In October 2012 I stayed 4 weeks in Surma area around Kibish and Tulgit. Surma is the official Ethiopian umbrella term for three ethnic groups in South Ethiopia: the Suri people, the Mursi people and the Mekan people. Very often the name ‘Surma’ is used for the Suri people as well, but this is wrong, a Suri would never call himself a ‘Surma’. The Suri people are semi-nomadic cattle herders and live on the west side of the Omo River in the southwestern part of Ethiopia.
I returned yesterday from my two week trip to the Suri and Bume in Southwest Omo, and send you here my travel report. This was largely the same trip that your correspondent Trevor Cole made in January 2009, and I endorse much of his report. I will try to complement what he wrote then.
Firstly though I must say that, despite desperately poor infrastructure, this is a magnificent trip, quite on a par with the best of Ethiopia. The countryside is lush, green, always interesting and much better than that of the more commonly travelled South East Omo. It was of course just after the big rains which helped, making even the lower 600 meter savannah areas around Kibish green. Further north the higher 1600 meter tropical rainforest areas around Bonga, Mizan Aman (no longer Mizan Teferi) and Bebeke are stunning, a quite different Ethiopia.
There are two roads south from Mizan Aman, although all maps including the one in Bradt’s 5th edition, show only the one if they show any. The missing one is ironically the one described in the 5th edition, and by Trevor Cole, via Bebeke, Guraferda, Dima, Koka, Tulgit and Kibish Surma, which goes on to Kibish Bume (the “other” Kibish marked on the map in the 5th edition). This road is of course only suitable for 4x4s, but is perfectly passable with only one seriously dodgy river crossing ( a group passing in the previous week had had to wait 7 hours at this point but did finally get through). We were only able to continue to within 25 kilometers of Kibish Bume, virtually on the Sudan border when the mud and water became too much for our excellent drivers. The side road to Mui and the Omo National Park was also impassable so we returned to Kibish Surma, after visiting two deserted Bume villages, the Bume still being mostly nomadic.
The highlights were visits to two Suri villages (Koka and Regge) to see how they (actually the women and children) lived and to witness the scarification of a girl’s arm,with razor blade and thorns, and their singing and dancing, and later with the men the shooting with a bow and arrow of the jugular vein of a bull and the drinking of its blood and then with the children and young adults their face painting with really creative use of local plants (see Hans Silvester’s brilliantly photographed book!). We then spent the afternoon watching the Donga stick fights a kilometre outside Tulgit. Donga is actually the Mursi name, the Suri here call it the Zegine stick fight. This is a fascinating spectacle watched eagerly by the villagers of both sexes, about 95% posturing by muscular naked males, with pretend fights, and lots of chanting in groups of about ten men, then suddenly 5% of pure violent action with no holds barred, then suddenly nothing, as one of the contestants acknowledges defeat. It is by the way absolutely not true what several guide books about the Donga say, that if someone is accidentally killed in a Donga fight, the oppponent is thrown out of the community. Just not true said our Suri guide.
As we had not been able to do our trip to the National park we went instead to a Suri gold mining area on the Kibish river, a fascinating experience right out of medieval Europe, deep deep holes with makeshift ladders, and men hacking away at soft layers of stone and sand, passing up wooden trays of gold bearing earth to others who take it down to the river where (mainly) women pan it in the river for a few flakes of gold. These are then sold to a middleman in Kibish. The whole enterprise doesn’t bring much to the miners who risk life and limb, but presumably it brings enough for them to continue doing it.
We stayed in a not-to-be-recommended hotel in Mizan Aman (Bench Frey Hotel) as the Bebeke plantation guesthouse on our programme had received such negative reports from the previous group. Thereafter it was camping in Koka (OK but no toilets or other facilities), Kibish Surma (in the municipal compound, so reasonably secure, filthy toilets, poorly maintained with rubbish everywhere) and Tum (quite the best, beautifully clean toilets, shaded , secure, in the grounds of an evangelical church about three kilometres outside Tum). We saw and rejected two other campsites, one at Tulgit, which was very pretty with a beautiful view, in the police compound, but our Oromo guide refused to let us stay there as the police guide was armed and rolling drunk (a lethal combination in his view!). The other we rejected was on the airstrip at Tum village, but with no shade, no facilities and a hundred inquisitive and probably acquisitive children it didn’t feel right.
We returned from Kibish Surma via a cross-road West to East , first retracing out path north to Koka then going across to Tum on an almost impassable route which was mercifully only twenty or thirty kilometres. This brought us on to the Eastern of the two North-South roads, which we then returned on to make a loop to Mizan. However we stayed two nights in Tum and in between travelled south on the “main” road to the only sizeable town in South West Omo, Maji, which was in magnificent hilly country (2100 metres above sea level with Maskal daisies in full bloom, a tiny bit of Northern Ethiopia in the South, even the natives being dressed as in the north). If this were in any other country of the world it would be designated a National Park and tourists would flock to it for its clear air and magnificent views. I stayed in the town to visit a school but others in our small group went for a two hour walk to a local waterfall with views over the savannah to Kibish and the Omo National Park. A really nice place. We visited the village of Akem, beautifully situated on a hill, with a really friendly Dizi family who invited us in to see their compound. Here there is much agriculture.
We returned to Mizan via villages of the Dizi (around Tum) and the Me’ent (further north around Batchema), both interesting but not of course as spectacular as the Suri. Overall the West Omo peoples were pleasanter to us than the East Omo ones, who of course see vastly more white faces and act as if are milk cows to be milked for all we are worth. I found the Mursi exceedingly unpleasant in this regard, and their cousins the Suri considerably pleasanter. The Dizi and Me’ent were uniformly friendly and welcoming, and only occasionally were we bothered by the usual “you, you, you” of children.
The Eastern road is marked on most maps even if only as a dotted line, but this is going to change bigtime. Most travel guides have not yet caught up with THE social phenomene of Ethiopia (and elsewhere in Africa) of 2010, and that is the Chinese.
I cannot emphasise enough what this is doing to Ethiopia (and my contact with this country goes back to 1970 and Haile Selassie). The Chinese are everywhere. The country is in an orgy of infrastructure building, roads principally, but also dams (the third Gibe dam is now going ahead on the Omo) and in the cities apartment blocks and shopping centres. And everywhere this is fuelled by massive investment from China, with lesser pockets of Indian (principally trade and services)and Japanese (principally the new Milennium bridge over the Blue Nile).
To give an idea of the scale of the Chinese input you need look no further than the Mizan-Maji road, over 100 kilometres of new road, all being built simultaneously, replacing a muddy single lane track with a 20 meter wide four lane road of motorway proportions with massive stone culverts for every stream, driving new routes through hills and across valleys. It is quite literally awe inspiring. And this on a road where we passed (I was counting) six non-construction vehicles in four days!! The villagers think it wonderful that after generations of promises they are finally going to be linked to the outside world, but, old cynic that I am, I only see a future stream of Chinese lorries carrying off cheaply gained African resources to fuel development in China. I fear a new sort of colonial exploitation. But whatever it is it will change Ethiopia for good, or for ill.
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