The Traditional Lip Plate Practice of the Mursi Tribe

The Traditional Lip Plate Practice of the Mursi Tribe

Though we cover unusual and foreign practices at Twisted, that largely comes from a Western point of view. What we consider strange may differ from other cultures. This article covers the Mursi tribe, an Ethiopian tribe that resides north of Kenya in the Omo Valley. The tribe itself has plenty of quirks, but their most notable tradition is the plate that is placed into a girl’s lip when she reaches age. 

The Mursi tribe has a host of traditions that many may find interesting, from scarification to body paint. However, their truly unique characteristic is the lip plate. Usually worn by unmarried girls when they turn 15 or 16, their lip is cut by another female tribe member (sometimes their mother) and gradually stretched over time to accommodate a large plate made of clay or wood. 

A lip plate itself symbolizes and displays a number of traits: eligibility, fertility, perseverance, and great beauty in the wearer. In fact, women are sometimes seen as lazy if they do not wear one. Their reputation as a wife is also hindered because their dowry (e.g. cattle)  is expected to be smaller. 

The lip plate is not worn all the time, mostly in the case of older wives, but they are expected to always wear in certain instances: when performing a service like milking cows or feeding men, during special events such as dances or weddings, and during the Donga–an annual duel using roughly six-foot wooden poles to fight until the competitor gives up or is knocked out. The winning fighter is celebrated by the attending unmarried girls. 

Unmarried girls may also participate in the Ula ritual or the Donga a dholuiny, which is the female equivalent of the Donga. Instead of sticks, they use iron bracelets called ula. It is more refereed by the tribe elders and competitors usually use leaves to protect their lip plate. 

Their penchant for fighting rituals and reputation of being unfriendly towards outsiders dubbed the tribe the “most dangerous tribe in the world.” The name sounds intimidating, dismissive, and maybe even ignorant considering their history. Ethiopia, along with Liberia, are the only two African countries that weren’t colonized by Europeans. Ethiopians like the Mursi defended themselves from Italian invasion during the First Italo-Ethiopian War. During the second war, the Ethiopians fell and while the Italians chose not to colonize the country, they did occupy it for five years. 

Of course, there has been plenty of instances where the tribe has killed unwelcomed outsiders. As one of the last remaining traditional tribes in the world, it is understandable to distrust foreigners. With such a rich culture that predates generations, why bother dishonoring it?

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