Surma people

Surma (Suri, Mursi, Me'en)

Surma girl
Total population
(80,000 (1998), 186,875 (2007))
Regions with significant populations
Ethiopia, South Sudan
Suri, Mursi, Me'en
African Traditional Religion, minority Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Nilotic peoples

Surma is a panethnicity residing in South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia. It includes the Nilo-Saharan-speaking Suri, Mursi and Me'en.


The term Surma is the Ethiopian government's collective name for the Suri, Mursi and Me'en groups that inhabit the southwestern part of the country, with a total population of 186,875.[1] All three groups speak languages belonging to the Surmic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Some authors have used the terms "Suri" and "Surma" interchangeably,[2] or for contradictory purposes.

Suri or Shuri is the name of a sedentary pastoral people and its Nilo-Saharan language. They inhabit the Bench Maji Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region (SNNPR) in Ethiopia as well as parts of neighbouring South Sudan. Some are also found west of Mizan Teferi.[3] Population: 20,622 (1998 est.).[3]

Mursi or Murzu is the name of a closely related sedentary pastoral people whose language (Mursi) is over 80% cognate with Suri.[3] They are located next to the Suri, in the center of the SNNPR and the lowlands southwest of Jinka in the Debub Omo Zone.[4] The Mursi do not regard themselves as Surma, despite the cultural and linguistic similarities.[5] Population: 7,500 of whom 92.25% live in the SNNPR (2007 census).[1]

Me'en is the name of a closely related sedentary pastoral people whose language, Me'en, is over 80% cognate with Mursi. They are located in and around Bachuma, and in lowlands to the south, near the Omo River. Population: 151,489 of whom 98.9% live in the SNNPR (2007 census).[1]

Shared culture

All three peoples share a similar culture. Their homeland is remote, located in desolate mountains, and traditional rivalries with their tribal neighbors such as the Nyangatom have become quite bloody as automatic firearms have become available from the parties in the Sudanese Civil War.[6] The police allow foreigners to travel there only with a hired armed guard.

They have a fierce culture, with a liking for stick fighting called Donga or Saginay bringing great prestige to men — it is especially important when seeking a bride — and they are very competitive, at the risk of serious injury and occasional death. The males are often shaved bald, and frequently wear little or no clothes, even during stick fights.[6]

At a young age, to beautify themselves for marriage, most women have their bottom teeth removed and their bottom lips pierced, then stretched, so as to allow insertion of a clay lip plate. Some women have stretched their lips so as to allow plates up to sixteen inches in diameter.[7] Increasing with exposure to other cultures, however, a growing number of girls now refrain from this practice. Their children are sometimes painted with white clay paint, which may be dotted on the face or body.[8][6]

Their villages normally range in size from 40 to 1,000 people, but a few may reach 2,500 people. Village life is largely communal, sharing the produce of the cattle (milk and blood, as do the Maasai). Though their chiefs (styled komaro) may wear the fur crown of a pagan priest-king, they are merely the most respected elder in a village and they can be removed. Few Surma are familiar with Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and their literacy level is very low.[3][4][9]


According to Suri oral tradition, they came to their present territory near Mount Naita about 200 years ago from the banks of the Nile River. First they came to the Akobo (eastwards from the Nile). Then the Meyun clan (part of the Suri at the time) went south to settle at Boma while the remaining Suri traveled across the border and settled at Koma. Around 1890, the Suri were constantly harassed by the Amhara, Gimira and Tirma. As a result of this harassment, numerous Suri were forced to join the Meoun clan (at Meyun). In 1925, not long after this incident, the Suri settled on the Boma Plateau.

The Suri is not the only tribe in the south of Ethiopia. There are around twelve more, and all are surrounded by tension. Each tribe has its own share of weapons, making battles more violent. The Suri have one primary enemy, the Nyangatom. On a regular basis the Nyangatom and another enemy of the Suri, the Toposa, team up to raid the Suri’s cattle. The Second Sudanese Civil War has also taken a toll on the Suri. This conflict has pushed neighboring tribes into the Suri’s land and it is a constant competition to keep what they have. Gun battles are most common during the dry season. Around this time the Suri move their cattle down south to find new ground. State authorities have been attempting to create awareness about legal ways of conflict resolution but this might take long effort before achieving a transformed culture.

Reports of displacement

According to a tribal peoples advocacy groups (Survival International and Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees), these peoples, particularly the Mursi, are in danger of displacement and denial of access to grazing and agricultural land, by the African Parks Foundation, also known as African Parks Conservation, of the Netherlands.[10][11]

These advocacy groups report that the Surma were coerced by government park officials into thumbprinting documents they could not read. The documents reportedly said the Surma agreed to give up their land without compensation and are being used to legalise the boundaries of the Omo National Park, which African Parks has taken over. This process, when finished, will make the Surma 'illegal squatters' on their own land. A similar fate is befalling the other groups who also live within the park, the Dizi, and the Nyangatom.[12]

In November 2004, it is reported that 463 Guji Oromo houses were burned down in Nechisar National Park, Ethiopia, by government park officials and local police. The people had been evicted but were refusing to leave the area after the African Parks Foundation signed an agreement with the government to take over management of the park.[12]

Survival International reports that, "according to the African Parks 2004 annual report, the resettlement of the Kore and Guji people was an internal affair of the Federal and regional governments, and African Parks had no role to play in the matter." [12] African Parks Foundation withdrew from Ethiopia in 2008.

Religion and beliefs

The Suri have a sky god named Tuma. The Suri also believe in spirits and use medicine men to undertake sacrifices or prayers and directly send them to Tuma. Another belief of the Suri is their rainmaker. This position in the tribe is passed down through heredity and is only given to one male in the tribe. When the tribe feels his services are needed, the men collect chips from a specific tree. These chips are then masticated and the remaining juice is then mixed with clay. This combination is poured and smeared over a man's body. After this process, rain is expected to fall.


The economy of the Suri is based on agriculture. To name a few of the crops planted are cabbage, beans, yams, tobacco and coffee. During the dry season, the Suri also collect honey. The Suri pan gold to make pots in nearby streams which was later used in trade with the Juye and Murle. Trades are also made between the Suri and the Ethiopian highlanders, Amhara and Shangalla. Rifles and weapons are traded with Amhara and Shangalla as are leopard and lion skin, giraffe tails, honey and ivory.

The average male in the Suri tribe owns somewhere between 30 and 40 cows. These cows are not usually killed unless they are needed for ceremonial purposes. Every young male is named after their cattle, which they are ruled to look after. Cows are tremendously important to the Suri, and at times Suri risk death to protect their herd; Suri men are judged by how much cattle they own. In desperate times, Suri men risk their lives to steal cattle from other tribes. Men also are not allowed to marry until they own 60 cows. These cows are given to his wife’s family after the ceremony. To praise their cattle or mourn their deaths, the Suri sing songs for them.


Surma woman with lip plug
Surma man with body art

Piercing and lip plates are a strong part of the Suri culture. At the point of puberty most women have their bottom teeth removed in order to get their lower lip pierced. Once the lip is pierced, it is then stretched and a lip plate is then placed in the hole of the piercing. Having a lip plate is a sign of beauty and the bigger the plate, the more cattle the woman is worth. This is important when the women are ready to get married.

It is still unknown why and how lip plates came to be used. One theory says lips plates were used to discourage slave owners from taking the women who had them. In recent years, some young women are refusing to have their lips pierced.

Surma person with arm scarification

The Suri pride themselves on their scars and how many they carry. Women perform scarification by slicing their skin with a razor blade after lifting it with a thorn. After the skin is sliced the piece of skin left over is left to eventually scar. On the other hand, the men scar their bodies after they kill someone from an enemy tribe. These rituals, which are extremely painful, are said by some anthropologists are a type of controlled violence; a way of getting the younger tribe members used to seeing blood and feeling pain. It is also a way of adapting these young children to their violent environment.

The Suri also paint their bodies white for some occasions.

Stick fighting

A sport and ritual the Suri take extremely seriously is stick fighting. In most cases, stick fighting is done so young men can find wives. It is a way for young men to prove themselves to the young women. To the Suri, the ideal time to stick fight is just after it rains. The fights are held between Suri villages, and the fights begin with 20 to 30 people on each side. Of these 20 to 30 people, all get a chance to fight one on one against someone from the other side. During these fights there are referees present to make sure all rules are being followed. Many stick fights end within the first couple of hits. Stick fighting has proven to be dangerous because people have died from being hit in the stomach. Since stick fighting draws a large audience, it becomes a threat of danger. Shooting can easily break out and this seems to be the new trend for young Suri men; using guns instead of sticks.

Ways of life

Each household in the Suri village is run by a woman. These women also own their own fields and are allowed to use their profits however they wish. Every age group has a certain role. Young men (Tegay) are not yet considered warriors, begin helping with cattle when they reach age eight. Junior elders (Rora) are a hard age-set to be initiated into. It takes 20 to 30 years to get to this new age-set. During this initiation the young men are sometimes starved or even whipped until they bleed. Decisions of the village are made by the men in an assembly. Women are not allowed to voice their opinions during these debates but are allowed to before the debates take place. These debates are led by the tribe’s ritual chief also known as the Komoru.


  1. 1 2 3 The 2007 national census figures for ethnicity split out separate totals for "Surma", "Mursi" and "Me'enites". 2007 Ethiopian census, first draft, Ethiopian Central Statistical Agency (accessed 6 May 2009)
  2. Unseth, Peter. (1997) "Disentangling the Two Languages Called 'Suri'", Occasional Papers in the Study of Sudanese Languages, 7:49-69.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "Ethnologue Report: Suri". 1999-02-19. Retrieved 2013-07-25.
  4. 1 2 "Ethnologue Report: Mursi". 1999-02-19. Retrieved 2013-07-25.
  5. Dimmendaal, Gerrit. (2002) "Sociolinguistic survey report on Tirma, Chai, Baale and Mursi." SIL Electronic Survey Reports 2002-033
  6. 1 2 3 Chmielarski, Dariusz. (2005) "Shadows of Old Africa",, Ethiopia
  7. Close, Jánis Miglavs. (2005) "Mother Making New Lip Plate, Mursi tribe, Omo River region, Ethiopia"
  8. Beckwith, Carol and Angela Fisher. (1991) "The eloquent Surma of Ethiopia," National Geographic, 179.2:76-99.
  9. "Ethnologue Report: Me'en". 1999-02-19. Retrieved 2013-07-25.
  10. Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees. (2006) "Suri, Dizi, Mursi, Me'en, Nyangatom threatened by Ethiopian National Park"
  11. Turton, David. (2006) "African Parks Foundation and the Omo National Park"
  12. 1 2 3 Hurd, Will. (8 August 2005) "Ethiopia: Mursi land threatened by government", Survival International.

Sources and references

Further reading

External links

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