A girl’s lower lip is cut (sometimes by her mother) when she reaches 15 or 16, and held open by a sodden plug until it heals. It’s up to the girls how far they want the lip to be stretched. The very painful process often takes over several months.
Lip plates are more frequently worn by unmarried girls and newlywed women than by older married women with children. They are generally worn on occasions such as serving men food, milking cows, and important rituals like weddings.
Unmarried girls, especially those with large labrets, might wear them whenever they are in public. It’s expected that a boyfriend or husband will not sleep with his girlfriend or his bride until her lip has fully healed. However, modern men are increasingly sleeping with their love interests even before they have pierced their lips.
The lip plate carries a number of meanings. Firstly, it’s a symbol of great beauty. Secondly, it marks a commitment to the husband because it is worn with great pride when serving him food. If the husband dies, the lip plate is removed since a woman’s external beauty is said to fade after his death. Lastly, the plate is a powerful visual marker of Mursi identity. Without it, they run the risk of being mistaken for a member of another tribe.
The Mursi (or Mun as they refer to themselves) are a Surmic ethnic group in Ethiopia. They principally reside in the Debub Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region, close to the border with South Sudan. According to the 2007 national census, there are 11,500 Mursi, 848 of whom live in urban areas; of the total number, 92.25% live in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR).
Surrounded by mountains between the Omo River and its tributary the Mago, the home of the Mursi is one of the most isolated regions of the country. Their neighbors include the Aari, the Banna, the Mekan, the Karo, the Kwegu, the Nyangatom and the Suri. They are grouped together with the Me’en and Suri by the Ethiopian government under the name Surma.
Two orthographies for the Mursi language exist. One is the Amharic-based, although the Mursi language is one the Surmic languages with incompatible vowel structures and stressed and unstressed consonants compared to Amharic. The second is the more suitable Latin-based alphabet.
Like many agro-pastoralists in East Africa, the Mursi experience a force greater than themselves, which they call Tumwi. This is usually located in the Sky, although sometimes Tumwi manifests itself as a thing of the sky (ahi a tumwin), such as a rainbow or a bird. The principal religious and ritual office in the society is that of the Kômoru, the Priest or Shaman. This is an inherited office, unlike the more informal political role of the Jalaba.
The Kômoru embodies in his person the well-being of the group as a whole and acts as a means of communication between the community and the god (Tumwi), especially when it is threatened by such events as drought, crop pests and disease. His role is characterized by the performance of public rituals to bring rain, to protect men, cattle and crops from disease, and to ward off threatened attacks from other tribes.
Ideally, in order to preserve this link between the people and the Tumwi, the Kômoru should not leave Mursiland or even his local group (bhuran). One clan in particular, Komortê, is considered to be, par excellence, the priestly clan, but there are priestly families in two other clans, namely Garikuli and Bumai.
The religion of the Mursi people is classified as Animism, although some Mursi have adopted Christianity. There is a Serving in Mission Station in the northeastern corner of Mursiland, which provides education, basic medical care and instruction in Christianity.
The Mursi undergo various rites of passage, educational or disciplinary processes. Lip plates are a well known aspect of the Mursi and Surma, who are probably the last groups in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear large pottery, wooden discs, or ‘plates,’ in their lower lips. Girls’ lips are pierced at the age of 15 or 16.
Occasionally lip plates are worn to a dance by unmarried women, and increasingly they are worn to attract tourists in order to earn some extra money.
Ceremonial duelling (thagine), a form of ritualised male violence, is a highly valued and popular activity of Mursi men, especially unmarried men, and a key marker of Mursi identity. Age sets are an important political feature, where men are formed into named “age sets” and pass through a number of “age grades” during the course of their lives; married women have the same age grade status as their husbands.