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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 and medicinal reasons, rather than for purely 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.

There are big communal ceremonies when everyone from an area comes together and anoints with the same clays, morning and night, in order to send disease fleeing back into the earth from where it came. There are also smaller and more intimate ceremonies held by a family and neighbours if an individual is struggling to recover from an illness. These collective ceremonies show how aware the Mursi are that illness and disease are community issues, with a clear understanding of contagion through proximity and contact. Here, clays are used like vaccinations or antibiotics or soaps, to strengthen and cleanse a community.

Contact between relatives is also mediated through earthy substances. For example, if a relative pays a visit after an absence, they greet by taking ash from the fire and running it down the side of their forehead and then the forehead of their kin; they also throw some ash to the right and left. The reason given is that the ash sends ‘ancestor spirits’ (mênênga) away, and stops them from striking one’s kin. Such spirits are said to follow their kin on a long journey to assist them with any dangers they might meet on the road, offering them protection or guardianship. However, these spirits can also bring affliction and are an ambiguous force that must be mitigated or mediated through the contact with ash.

Care is also taken with open wounds and after someone has eaten meat. In these instances, the smell of flesh is considered very attractive to something called kidho that lurks in moist, watery places. With some wounds, people simply avoid going to places associated with kidho, but when possible, people cover the area with moist dung and ash to disguise the smell before going to the water. With cattle, after giving birth, they have to go to drink at the water, so to prevent kidho ‘hitting’ them, ash is smeared over the vulva of the cow.

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