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Remembering Kirinomeri

We are very sorry to have to record the recent death, at Makki, of Kirinomeri (Ulikuri) Tuku, one of the most respected and influential leaders of the northern Mursi during the past forty years. He will be remembered best, perhaps, for motivating and inspiring the successful migration of members of the Baruba bhuran to Makki in 1979/80, an achievement that will secure his place as a major figure in Mursi history. The following is a personal tribute to Kirinomeri from the anthropologist, Dr Shauna LaTosky (Ngamargo).

 

News item August 28 2018

Dear friends, colleagues and family members of Kirinomeri,

It is with great sadness that I learned about the death of this great man.

I had the privilege of getting to know Kirinomeri during the course of repeated visits to Makki between 2003 and 2014. He was a gentle, tall and slender man, with several missing teeth. Although I never asked him, I would imagine that some were lost during the many donga (stick duelling) fights of his youth. He was a loved and loving family man with a soft voice and a deep, hearty laugh which will forever bring back fond and  funny memories, in particular of a collective ritual whipping ceremony (koma kodha) that I once attended in 2004 and of which Kirinomeri always loved to remind me. He would laugh out loud whenever he recalled the story and arrived at the part about me screaming while running into the bushes “as only a child would”. I always wondered if he was somehow behind the joke to scare me into believing that the elders would really whip me too. Well, I fell for it - quite literally - as I dove into the bushes, camera and all.

Kirinomeri was the first elder that I met when I arrived in Makki in December 2003. Having worked as a young man with anthropologist David Turton, he was supportive of my wish to work with Mun (Mursi) women and introduced me to Ngatui and her widowed mother Bikalumi and her co-wives, insisting that they take care of me as they would their own daughter. It is thanks to them, but especially to Kirinomeri’s openness and generosity that I was able to participate freely in the daily lives of Mun girls and women in Makki between 2004-2005 and, again, for shorter visits in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. While there were no conditions attached to our oral agreement about doing research on the life stories of women in Makki - other than of course those expectations that any elder would expect after being consulted (e.g. small gifts of tobacco, money, cloth or household items for his wives), he did frequently make one request. It was a request typical of any father in his situation: to visit his son in prison whenever I returned to Jinka (roughly 40 kilometres from Makki). It was out of this common concern for the well-being of his son, the late Bagaha, that our friendship grew.

Bagaha had been falsely accused of homicide during a retaliatory attack by the Mun on an Ari village following the murder of his sister-in-law, Kereramai. She had been sleeping overnight with other Mun on the way back from the market town of Belamer, when a drunk Ari man attacked and killed her (for more on this see the film “Fire Will Eat Us”). According to Mun customary law, compensation must be paid to the family, but with the killers at large and no hope for compensation, Mun men attacked Belamer in retaliation. It should be mentioned here that the general framing of “retaliation” as “crime” was absent for the Mun, but not in Ariland, which had already been incorporated into the legal structure of Ethiopian civil and public law.

It was against this backdrop - i.e. the drama of Bagaha’s case - that I would come to know Kirinomeri and his family. In fact, many people who visited me in Jinka at the South Omo Research Centre between 2004 and 2005, were either related to Bagaha or were there to relay a message to him on behalf of his family. His case reflected the new criminalization mechanisms being introduced in northern Munland and used, as Bagaha would often explain, “as a way to gain control over elders”. Elders like Kirinomeri were often feared by the local authorities as having the power to incite violence, like the retaliatory attack in Belamer market.

It was not only the tragic story of his daughter-in-law and the equally tragic fate of his son (who died of an illness only months after finally being released from prison) that blighted Kirinomeri’s last years, but also the uncertain future of his community as a result of large-scale agro-development and forced villagisation plans that began to unfold in 2010. During one of our last conversations there was an irony in his apparent optimism about government plans to build irrigation ditches and a permanent village in Makki, along the Mago River. As he put it, “They [the government] will come - I guess it’s good. But then they will go again, like all the other times. That’s also good.”

Kirinomeri had made a name for himself, especially at the former SIM mission in Makki, as a somewhat progressive elder, who was open to working with foreigners, and, indeed he was always open to new ideas - from HIV prevention campaigns and community-based tourism, to mother-tongue learning and teacher training in Makki. In hindsight, his openness to foreigners and new ideas is also what likely made him more vulnerable to the suspicion and accusatorial rhetoric of the authorities.

His strength and humility were no doubt, in part, a result of the unimaginable tragedies he faced before and during the time that I knew him. Unfortunately, diabetes was his most difficult struggle in the end.

My heartfelt condolences go out to his family.

 

Sincerely yours,

Ngamargo

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