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Body Decoration

The Mursi, and the neighbouring Suri (also known as Surma), are most famous for is their lip-plates, but they also have a rich tradition of scarification, body ornamentation and dress. Another well known aspect of Mursi body decoration is their body painting, although tourists and photographers rarely see the ‘real’ body painting because the Mursi gain more money by ‘dressing up’ for visitors.


Body decoration: Traditionally, the Mursi decorated with ear and lip-plates, bracelets, and through body scarification and painting. More recently, hair-styles have become quite intricate thanks to the use of razors, but also cloth and other shop-bought items have come into use in often inventive ways.

More recently, the Mursi have learned to decorate in innovative ways to attract tourists and gain money to buy important things at the market, such as cloth, medicines, soap and razors. Generally, the Mursi are very sceptical of the camera and photographs, with much care being taken to destroy photographs of the dead, for example, to prevent the spirits from hanging around and harming the living.

Lip-plates and ear-plugs: Contrary to some accounts, the Mursi women have not worn lip-plates to deter slave-raiders! Rather, ear and lip-plates instil a certain type of embodied morality, and are ways in which the Mursi teach their children to become social, moral and healthy persons.

The mud lip-plates are traditionally worn by marriageable girls and child-bearing women. They are an indication of fertility, and may even be connected to an old folk-story.  For marriageable girls, lip-plates are often worn at dances. Married women most often wear them while milking the cattle and serving their husband meals, since the lip-plate creates a graceful and poised movement . “If she had a lip [plate] she would walk slowly, she would walk like this (swaying her chin from side to side), making the sound ‘dhes, dhes, dhes’!  She would set the food down slowly, her long earlobes saying ‘bhedek, bhedek, bhedek’!” (LaTosky, 2006).

Although tourists flock to see the Mursi women wearing lip-plates as a sign of their ‘untouched’ and ‘tribal’ existence, it is ironically the Mursi’s growing dependency on money to buy things from the market that motivates women to come to the tourist spots wearing their lip-plates. In fact, women also smear their faces with clay and put baby skirts, porridge baskets or cattle decoration on their heads to look even more bizarre and gain more money from fascinated tourists (Turton, 2004).

To read more about lip-plates, follow this link.

For ear-plugs,boys and girls piece their ears with a thorn or a knife cut, and then they increasingly place larger and larger pieces of wood into the hole. Boys’ ear-piercings reach about 2-3cm and for girls it can be wider. Once the opening has healed, ear-plugs are put aside and only the hole remains. It is not uncommon to find that older women’s ear-opening has ripped at some point.

As for why children’s ears are pierced, perhaps it relates to ideas of sociality and morality. After all, to understand is to listen (both terms are called shiga). A poorly brought up child, or a socially ‘difficult’ (dhaldhali), argumentative and cagey adult is often said to have ‘no ears’ (nyabi nginge); this expression was often accompanied by the wafting of a hand past the speaker’s ear.

Jewellery: Bracelets are worn by all women. These brass ‘m’-shaped bracelets, called siggi, have come from the Me’en, to the north of the mursi. As many as possible are worn on the wrists, and larger ones on the ankles. Older women may also have one or two chunkier metal bracelets called ula. For girls and women these bracelets are used in self-defence or to settle a dispute. For young-girls, the art of fighting using wrist-slaps is practiced in duels, known as ‘bracelet duels’ (ula uja).

Young boys and older men sometimes wear chunky bracelets of wood or ivory. Although these can be used in self-defence, men do not duel with bracelets. However, in other parts of East Africa, men duel using bracelets; for example, the South-eastern Nuba (see James Faris, 1972).

Scarification: As boys and girls approach their full height, they begin to cut small notches into their skin which heal as decorative scars, called kitchoga,  on their chest, in a single arc shape over the breasts, and an ‘m’ shaped double arc on the upper arm.  Cuts are made by lifting the skin with a curved thorn and then cutting the skin with a sharp razor blade; obsidian was used in the past (Eczet, 2012).  Girls alone had kitchoga on their stomach and in the past, on their back, since traces are still faintly visible on the backs of women of an older generation.  While for older boys and young men may continue making kitchoga after having children, the ideal age to do kitchoga for girls is once her breasts have formed; any earlier and people say that the kitchoga will fade while the girl grows and it is rarely done after having children. I came across many married women with unfinished kitchoga, and several such women told me it had either been too ‘painful’ (waddino) or they had ‘forgotten’ (dhinyakayino) to finish it.  Pre-menstrual girls have kitchoga done following an illness experience (Eczet, 2012).

Body painting: Tourists flock to photograph the painted body of the Mursi, but away from the gaze of tourists, the Mursi rarely paint for aesthetic reasons. Aesthetic body painting is only practiced by older boys, seeking to attract the attention of the girls and of one another.

Generally, the Mursi paint for pragmatic rather than aesthetic reasons. Young boys who stay with the cattle all day, are taught to rub moist mud or clay all over their body to protect themselves from sun-stroke or from scratches from the thorny undergrowth. Older boys and men often cover their mouth or entire head with ash from the cattle-bryre (burnt cattle-dung), or with fresh cattle-dung, since this deters flies.

However, the most important reason the Mursi paint is as a medicine, either preventive or curative. Earths and clays are known to have ‘active’ qualities, which people try to use to their advantage. They speak of earth ‘hitting’ people, and of clays having ‘customs’, and just as one ‘eats’ food, people speak of ‘eating’ earths and clays by body painting.

To read more about body painting, follow this link


ECZET, J.-B. 2012. Les belles idées de la défigurée: à propos du plateau labial des Mursi (Ethiopie). Images Re-vues, EHESS, 10, 1-21.

FARIS, J. 1972. Nuba Personal Art. London: Duckworth.

LATOSKY, S. 2006. Mursi women’s lip-plates as a source of stigma and self-esteem. In: STRECKER, I. & LYDALL, J. (eds.) Perils of Face: Essays on Cultural Contact, Respect and Self-Esteem in Southern Ethiopia. Berlin: Lit Verlag.

TURTON, D. 2004. Lip-plates and 'the people who take photographs': Uneasy encounters between Mursi and tourists in southern Ethiopia. Anthropology Today, 20, 3-8.



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