Mursi people

Total population
Regions with significant populations
Traditional African religion, Ethiopian Christian
Related ethnic groups
Surma, Anuak, other Nilotic groups

The Mursi (or Mun as they refer to themselves)[1][2] are a Nilotic pastoralist 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 7,500 Mursi, 448 of whom live in urban areas; of the total number, 92.25% live in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region (SNNPR).[3]

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 Bodi, 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.[4]

Two Mursi men are having a talk while others are playing games in the shadow


The Mursi speak the Mursi language as a mother tongue.[5][6] It is classified as Surmic, which is a branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Mursi is closely related (over 80% cognate) to Me'en and Suri, as well as Kwegu. According to the 1994 national census, there were 3,163 people who were identified as Mursi in the SNNPR; 3,158 spoke Mursi as their first language, while 31 spoke it as their second language.[7] According to the analytical volume of the 1994 national census, where Mursi was grouped under Me'en, 89.7% were monolingual, and the second languages spoken were Bench (4.2%), Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia (3.5%), and Kafa (1.1%).[8]

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.[9] The second is the more suitable Latin-based alphabet. The Latin-based orthography was developed by David Turton and Moges Yigezu of Addis Ababa University.[10]

Religion and culture

Mursi man

Like many agro-pastoralists in East Africa, the Mursi experience a force greater than themselves, which they call Tumwi.[1][11] 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, to ward off threatened attacks from other tribes, to safeguard the fertility of the soil, of men and of the cattle. 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.[1][11]

The religion of the Mursi people is classified as Animism, although there is a Serving in Mission Station in the northeastern corner of Mursiland, which provides education, basic medical care and instruction in Christianity.[12]

Life cycles

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 or 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.[13][14]

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.

Omo National Park

Mursi woman

The African Parks Foundation and government park officials are accused of coercing Mursi into giving up their land within the boundaries of the Omo National Park without compensation. The documents are being used to legalize the boundaries of the park, which African Parks has taken over.

A group called "Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees" says that the documents will make the Mursi 'illegal squatters' on their own land and that a similar fate is befalling the Suri, Dizi, Me'en, and Nyangatom, who also live within the park.[15] After the African Parks Foundation took over Omo National Park, the Mursi feared that they would eventually be evicted from their land like the Guji-Oromo in Nechasar National Park.[16] Due to mounting pressures from human rights activists, African Parks Foundation announced its plans to leave Omo National Park in 2007.[17] The Mursi have declared their territory a community conservation area as of July, 2008 and have begun a community tourism project.

The Gibe III Dam and the Large-Scale Commercial Irrigation Scheme

The Gibe III hydroelectric dam, now under construction in the middle Basin of the Omo and due to be completed in 2014,[18] will greatly modify the flood regime upon which thousands of people in the lower basin depend for their livelihoods.[19] By regulating the river flows, and ‘uplifting’ the low flows during the dry season, it will also make possible the development of large-scale commercial irrigation schemes, although the latest report commissioned suggests that there is not enough water in the Omo River to irrigate the proposed area of plantations.[19] The most ambitious of these is already being implemented by the state-run Ethiopian Sugar Corporation on land either taken from the Omo National Park or currently occupied by the Bodi, Mursi, Nyangatom and Kara. If current plans are realised the lower Omo will become by far the largest irrigation complex in Ethiopia, at least doubling the total irrigated area in the country.


  1. 1 2 3 Turton, David (1973). The Social Organisation of the Mursi: A Pastoral Tibe of the Lower Omo Valley, South West Ethiopia. London School of Economics: PhD Thesis.
  2. Mursi Online Editor. "Introducing the Mursi". University of Oxford. Retrieved 11 January 2013.
  3. 2007 Ethiopian census, first draft, Ethiopian Central Statistical Agency (accessed 6 May 2009)
  4. Mursi Online Editor. "Neighbours". Department of International Development, University of Oxford. Retrieved 11 January 2013.
  5. Bende, M. Lionel (1976). The Non-Semitic Languages of Ethiopia. pp. 533–61.
  6. Yigezu, Moges; Turton, David Olibui, Olisarali (2005). "Latin Based Mursi Orthography". ELRC Working Papers, Ethiopian Languages Research Center, Addis Ababa University. 1 (2): 242–57. Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  7. 1994 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia: Results for Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Region, Vol. 1, part 1, Tables 2.11, 2.14, 2.17
  8. 1994 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia: Results for Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Region, Vol. 2, Tables 2.17, 3.9
  9. Mursi Language
  10. "Mursi (tugo)", Mursi Online website (accessed 15 November 2009)
  11. 1 2 Mursi Online Editor. "Religion and HEaling". Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford. Retrieved 11 January 2013.
  12., Jerry Carlson. "How the missionaries came to Makki" (PDF). Retrieved 2009. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  13. Turton, David (2004). "Lip-plates and 'the people who take photographs': Uneasy encounters between Mursi and tourists in southern Ethiopia". Anthropology Today. 20 (3): 3–8. doi:10.1111/j.0268-540x.2004.00266.x.
  14. Strecker, Ivo & Lydall, Jean (2006). Perils of Face: Essays on Cultural Contact, Respect and Self-Esteem in Southern Ethiopia. pp. 382–397.
  15. "Land Issue". conservationrefugees.
  16. "The Omo National Park and African Parks Foundation (APF) of the Netherlands" (PDF).
  17. "African Parks to give up its management of the Omo National Park".
  18. Mursi Online Editor. "The Gibe III Dam". University of Oxford.
  19. 1 2 "The River Omo and Lake Turkana Hydrology (2011-2012)". African Studies Centre, University of Oxford.

Further reading

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