The Suri are an ethnic minority or tribe who live in the remote South West of Ethiopia. They are nomadic pastoralists living their lives in a relatively lush savanna region close to the border with Sudan. The Omo valley is well known for its diversity of tribal peoples and they do get substantial numbers of tourists each year bringing change and perhaps bringing to an end the sustainable existence they have had for Millennia. The Suri also inhabit this region but in an area to the west of the Omo which is more remote and less accessible. In 2006 they had 35 tourists visiting the region and this has probably not changed to any great extent in 2008.
I had the opportunity to travel there at the end of October 2008 and once again I was left with the feeling that Ethiopia has a periphery which truly lies off the beaten track and contains peoples and landscapes which are seldom seen. Traveling west and south west through Jima and Mizan Tefari were unmistakably Ethiopian experiences. The towns have little to offer and the infrastructure is poor. We ate Ethiopian fayre of tibs, shiro and injera – there was little choice! The area to the south of Jima, however, was stunning in its scenery and lushness. The montane rainforest and its red fertile soils seemed endless even if it had been logged and farmed for a long time. This is Kaffa country – from which coffee and the word coffee originally comes. On the second night of our trip we stayed in Bebeka coffee plantation, the largest in Ethiopia. It is government run and was originally set up during the Mengistu (communist) regime. Much of the architecture, however, is Italian and I had the pleasure of staying in the same bungalow that Mengistu used! It is now very dilapidated on the inside but outside the semblance of another era of charm and tasteful Italian architecture still exists. Sitting drinking a cold glass of wine added to the ambience. The grounds of the guesthouse were truly beautiful and trees were found from World’s beyond Ethiopia. Walking through the plantation and watching the Colobus and Grevit monkeys served to sooth the senses. We came across the estate workers washing coffee beans in long trays but we were not allowed to take photographs, in fact they were not happy that we were even walking around. A hangover from former times, certainly an inexplicable one!?
Along our route to the west the people we encountered were wonderful. We didn’t get any of the hassle that is almost ubiquitous in this country, especially from little boys who have nothing better to do but practice, for no good reason, their begging skills. “Give me the money”, “Caramella”, “you, you, you”…….all of this seemed absent and in its place was a warmth and a genuine feeling that you were not often seen! The human zoo syndrome was reversed – we were the zoo and they were doing the watching!
The last outpost of civilization, in an Ethiopian context, was the small and dismal town of Dima. This is also the last stop for any public transport, a little like the idea of a final frontier. This area is in the Gambella region and until recently you needed a convoy to get through as the locals, discontent with the Ethiopian government, were commonly taking potshots at those driving past! We were spared this and drove through with nonchalance and confidence.
The boundary between this area and the land of the Suri was marked by both a bio-physical and cultural boundary. I don’t think I have ever seen such a remarkable change. The forest cover changed from montane rainforest to savanna and the people changed colour and character almost as if entering another realm or World. To see those wearing tattered western clothes in Dima and then to see cattle herders coming out of the bush stark naked or with a simple blanket in deep blue or purple reinforced this impression. We were in the land of the Suri. Beautiful, forested but lower and warmer, with a flavour of what others might perceive as being African. The only thing that should have also been there was game. There was none it was decimated years ago, after Mengistu was deposed.
We stayed in the village of Kibish – a Suri village with a police post and few other very simple amenities. There was a bar serving the local brews – some of which are very potent and loved by the Suri! Gunshots in the night are testament to this and also a reflection of the spear having been replaced by the Kalashnikov or AK47. The civil war in Sudan has provided them with the opportunity to arm themselves and as a result exacerbate the death toll in the inter-tribal conflicts which exist in the area. The Suri are a race of warriors. They have a culture steeped in machismo and the need to prove themselves when seeking a bride or proving their worth as a man. To do this they have an age old practice of stick fighting called Donga. This only takes place for about a month at the end of the harvest and the timing of our visit could not have been better.
Apart from this ritualistic fighting, which is very violent, the tribe has some very distinctive traits and characteristics. The women wear lip plates some of which can be about 10 cms across and get bigger from the first incision as young teens. The habit is now declining as western influences take their toll. Nonetheless, a distinctive number still have a plate. They have some of their bottom teeth removed and their bottom lips pierced, then stretched, so as to allow insertion of a clay, or sometimes wooden, lip plate. The children often paint their faces with while and red clays which is startling and of course lends itself to photography. I loved it!
Village life is largely communal so they share everything. We watched them milking a cow and then using a bow and arrow to pierce the jugular vein in another to extract blood, which they mix with the milk in a calabash and drink. Lots of protein but I refrained from drinking! To see them doing this we had to walk, in the rain, to a nearby village. The paths were treacherous due to the clay having turned into slippery mud. For me this was fraught with challenges as falling was a real possibility and some of us did much to the amusement of those behind! My behind, however, remained un damaged! Crossing a river was even more of a challenge, especially when returning, as the rains had increased its discharge and the current was pulling us inexorably downstream. All part of the fun!
The men and women have scarified bodies. They use razor blades and a thorn to make lunate shaped incisions which later rise up into keloidal bumps. The patterns on their breasts, stomachs, arms and shoulders were testament to the pain that this ritual inflicts. The end result, however, is beautiful. The patterns have links to the spiritualism that is a part of their animist religion, hence you see snakes and other less recognizable patterns adorning their bodies. The people are timeless and ageless – none of them know how old they are. They are not registered – births and deaths are not recorded and there is no population count. It seemed to me that it was a fine example of survival of the fittest. If you survive, birth and infancy you have a chance. A chance which is much smaller than ours. Health care is minimal and malaria and water borne infections are rampant. When men fight in the Donga they are fine physical specimens and when they are chosen as mates by girls this perpetuates reproduction which favours the strong. I saw few old people and no-one with a disability. I presume they die to leave the fittest behind.
The good fortune of actually seeing a donga made us feel blessed. The event was incredible. There were perhaps a thousand people there and to see the fighting at close quarters further emphasized the contrasts in our lives. Naked, clay covered men in the peak of physical condition in one to one combat. The speed of the sticks and the impact of the blows to any parts of the body didn’t bear thinking about. The aggression and after the compassion was palpable and all of this was made more poignant by the singing after victory or prior to the different villages meeting to engage in battle. This was not for us, it was for them – an integral and ancient part of their culture and being. A sight to behold and not to be forgotten. To see blood running down faces and hear the clash of sticks has left an imprint which is indelible. This lasted for about 4 or 5 hours and it seemed like minutes. I took about 250 photographs in fast moving difficult conditions – I hope I captured at least some of the passion and tradition which is imbued in this rarely seen event.
The Suri have a sky god, Tuma, an abstract divine force. I hope the inexorable advancement of missionaries into these remote regions does not reach these people. They have the right to their own belief systems and live much more in harmony with their environment than we will ever do. They are inextricably linked to the land, their cattle and their culture. The gun, inter-tribal conflict and tourism are their biggest threats. I hope that zooification is not going to undermine their tribal roots. The forces of globalization are, however, strong and it is unlikely that they will resist the forces of change.
This trip was made possible by Abel Abebe an independent Ethiopian tour operator based in the Southern city of Awassa. He was the best agent I have used in Ethiopia and this was due to his sensitivity to people and environment. The first operator I have used who fully believes in the concept of sustainable tourism. He wants to keep community spirit alive and allow people to play a role in their own future. I recommend him unreservedly to anyone wanting to travel in this amazing country. His knowledge and passion are boundless. firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.ethiotreasure.com/. +251 911392432.
Photos may be seen at http://web.mac.com/trevcole1/Site/Suri_tribe.html