The surma and the Mursi are part of the that small remaining group of peoples any where in the world whose women still wear lip plates - and, once again, these have a function that is almost purely symbolic. There are several theories as to why the use of lip plates was first adopted: Perhaps to discourage slavers looking for unblemished girls, or perhaps to prevent evil from entering the body by way of the mouth (since these people believe that evil penetrates the body through its orifices); or to indicate the number of cattle required by the wearers family for her hand in marriage.
Today it is the third of these theories that is the once seen in practical use. In her early twenties a woman’s lower lip will be pierced and then progressively stretched over the period of a year – the size of the lip plate determining the size of the bride price.
A large lip plate will bring fifty heads of cattle. A heavy iron puberty apron and many armlets will like wise help to increase the young woman’s appeal.

Between the ages of twenty and twenty five, a lip plate is inserted into a women’s lower lip. The process begins six months prior to marriage with the piercing of the lower lip. Successive stretching is achieved by placing increasingly larger plates into the pierced lip. The final size of the plate is an indication of the number of cattle required by the girl’s family for her hand in marriage. Women make their own lip plates from locally dug clay, color them with ochre and charcoal, and bake them in a fire.

After six months of stretching, the lip is so elastic that a plate can be slipped in and out without difficulty. The plates must always be worn in front of men and can only be taken out at private meal times. When sleeping or in the presence of other women. In the past plates were wedge-shaped and made of a balsa wood. More recently these have been replaced by round clay plates. Unlike lip plates, clay ear plugs are worn by both young girls and women for decoration alone.

It would be wrong to suggest that all forms of decoration are symbolic, however, purely aesthetic considerations, too, are to be seen at work in the lower Omo notably among the Surma and the Karo.

The best artists are generally male and they paint not just each other but also the women and children of the tribe using local chalk mixed with water, they create many and varied patterns including swirls, stripes, flower and star designs- all of which are enjoyed solely for their beauty. This activity is one of the main forms of artistic expression available to the Surma and the Karo creatively at work. The painter reveals himself as an artist, and the human form- viewed as a living sculpture and as a vehicle for the imagination- becomes itself a work of art.

The innocent enthusiasm that body paintings generates, the inspiration that it expresses, and the close social bonds that it reaffirms all suggest that the lower Omo is a place of joy and hope as well as of intertribal competition and war, a place in which mankind is still capable of appreciating simple pleasures still filled with laughter, and still unashamedly amazed at the winders that the world has to offer.
Bumi men decorated their faces with scarified designs to establish tribal identity and to enhance their physical appearance like the Hamar, they wear elaborate clay hair buns, symbolic of bravery and courage. (Tour itinerary)

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