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vancouver, canada

(updated: april 2018)


sleepover with the tribal mursi people of omo valley

     Our guide chose to take us to a more remote Mursi village of which he knew the chief and where, unlike most travellers do, we were to spend the night. We arrived in the late afternoon, immediately swarmed by some Mursi asking "photo photo" (for money) and decided to hold off on picture taking until the next day to get to know them on a more friend-friend level. We walked around the little village guided by the chief, Niarabi, dressed only in a blanket slung around his body that somehow managed to cover his intimates just perfectly (albeit dangerously). All of the Mursi men were dressed this way, none other than the chief wore shoes, and a few walked around with an AK-47 casually swinging at his side. They all hung around in an open area outside the village, where our 4x4 was parked, and we entered the village (repeating achali - hello - countless times) to find all the women working away (while the men relaxed under the trees by our car). Some were grinding sorghum into flour, others breastfeeding; virtually all with their lips and earlobes hanging (due to the cutting and stretching that they endure in order to be able to wear lip plates - often around 6" in diameter). These lip plates are not worn so much due to their weight and the incisions are not mandatory, but the practice is pursued by most Mursi women in the name of beauty.
Both Mursi men and women had their hair cut almost to baldness, the slightly longer patches (by no more than a third of an inch) left to form various designs of hairstyle. The Mursi children were cleaning cow dung from their yards and playing simultaneously, coming up to admire our "jewellery" and asking for it when we passed. Feeling bad, I'd given away all of my hair elastics before our guide explained to us that Mursi people want anything that is new and interesting to them. They would even joke to him: "hey, we're friends, want to give me your scarf?" We spent the next few hours sitting on a piece of cowhide, the Mursi men staring at us and us staring back at them. Our guide offered them a pair of scissors to play with; as it was a new object for them, they curiously twirled them in their fingers and, once suggested, trimmed each others' hair. They then offered to cut ours, jokingly repeating bilibu - bald - while we laughed and declined.
     It wasn't until we started learning each others' names that we seemed to break the barrier between us. The task involved a lot of giggles and remembering a dozen foreign-sounding names like Barkalosh and Inchet, let alone matching them to the right people! As night fell, we continued to sit around as they inched closer to us for a fairly touchy-feely game of learning each others' languages. Initially, we would point at something and say the English word, like "hair," and they would reply, "Mursi: chore," and point to something else in turn. Things got a little more personal when we started dealing with body parts - we had to keep in mind that what is "private" to us is just another body part to them. They even asked Thomas for his camera and began taking pictures of themselves and of us, cracking up with laughter every time the flash went off. They must have been excited to finally get a chance to be at the other side of the lens, as they get so many pictures taken of them by other tourists. In the span of a few hours we'd gotten so close that when the little children would come up to tug at my bracelets, the older ones that we were sitting with would shoo them away. After we'd retreated into our tents, the Mursi continued to sit around a fire of their own, conversing about the future while the children played in the fields. In the morning we said our goodbyes, recalled some of the words we'd learned the previous night (tintiratino - pinkie - and tintirabu, - thumb - for example), and left the Mursi alone in their own little world, so detached from modern society.

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