by Joakim Larsen
The Suri are a tribal people, living in the lush and exquisitely beautiful Ethiopian-South Sudanese border land in West Omo Valley. This is tribal land and the Suri have been living here for as long as their recorded history can tell. According to their own tradition they came to this land 200 years ago.
The land is beautiful and lush, the ground fertile, the climate hot, the birds many
and the rivers clean. In many ways this is a place of paradisical calibre.
Kibbish, Southern Nations Region.
Suri is a lean and dark people. Traditionally they are animists, or Kay, a belief based on strong relations to the forefathers, whose spirits live on in the ground. Suri live close to nature and by choice their life is simple; they are a semi-nomadic people, they live in simple huts and wear only a blanket around the shoulder and waist. The life in the village is quiet and at times uneventful.
The family is the central structure of the community. Social relations within the family, the village and the tribe are strong and play an important role. The Suri is a people with a strong group identity; they use scarification, the removal of teeth, and ear and lip plates as ornamentation - the bigger the plate, the more beautiful and the higher social status.
The wife of Korkordis uncle.
She is wearing the distinctive lip-plate, worn only by the Suri and the Mursi tribe in Southern Ethiopia. The lip-plate serves as decoration for beautification. The size is decided by the woman herself. The women don't wear it all the time, mostly for special occations.
She cooked our meals; traditional porridge, the basis of Suri diet. One evening we had it with vegetables. And the next day a cow was slaughtered in the village, and I went to buy a kilo of meat. And so we had meat stew with the porridge. She insisted I come back so she could cook some more for me.
These ornamentations serve as beautification, only - and they contribute to increase the tribal identity. Inwardly they are a tribe with a complex social structure and strong traditions and they refuse to accept any overarching state structure.
They have a strong cultural focus on cattle. Traditionally the Suri are warriors and pastoralists. They grow the land in small plots, enough to sustain their consumption of maize and sorghum. The cattle represent wealth. Wealth is accumulated through the number of cattle, and cattle serve as medium for marriage, dowry, and ultimately fertility. Previously a dowry would be 30 cattle and one Kalashnikov. Today it is reduced to 15 cattle and a Kalashnikov.
The history of the Suri is characterised by many tribal conflicts, fights and wars with other tribes in the region - primarily over grazing land. For as any sound people, they will defend their land against intruders. So for the sake of survival the Suri have developed a warrior-ethos. They are currently at war against another tribe, trying to defend their land from an intruding tribe, migrating from South Sudan.
In Dima most attempts to negotiate with the Suri have failed. But in Kibbish, the Suri capitol, the Ethiopian national government is slowly getting established in the attempt to bring about change as part of the modernisation of the country and as part of the assimilation of all the people into one nation.
Barto, a young warrior of 19, who proudly showed me the stick-fight scars on his body.
But he is also a caring father who is obviously very good with the babies.
Inwardly the Suri is a harmonious, friendly and including people. Mild and harmonious are the words coming to my mind, as I visited. So what to outsiders may be perceived as unnecessary violence, serves important purposes in the Suri community.
They are also a competitive people; for the coming of age of the young men, a family will gather all their cattle around their hut for display; the purpose is to show the wealth of the family. Later the young boys enter into stick fights to compete and they proudly show the numerous scars and say: “You see my strength?” Stick fights are part of reaching adulthood and they are an integral part of the preparations for becoming a warrior.
The social identity is based on a consciousness identified through language and on decorative customs in order to create a clan affiliation, which can keep up an enduring identity during encounters of peaceful exchange or the at times violent competition with other tribes in the region. To outsiders it may seem strange that violence is woven into so many aspects of the community life; into the ideals of manhood, and social personality and with what may be called expansive reproduction, the growth of cattle herds and of family and offspring.
In a sacrificial connection the killing and the offering of domestic stock animals are used to benefit humans. For the relationship and social bond between humans and cattle is so strong, that through the act of sacrifice the vitality of the domestic stock animal killed ritually is deflected towards humans. And the flowing of blood is looked upon as essential and yielding of beneficial results. Sacrifice is used for certain ceremonial occasions: marriage, burial, death, age-group initiation, rain ceremony, installation of ceremonial leaders, and serious illness.
My guide Korkodi.
Normally I dont hire guides. But I wanted to support the local community and in a place like Kibbish, you need someone to introduce you to the comunity. I would hire him again.
Polite and intelligent, and with a wonderful mix of traditional Suri way of thinking, spiced up with modern attitude and interests. The week after my visit he was going on a sponsored programme to the town of Mizan Tefari to study IT for three months.
People involved in homicide, in the handling of corpses at burials or people who have committed adultery are temporarily isolated and cleansed. Through purification with the freshly spilt blood of a stock animal the life-force of that animal is used for people to re-enter the social life. The purification with blood also allows the break down of the boundaries between individuals who were previously socially separated by their violence.
An important moment of achievement in the Suri tradition is attaining adulthood. It is a social milestone, but not one that you reach automatically; the coming of age must be achieved through showing valour and personal strength, by capable herding and finally through initiation into the senior age grade. The passing of time, the showing of worthiness and appropriate behaviour are the components that decide the coming of age.
The rituals of initiation are a special occasion in Suri life. New candidates are insulted by the elders, they are given degrading tasks, are deprived of food and are lashed until their backs bleed. The coming of age is marked by emotional commitment and shared assumptions and values and it serves to strengthen the group identity as a means for survival.
The rituals communicate a psychological message with strong social components, that inhibit direct violence. Their purpose is to force new members of society to overcome fear of armed attack and of wounding and killing. According to Suri tradition, young boys have to learn to suppress a natural inhibition (!) against spilling blood and inflicting harm. This is seen as an important part of becoming an adult and a warrior.
Some of the marvellous fauna in the land of Suri.
The Suri history is characterised by many events of self-defence. And the tribal identity is partly defined through a cultural metaphor: we revenge - we pay back. It may be instant pay back and it may take years.
Thus to the Suri violence is not aimless or chaotic. It can end in death, but still it follows certain cultural scenarios, and is founded on psychological and cultural components that inhibit direct aggression. It is an inevitable fact of life, and is in no way looked upon as problematic, destructive or irrational.
In Dima, another small town, 50 kilometres from Kibbish, the Suri presence is not appreciated. The prejudices against them are many: here the Suri are viewed as primitive, dum and uneducated people, who refuse any development. They are feared for their violent culture, feared for being a people who cannot be trusted, who steal cattle and kidnap children and who would not hesitate to kill you — even for small money. I have even heard some people in Dima describe them as animals, who return to the forest to sleep.
Another prejudice is, that the strong cultural dictate against the civilisation as we know and define it forces the young Suri to act in a socially accepted way, when they go to e.g. Mizan Tefari or Jimma. If they adapt to the behaviour of modern civilisation, if they change too much and start wearing clothes and they come back to the forest, they will be killed.
Consequently you find no people, neither habesha nor Anuak, who will voluntarily enter the forest on the South Eastern side of the Akobo River. According to the inhabitants of Dima, the Suri will not hesitate to shoot you if you go there. According to the established prejudice they will shoot you, take off your clothes and take your money. They will not accept you as you are - they do not accept change and they do not appreciate visitors.
These are all prejudices that are ingrown and wide spread in the town of Dima. In Tum and Maji, just 80 km west of Dima, however, the attitude towards the Suri is completely different.
Korkodi's cousin with her baby.
For herself she has chosen not to have a lip-plate -
something that is becoming increasingly frequent among the younger generation.
There is a security issue south of Dima; and the police and military are involved in trying to keep up the security. All Kalashnikovs are currently being registered and frequent patrols stop cars and check for guns and rebels. But the situation is not nearly as bad as it is described by the people in Dima.
Still starting from Koi, 20 kilometres north of Dima, you have to drive in convoy. Armed police and military must accompany you in your car, bus, or truck. And further south you are strongly advised not to go by motorcycle, even in a convoy.
Different humanitarian and religious organisations...(!) have tried to bring development - development from their point of view. And the government has apparently tried, unsuccessfully, to establish peaceful relations and to bring civilisation to the Suri around Dima. Officials can meet for negotiation and the sharing of ideas. But after the Suri return to the forest and they will shoot anyone who tries to construct anything or in other ways tries to bring change to the area. That is the information you get when you ask people in Dima.
Part of the problem is of course that all this is done instrumentally. Any sound people will fight what they perceive as an invading force and they will defend themselves against what they perceive as evil. And all the Suri want is their land and their cattle. Nothing more.
After Dima I decided to meet the Suri. So I drove to Kibish, the Suri capitol. My first encounter was with a young Suri who hitchhiked a ride. I picked him up and even though we didn't speak the same language we had some good laughs on the way.
I arrived in Kibish around noon. There was a lot of attention on me when I arrived on the motor cycle - too much. So I quickly withdrew to the local guest house, and found a quiet corner in the restaurant. An older Suri gentleman came up to me and suggested we eat together, that is, he suggested I invite him. I accepted without hesitation. We poured water for each other to wash hands - a local gesture used before any meal and we shared a simple lunch.
He was a quiet eater, polite, mindful and calm. We couldn't speak together but I enjoyed his company and I think he enjoyed it too. After a few minutes a young Suri man, Korkodi approached me and informed me that he was a local guide. Normally I avoid guides - like cats avoid water. But I liked his gentle and polite being and we started talking. I instantly decided to hire him and that turned out to be a good decision - for me and for him.
He took me around, introduced me to his family, took me to the river for a lovely and cooling bath, and later - when I asked him where I could eat Suri food, his surprised reply was, "You want to eat Suri food?" "Yes, of course, I didn't come here to eat pizza!" was my instant reply. He suggested we eat together with his family. Good for me. It couldn't have been better. I gave the mother some money to purchase ingredients and she cooked for us.
The young man I picked up on the motorcycle. We didnt understand eachothers languages, but we were laughing a lot as we drove through the hot and beautiful Suri land to Kibbish.
Later at dinner time when Korkodi and I showed up, the darkness was setting. It was a quiet evening, warm air and no winds. There was a kakaphonia of insects singing in the bushes and we approached the small hut with the fire glowing in the fireplace outside. On the ground four women were sitting and talking. The spirit was easy, friendly and harmonious. We were sat down on a bench and enjoyed the quietness.
One by one the women came up to me and greeted me warmly. I didn't know how to greet in Suri, except to say "Challe". Of course I was excused, for I was a new guest. But my instant reaction was to give them a hug and a kiss. And we laughed, something that seemed to be a good way to greet.
We enjoyed a tasty meal together; maize porridge with cooked cabbage. You eat the hot porridge and the vegetables directly from the bowl, no cutlery.
It was a lovely evening in the good company of friends from an entirely different culture - I felt welcomed and accepted and I was taking it all in. We sat in the moon light listening to the insects, teh gnistering fire and the lively and harmonious discussion of the ladies. The men were absent, all out herding cattle.
I don't know how to describe the Suri except as harmonious, friendly and polite people. I have only positive things to say about my visit. I view them as a beautiful and mild people with a different and interesting culture. And during my way too short stay in Kibbish I was touched by the spirit of the people. I became good friends with Korkodi and his family. We shared opinions on different matters, culture, education and other central aspects. And I can confidentially say, that I will return and revisit.
It is my sincere hope that the tribes of Southern Ethiopia will have the opportunity to maintain their unique cultural identity, their language, their customs and not least their land. For in all their contrast to modern society they are the ensign of human diversity; they represent our ability to contain and value human diversity. They enrich our global society and they help keeping us at a safe distance from the strangling effects of uniformity. They help us keep our humanity.
But whether we like it or not the full-force wave of new civilisation, reinforced by globalisation, gigantic financial interests and modern colonialism, is currently sweeping over the entire planet, bringing change - quick and irreversible change. And I too am a bearer.
And the many tribal people are at imminent risk of being swallowed up just as it is happening to numerous tribes in the Amazonas, in Indonesia and in many African countries.
This is one of the schisms of our age...
Sharing is happiness...