Surma is a collective term for three ethnic groups:
All are politically and territorially different, but all speaking 'South East Surmic' languages within the Surmic language family, which includes Mursi, Majang, and Me'en languages.
Demography and Geography
The term Suri is the Ethiopian government's collective name for the Chai, Timaga, and Suri Baale as expressed in the label 'Suri woreda' (= lower administrative district) in southwestern Ethiopia, bordering South Sudan.
The 2007 national Ethiopian census figures for ethnic groups distinguish "Suri" from "Mursi" and "Me'enit" (= singular of Me'en). Some authors have used the terms "Suri" and "Surma" interchangeably, or for contradictory purposes.
The Suri are an agro-pastoral people and inhabit part of the West Omo zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region (SNNPR) in Ethiopia, while the Other live partly in neighbouring South Sudan.
Some are also found west of Jemu. The Suri population was ca. 20,622 in 1998 (census est.) and ca. 32,000 in 2016. The Suri are culturally closely related to the more 'famous' Mursi, but the latter do not regard themselves as 'Suri' despite the similarities.
The Suri country is hilly with deep valleys. The climate is mild with heavy rainfall. The Suri are predominantly sedentary, agrarian community with the economy built on agriculture. The rich fertile soil results in a remarkable size and quantity of crops. Crops planted are millet, maize, cabbage, marrow, beans, yams, tobacco and coffee.
They keep goats and sheep. They also hunt large game and collect honey during the dry season. They pan gold in the streams and make pots. They engage in trade with the Jiye, the Murle and the Ethiopian highlanders in tobacco and pots (Jiye and Murle), lion and leopard skins, giraffe tails, honey and ivory, rifles and ammunition (Amhara and Shangalla)
They breed their cattle, mostly cows, on their traditional lands, located in the Omo Valley.
Cattle are enormously important to the Suri. They do not see cattle simply as a material asset but as a life-sustaining and meaningful companion. Suri even sing songs in praise of their cattle and make fires to warm them. They even mourn their cattle when they die.
Cows also have a social and symbolic meaning in Suri’s society. Suri men are judged on how much cattle they own. In desperate times, Suri men can risk their lives to steal cattle from other tribes. Cattle ownership bring status; when two Suri meet they'll ask each other how many cows they have. Cows are a store of wealth to be traded, and a source of milk and blood. Bleeding a cow is more efficient than slaughtering it for meat, and blood can be drawn during the dry season when there's less milk. An animal can be bled once a month, from the jugular.
The animals aren't generally sold or killed for meat, though they are slaughtered for certain ceremonies. They are treated with reverence. Fires are lit to keep them warm and to protect against insect bites, they are covered with ash. Every boy is given a young bull to look after when he reaches the age of 8, and his friends call him the name of his bull.
The Suri groups share a similar culture, and show social and historical kinship with the Mursi and Me'en groups. Within Ethiopia, their homeland is relatively remote, located in semi-arid plains, valleys and foothills. There are traditional rivalries with neighbouring groups such as the Nyangatom and the South Sudanese Toposa, constantly raiding into Ethiopian territory. In recent decades, these conflicts have become quite bloody, with multiple use of automatic firearms (now present in significant numbers), no available overarching structures of mediation, and lack of effective government action. Major sources of the weapons have been the parties in the Sudanese Civil War. At times, the local police only allows foreigners to travel there with a hired armed guard. Local Suri authorities have also been imposing hefty tourist 'travel sums' on foreign tourists visiting the area.
The Suri are a self-conscious and culturally proud people, with, among others, a liking for stick fighting called saginé. This is more properly called 'ceremonial duelling', and serves as a rite of passage for male youngsters and brings 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.
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. This has become the hallmark of the Suri - as for the Mursi - and the main reason they have been sought out by tourists interested in the 'exotic'. Some women have stretched their lips so as to allow plates up to sixteen inches in diameter. Increasing with exposure to other cultures, however, a growing number of girls now refrain from this practice. Their children are sometimes painted with (protective) white clay paint, which may be dotted on the face or body.
Suri villages normally range in size from 40 to 1,000 people, but a few may reach 2,500 people. Suri life is egalitarian. The Suri 'chiefs' (called komoru) have a ritual function and are merely the most respected elders and have no executive powers. They are elected from within a certain clan lineages. Few Surma are familiar with Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and their literacy level is relatively low. In recent decades, however, schools have been built and the number of literate Suri is growing, with several now working in the local administration's district capital, and others studying in various towns.
The Suri believe that they originally lived on the banks of the Nile, in the country now inhabited by the Bor Dinka. It is said that they then migrated eastwards towards the Akobo. From here, the Meyun clan broke off from the main body of the tribe, coming south to Boma, and subsequently taking up their abode at Meyun.
According to Suri oral tradition, they came to their present territory about 200 years ago from the West (Sudan-Ethiopia border lands). First they came to the Akobo (eastwards from the Nile); then they moved in two directions, to the lower part of Kidhoa Bo and the upper part from Kidhoa Bo to Mount Shologoy. These migrants also absorbed local groups. Since the late 1890s, the Suri were constantly harassed by the Ethiopian imperial troops and northern settlers. As a result of this (politico-economically driven) harassment, numerous Suri went to the Boma Plateau in Sudan, especially after 1925.
The Suri are obviously not the only ethnic group in the south of Ethiopia: there are around 12 more, and with some of them tensions exist. The Suri have one primary enemy, the Nyangatom, a people south of them and member of the large Ateker population cluster. On a regular basis the Nyangatom and another enemy of the Suri, the Toposa (also of the Ateker group) team up to raid the Suri’s cattle. The Second Sudanese Civil War has taken additional toll on the Suri. These conflicts have pushed neighboring groups into the Suri territory and there a constant competition to defend what they have in terms of land, water sources and pasture. Clashes are most common during the dry season. Around this time the Suri move their cattle down south to find new grazing land. State authorities have been attempting to create awareness about conflict resolution and have occasionally called a "peace conference" (as in 2008). But they also have been a main source of conflict and antagonism themselves, e.g., by confiscation of huge tracts of land for commercial agrarian projects on local groups' land and inefficient or absent mediation in cases of dispute. In recent decase the Suri have received a raw deal indeed from the Ethiopian government. The growing autonomy of the Southern Ethiopian Regional State after Ethiopia's internal troubles in the past years has not diminished but deeply aggravated the predicament of Suri (cp. Wagstaff 2015) and related minorities, due to fierce 'ethnic' competition and rivalry on the regional and local level.
The Suri speak a language that is close to Tirma in Ethiopia.
The Suri society is made up of six exogamous clans namely: Jufa; Meyun; Beela; Kembo; Durugan and Baale, with the Jufa being most dominant.
The Suri have always lived in closely settled and named villages of 25 to 80 domestic units, averaging from 250 to 350 people per village. Young men have their own "cattle-camp" settlements, near the pasture areas for livestock (which are usually kept together in very large herds). A village is part of a territorial unit called a b'uran, a term derived from the name of the (traditional) place where Suri cattle were herded. Villages are clusters of family units, each with their own small gardens and compounds. Most men have more than one wife, and each wife has her own hut, cooking place, and garden. Young men of herding age live in the cattle camps, which are from six to eight hours' walk from the permanent settlements.
Each household in the Suri village is managed by a married woman. The women prepare the food, take care of the children, and cultivate their own fields and gardens, and are allowed to use their profits however they wish. There are also age grades. Young men (Tegay) are the 'warrior grade', not yet fully responsible adults. They are mainly responsible for herding and defending the cattle. Junior elders (Rora) are the dominant decision-making age-grade and entrance is gained in an initiation ritual that is held every 20 to 30 years. During this initiation the young men to be 'promoted' are tried and tested by elders, and are sometimes whipped until they bleed. Decisions in the Suri community are made by men in an assembly. Women are not allowed to voice their opinions during these debates but are allowed to do so before or after the debates take place. These debates are closed and summed up by the community’s ritual chief (the komoru).
Marriages are possible across keno (clan) lines only. This stricture is carefully observed, although sexual liaisons between members of nominally the same clan (some of them have fissioned in two named halves) do occur. Marriages are usually arranged after the rainy-season dueling contests have ended. At that time, a girl, having watched the contests and selected her favorite duelist, tries to approach the chosen one by indirect messages sent through friends and relatives. In traffic between the two families, the possibility for a marriage alliance is tested. Decisive are, first, the preference of the girl and, second, the amount of bride-wealth (in cattle, small stock, and/or bullets and a rifle) to be paid by the groom's family. After negotiations start, it may take months before agreement is reached. When a deal is clinched, the real wedding ceremony is organized, with beer, song and dance, and the ritual entrance of the girl into the new hut and into the family of the groom. Among the Suri, a marriage implies a multi-stranded alliance between two kin groups. Divorce is rare.
Suri always say they belong to a unit called a keno, a word that means "branch" or "stem" and could be translated with the traditional concept of "clan," patrilineally defined. Strict descent is, however, only a loose condition for membership. These "clans" are not territorial units, as their members are found in all the territorial divisions and villages. Within the clans, the Suri see themselves as belonging to lineage groups, with a named, known (great-) grandfather. Their relationship terminology is of the Omaha type: on the mother's side, Ego's male agnates—for example, mother's brothers and their sons—are denoted with the same term; mother's sister is called with the term for "mother." There is strong solidarity among lineage and clan members—at least when they live together in one village; it is manifest at occasions such as marriages, reconciliation ceremonies, and burials.
The domestic unit is basically that of a married wife and her children. She has her own hut, garden, economic activities, and social network. The husband is part of the unit as an added member, so to speak; he usually has to spend his time among various wives. He has no personal hut. He is marginal to most of the activities of this unit: he sleeps and eats in the hut of a wife, keeps personal belongings there, and meets and cares for his children there, but his main responsibilities are herding, guarding, occasionally gold mining, agricultural work, participation in raiding, and public discussions and meetings, all done outside the domestic sphere, and often outside the village. Domestic units are independent. There are no systematic patterns of cooperation between extended kin groups.
As the basic wealth of the Suri is livestock (but now also rifles), the rules and debates around inheritance of the herds is the main preoccupation of kin when an adult person dies, especially when it is a man. There is proportional division of the animals, according to seniority of age of the sons and brothers. Personal property (such as tools, milk containers, decorations, and a dueling outfit) is divided among sons—but not without arguments. The favorite rifle (usually a Kalashnikov or an M-16) goes to the eldest responsible son. Older, nonautomatic rifles go to younger sons, or to brothers or brothers' sons. There is no inheritance of fields. Agricultural implements and other small items are divided among the children who need it. Some livestock and cash are also inherited by wives. Livestock property of deceased women is distributed among her sons and daughters.
The Suri push their children—both boys and girls—to be independent and assertive: this is very evident from the games young children play. There is no physical punishment, such as beating or pinching, but much verbal discussion, encouragement, and reprimanding. Children of both sexes learn their respective gender activities by following their parents, older relatives, and peers. From the ages of 6 to 7, children start collective activities (play, gathering of fruits, some herding, drawing water, fetching firewood, grinding) in groups of their own sex. Adolescent males organize ceremonial stick-dueling fights, which are big, all-Suri events. Participation is a must for all maturing males. Suri elders form an age set that the younger people respect. In the domestic sphere, parents are much respected by their children. There is virtually no intergenerational violence, as there is among the Me'en, a closely related Surmic people. Although in the past the Suri had two primary schools, there is now no state school among the Suri, and Suri children do not frequent schools outside their own area. Thus, they are not exposed to much interethnic or out-group social contact. They develop a strong group consciousness and pride, which often results in disdain of all non-Suri groups.
Cicatrisation is common but is not universal. It is performed according to taste, but is usually not extensive. The deliberate creation of keloids is not practised. Both sexes practise the boring and stretching of the ear-lobes. The result does not usually exceed three inches in length.
The practice of piercing and stretching the lower lip is universal amongst the women, and is performed at puberty or a little before or after. It is considered a sign of beauty, and the bride price payable is proportionately greater. The practice is said to have been learned from the south – may be from the Kikuyu – or the Maasai.
The Suri have some other rituals, including scarification and dangerous stick-fighting called Dongas. Some anthropologists see these as a kind of controlled violence to get young Suris used to feeling pain and seeing blood. These are, after all, people who live in a volatile, hostile world, under constant threat from their enemies around them.
No one knows why lip plates were first used. One theory goes that it was meant to discourage slavers from taking the women. It's undoubtedly painful. Suri women wear giant lip plates as a sign of beauty, like in mursi tribe, and also an attraction for tourists; maintaining their image of an untouched people, living in one of the last wildernesses of Africa.
When they are ready to marry, teenagers start to make a hole in the lower lip with a wooden stick; it is to be removed the day after to put a bigger one; and then by a lip plate; few months after, it reaches its final size, and girls are seen as beautiful; the lip plate is made of wood or terracotta; the pressure of the plate breaks the lip, the girl will be considered as ugly and won't be able to marry anyone apart from old men or sick people.
'We get a stick and make a hole', they will aver. 'Then we gradually make the hole bigger.... My lip was cut a long time ago. My brothers and father made me get it done. Without a lip plate I wouldn't get married, and they'd get no cattle. My lip is big, Dongaley's is smaller. My lip plate is worth 60 cattle. Hers is worth 40.' A few girls are beginning to refuse to have a lip plate.
As well as lip plates, the girls of the village mark their bodies permanently by scarification. The skin is lifted with a thorn then sliced with a razor blade, leaving a flap of skin which will eventually scar. The men, meanwhile, scar their bodies to show they've killed someone from an enemy tribe. There are particular meanings assigned to these scars. One group, for instance, cuts a horseshoe shape on their right arm to indicate they've killed a man, and on their left if for a woman.
The Suri practice age-set system, which are fighting sets. The men of the village are divided by 'age-set': children, young men (tegay), junior elders (rora) and senior elders (bara). Each set has its role. Each of the fighting sets is held in considerable respect by those junior to it. Children start helping with the cattle when they're about eight years old.
The tegay age-set are unmarried and not yet known as warriors.If the children or juniors do not show respect to their elders or seniors, the offending set is severely beaten by their seniors.
They do the herding and earn the right to become young elders by their stick fighting and care of the cattle. Initiation ceremonies for those moving into the next age-set only happen every 10 or 20 years. They are held on village basis but all ceremonies take place on one day. In each village a sheep is suffocated to death, and its dung is smeared on the bodies of the initiates. The initiation ritual for the group becoming rora is particularly violent; the candidates are insulted by the elders, given menial tasks, starved and sometimes even whipped until they bleed.
The average male in the Suri tribe owns from 30 to 40 cows. Men are not allowed to marry until they own 60 cows. Cows are given to the bride’s family after the wedding ceremony.
This central role of the cow in their way of life accounts for the fierce independance they want to preserve and explains their warlike culture. Indeed, it’s quite common to see men and even women carrying weapons which are part of the daily life.
Their remote homeland has always been a place of traditional rivalries with the neighbouring tribes such as the Bume (Nyangatom) or the Toposa. who regurlarly team up to raid the Suri’s cattle. These fights, and even sometimes battles, have become quite bloody since automatic firearms like AK-47 have become available from the parties in the Sudanese Civil War. This conflict has pushed neighboring tribes into Suri’s land and is a constant competition to keep and protect their territory and their cattle.
Stick fighting is part martial art, part ritual, part sport. It's seriously dangerous. If you get hit in the stomach it can kill you. This ritual and sport is called Donga or Sagenai (Saginay). Donga is both the name of the sport and the stick, whereas sagenai is the name of the stick-fighting session. Stick fighting is central in Suri culture. In most cases, stick fighting is a way for warriors to find girlfriends, it can also be a way to settle conflicts. On this occasion men show their courage, their virility and their resistance to pain, to the young women. The fights are held between Suri villages, and begin with 20 to 30 people on each side, and can end up with hundreds of warriors involved. Suri are famous for stick fighting, but they are not the only ones to respect such a custom, as the neighbor tribe, the Mursi, also practice these traditional fights.
The day before the sagenai, fighters have to purge themselves. They do it by drinking a special preparation, called dokai, which is made of the bark of a special tree, which is mixed with water. After taking it, warriors make themselves vomiting the drink. The water is supposed to bring with it many of the body’s impurities. After this ritual they don’t eat until the following morning. Warriors walk kilometers to come fighting at Sagenai, which takes place in a clearing. They stop when crossing a river in order to wash themselves, before decorating their bodies for the fight. They decorate themselves by sliding the fingers full of clay on the warrior’s bodies. This dressing up and decoration is meant to show their beauty and virility and thus catch the women’s attention. The phallic shape ending the sticks contributes to that virile demonstration.
Fighters arrive on the Donga field all together, carrying the strongest man,dancing and singing. Some fighters wear colourful headdresses sometimes with feathers on it, and also knee-protectors. But most of them use no protection at all and fight completely naked in order to show their bravery. They also wear strings of decorative coloured beads around their necks given by the girls and waist, but their genitals are most of the time uncovered and they are barefoot.
All of them get a chance to fight one on one, against someone from the other side. In the beginning each fighter looks for an opponent of the same stature, and exchanges a few held back blows with him in order to test him. If both fighters feel they have found a match, they suddendly throw themselves into the fight, hitting ferocious fast strokes with their sticks. If one of the warriors knocked out or puts paid to his opponent, he immediately declares himself the winner. Sagenai consists in qualifying rounds, each winner fighting the winner of a previous fight, until two finalists are left.
It is strictly forbidden to hit a man when he is down on the ground. 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. Nevertheless the fights are really violent, and it is quite usual to see men bleeding.
Suri villages range between 40 and 2,500 people. Village decisions are made by an assembly of the men, though women make their views known in advance of the debates.Village discussions are led by elders and the komoru - a ritual chief. The korumus all come from the same clan and are chosen by consensus.
The ‘Gonarabi’, the spiritual head of the Jufa clan and recognized as temporal head of the Suri, lives at Koma. The clans have sub-chiefs whose realm is not administrative but spiritual. The clan chiefs are recognised through symbols or emblems namely an ivory horn, blown in times of sickness; a drum beaten to announce death; and a set of fire-sticks for producing fire on certain occasions e.g. beginning of the hunting season. The duties of the temporal chiefs consist of leading their villages in times of war and peace, judging cases, etc.
Each household is run by a woman. The women have their own fields and dispose of the proceeds as they wish. Money they make from selling beer and grain can be used to buy goats, which they then trade for cattle.
The supreme deity, Tumu, is a vaguely defined source of power in, and of, the sky. There is no "cult" for Tumu, who is seldom addressed in prayer and ritual incantations. The ritual mediator is seen as having contact with the powers (presumably Tumu) that bring rain and growth of crops, livestock, and people, and he traditionally has the task of performing all rituals for the protection of crops, for bringing rain, and to avert epidemics and locusts. Certain ancestors of the clan line are seen as having powers influencing people's wealth and health. There are, however, no sacrifices or offerings made to them. Among Suri divination techniques are the interpretation of bird song and flight, the throwing of small wooden sticks, sandal throwing, and the reading of (cattle) entrails. Some older men and women also prepare amulets, made from secret roots and used for a variety of purposes ("love medicine," protection when traveling, and so on). Suri have no interest whatsoever in orthodox Christianity or Islam, if they have even heard of these beliefs.
The Suri have their own elaborate traditional herbal medicine. Dozens of plants yield treatment for afflictions ranging from headaches to skin infections. Some treatments (e.g., the remedy for cut wounds) are known to all; experts are consulted for other maladies, (e.g., snakebite poisoning). They also have their own native "surgeons," who operate on people wounded in raids or during stick duels. For serious intestinal and stomach infections and for malaria, no effective treatments are known. No modern medical facilities exist in the Suri area. Occasionally the Suri visit the primary health care center in Maji, the main market town.
A dead person is impure, taboo to touch for all Suri except members of the specified clan that sees to the actual funeral, after which they have to be washed with sheep's blood. Men who fall on the battlefield are not interred but are left there and covered with branches. Every deceased person is mourned in his or her homestead for five days. Cattle are sacrificed; the entrails are read, and the meat is distributed among the visitors. With the blood and certain other parts of the killed cow or ox, the compound is ritually purified. For the Suri, life is absolutely finished with physical death—there is no concept of an afterlife on earth or in heaven.
Suri material culture is simple and unspectacular. The one expressive art in which they excel is body painting, for both males and females. They create intricate multicolored patterns, covering the entire body. These decorations have no symbolic or ritual value but are simply done for aesthetic reasons and on certain occasions. The Suri are a people who take great pride in beautiful physique (especially that of adolescents). No other "art" forms are well developed. Decorative talents also also come into play in beadwork, geometric designs on women's leather frocks, earrings, bracelets of carved copper, and clay ear and lip plates. Men make decorative iron and leather neck- or headbands for their favorite cattle.
The Suri dance is performed by separately by each sex ,with the other forming a ring round the dancers. The men dance to the tune of the drums. The women on the other hand, dance to their own singing and the sound made by their hand slapping their skin ‘skirts’ with the palms of their hands.
Suri people have developed and created new body paintings as well as new dress codes in order to attract tourists. They have understood that tourists would be more eager to take pictures from them with such decoratives paintings and ornaments, and to pay for it.
A few years ago, Suri boys started to disguise by wearing flower headdresses, while Mursi girls started to wear small metallic rollers in their hair, that were formerly worn during menstruation periods.
The Suri neighbour Murle to the west; the Anyuak to the north; the Toposa and Jiye to the south; the Amhara, Ghimira, Tirma and other Ethiopian groups to the east. The Suri have had bad relations with their neighbours who continuously harassed and raided them until 1936 when the Boma plateau was militarily occupied. The Suri, however, have had good relations with the Jiye and the Shangalla.
The Suri have been completely neglected and marginalised. Their participation in the social, economic and political life in South Sudan has been nil. The war could have been a blessing in disguise, as the Suri got connected to the rest of South Sudan and their children now go to a school run by the Diocese of Torit in upper Boma. Many of them have also converted to Christianity and modernity is slowly influencing the Suri.
According to "tribal peoples advocacy groups" (Survival International and Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees), local peoples, particularly the Suri, Nyangatom, Anywa and Mursi, are still in danger of displacement and denial of access to their traditional grazing and agricultural lands. More than a decade ago the main problem for Suri and Mursi was posed by the government bringing in the African Parks Foundation, also known as African Parks Conservation, of the Netherlands. These advocacy groups reported that the Surma/Suri, Me'en and Mursi people were more or less coerced by government park officials into thumbprinting documents they could not read. The documents reportedly said the locals had agreed to give up their land without compensation, and were being used to legalise the boundaries of the Omo National Park, which African Parks then took over. This process, when finished, would have make the Suri, Mun, etc. 'illegal squatters' on their own land. A similar fate was almost befalling the other groups who also lived within or near the park, e.g. the Dizi and the Nyangatom. The current threats to Suri and neighbouring groups' livelihoods are massive state-led ventures like construction of the Gibe-3 (Omo) dam (completed in 2016) that eliminated river-bank cultivation and led to water scarcity, as well as the ongoing construction of huge mono-crop (sugar-cane) plantations in much of their pasture and cultivation areas. These seriously affect livelihoods, biodiversity, resources, and space, and do not lead to human development of the local peoples.
Piercing lips and lobes and inserting lip plates are a strong part of the Suri culture. At puberty most young women have their lower teeth removed in order to get their lower lip pierced. Once the lip is pierced, it is then stretched and lip plates of increasing size are then placed in the hole of the piercing. Having a lip plate is a sign of female beauty and appropriateness; a common thought is that the bigger the plate, the more cattle the woman is 'worth' for her bride price, though this is denied by some.
The Suri pride themselves on their scars and how many they carry. Women perform decorative 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 used to traditionally scar their bodies after they killed someone from an enemy group. Together with stick-duelling (see below), such a custom, which is quite painful, is said by some observers to be a way of getting the younger Suri used to seeing blood and feeling pain.
A Surma man paints his skin with ground chalk and natural earth pigments using a twig splayed into a brush at the tip. Surma body paint design often draws attention to vital body parts, including the male and female genitals. In this image, a cleverly elongated penis is surrounded by the curved female form.