Me’en as the ‘purest’ Me’en, who have followed the pastoral livelihood and values of their ancestors. The Bodi recount that the forebears of their most prestigious clans used to live west of the Omo and first crossed the river some twelve generations ago. During the nineteenth century, pushed by droughts and cattle epidemics, some Me’en crossed the Omo again to settle closer to the northern highlands, adopting a more agrarian way of life and forming new Me’en groups. Contacts between the Bodi and the remote agricultural Me’en groups are maintained most notably through inter-marriage.
The livelihood strategies of the Bodi are much the same as those of the Mursi: they practice cultivation and herd cattle and small stock. Their territory is crossed from east to west by two rivers, the Hana and the Gura, which originate in the Dime highlands and flow most of the year. These reliable sources of water mean that the Bodi have to move less often than their Mursi neighbours.
As amongst other East African pastoralists, Bodi livelihoods and cultural expression revolve around cattle. The late Katsuyoshi Fukui, an anthropologist who conducted research in Bodi from the 1970s until his death in 2008, has described the refinement of the Bodi classification of cattle colours which he found goes “beyond the capacity of modern genetics”. Maintaining herds with a wide range of colours is important for the Bodi because their ritual sacrifices rely on the symbolism of colour. For instance, each portion of their land is associated with a specific cattle colour. Before the use of a new water-point or the clearing of a new area for cultivation, a stock animal of the right colour has to be sacrificed.
The Bodi and the Mursi have many cultural features in common. Regarding bodily decoration, the most notable difference is that Bodi women wear a lip-plug, and not a lip-plate. Another difference is that Mursi girls pierce and stretch their lower lips upon reaching puberty, while Bodi women cut their lower lips only after they have given birth to two or three children. A Bodi woman then stretches her lip so that she can insert a finely carved wooden plug, generally the size of a coin. Rather than sexual maturity, the Bodi lip-plug signals a woman's achievement of the role of mature mother. The plug, worn all the time, is coated with butter and red ochre, and pierced in the centre with a small wooden spike. The Bodi also wear the lip-plug to serve as an identity marker and they often refer to themselves in public debates as ‘the people who pierce the lip-plug’.
The Bodi have earned some local fame for their annual ceremony, the ke’êl. When the Pleiades constellation (ke’êl) disappears to the east, around mid-June, the Bodi celebrate the beginning of a new year. Men of various ages feed themselves exclusively with milk and blood for several months in order to have fat but firm bodies with protruding bellies. The community gathers at the place of the local priest (komorut) and the men who have undergone this bodily transformation dance in circles, each local group being represented by one or more circles of men. They sing songs to glorify their priest and the fierceness of their group. Each Mela komorut holds the ke’êl dance successively. This is an important moment of festivities for the whole community. It is tinged with competition between the local groups because everyone assesses the participants, who are valued for the fatness and impressiveness of their bodies. The local administration, hoping to attract tourists, has recently turned the ke’êl of Hana into a competitive event, setting up a fee for visitors and awarding the biggest man of the ceremony with a cup. After the ceremony, men resume a normal diet and lose weight rapidly since, in daily life, a fat body is recognized to be an impediment to general health and fitness. Outside of the context of the ke’êl, women and girls generally value a man’s beauty based on his height or stature.
The town of Hana in the heart of Bodiland began as a police post, established in the early 1970s. With the government’s plans for commercial irrigation schemes in the Omo valley, its population has grown exponentially. The Bodi have seen thousands of daily labourers coming from other parts of Ethiopia to work in the sugar-cane plantation which is developing along the Omo. Huge tracts of bush-land have been cleared to give way to roads, plantations, canals, a processing-plant and housing for the workers. Part of the Bodi population have been resettled in permanent villages and have had their first experience of irrigated agriculture. These dramatic changes have not only permanently altered the landscape and restricted the access of the Bodi to natural resources but have also deeply undermined their self-esteem and confidence and left them with a very uncertain future.
Jon Abbink, ‘An Ethno-Historical Perspective on Me’en Territorial Organization’. Anthropos, 87, pp. 351-364 (1992)
Jon Abbink, Michael Bryant and Daniel Bambu, 'Suri Orature: introduction to the society, language and oral culture of the Suri people (Southwest Ethiopia)', Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, 2013.
Katsuyoshi Fukui, ‘Co-evolution Between Humans and Domesticates: The Cultural Selection of Animal Coat-Colour Diversity Among the Bodi’, in Roy Ellen & Katsuyoshi Fukui (eds.), Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture and Domestication. Oxford: Berg, pp. 319-385 (1996)