In the remote and desolate mountains of South Western Ethiopia lives a lost tribe called the Surma People. Living in voluntary isolation, these natives have avoided all Western contact for years. They live a humble and semi-nomadic lifestyle and maintain traditions long left behind by the rest of the world. A constant source of fascination for anthropologists who seek to understand their culture, the Surma People manage to live apart from globalised society. Distinctive in looks, they wear barely any clothes, cover themselves in body paint and are known for their large lip plates.
The name Surma is the official Ethiopian umbrella term for the Suri, the Mursi and Mekan people. The term is used for all three ethnic groups; however, the Suri people would never refer to themselves as Surma. Often also referred to as an ‘uncontacted’ tribe, their small advancements such as factory-made items mean this terminology is incorrect, especially since it’s near impossible to avoid contact with outsiders completely. Yet their geographic location means they’ve managed to survive in relative isolation, segregated from the outside world and mostly ‘uncontacted’.
The Surma People have maintained strong traditions over the years, one being the lip plates that are worn by women. Said to be a sign of beauty and marital status, this practice happens when women reach marriageable age. Their two lower teeth are knocked out by a rock and a slit is made in their lower lip, before inserting a small wooden plug. Each plug is gradually replaced with a larger one until the lip is stretched enough for a clay or wooden plate to be inserted, some 30cm in diametre.
With humble dwellings and a barter economy, the Surma People live in grass huts and rely heavily on cattle for their lifestyle. Traditionally, women take care of the household and child rearing and provide further resources by tending to fields of maize, beans and tobacco. The number of cattle owned signifies their wealth and they usually only eat the animals during big ceremonies. In addition to raising cattle for meat, they rear the animals for their milk and blood (which they also drink). By preparing a mixture of cattle blood and milk, the Suri warriors often participate in a ceremonial rite called Cow Bleeding.
Another tradition that the Surma men partake in is a ceremonial duelling (or stick fighting) called Donga. Using wooden poles, they fight each other when seeking a bride or to prove their masculinity. The fight continues until one of the men is defeated due to injuries (which can occasionally be life threatening). As for religion, the Surma People believe in a higher force called ‘Tumwi’, said to be a figure in the sky resembling a rainbow.
The Surma Peoples’ way of life is unfortunately threatened by natural causes and the advancements of the Western world. Whilst tourists may be curious, police only allow foreigners to travel to these areas with hired armed guards. Since the Sudanese Civil war, natives have carried automatic firearms to protect themselves and their cattle from rival tribes, thus making them dangerous at times. Additionally, the tribes brew sorghum beer, consuming the lethal brew in vast quantities which can make them aggressive and violent. However, when they are welcoming to foreigners, the Surma People can be quite friendly and will dress up in ritual costumes for tourists.
The fate of the Surma People hangs in limbo since the Ethiopian Government began constructing a highly ambitious hydroelectric dam. Allowing for large scale commercial farming, the government has begun to clear the very grounds where the Surma People reside. In addition to threatening their residence and livestock, the government has implemented a non-negotiable policy of moving people into new villages. Reports of an abuse to human rights, this process has increased the Surma Peoples’ contact with outside cultures, threatening to erode their culture completely.
*Images by Louisa Seton