When a British anthropologist visited the Mursi for the first time in the early 1970s, they had never heard of the country of Ethiopia where they lived. They live in the Omo Valley in south-western Ethiopia, hedged in by three rivers and a mountain range, making them one of the most isolated tribal groups in Ethiopia.
The Mursi are survivors whose isolated geographic location, combined with the crises of drought, famine, war, migration, and epidemic diseases, has shaped their identity. Cattle raids and civil instability between bordering ethnic groups is merely a means of survival. Every aspect of daily life revolves around cattle and crops: when they trade in the market, crops and cattle are exchanged as money. Mursi men do not work in the fields, a task reserved for women.
Among the Mursi a single-combat sport of physical skill, known as “Donga” or stick fighting, has evolved into something of an art form that allows young men to take part in competitions of strength and masculinity, earn honour among their peers and win the hands of girls in marriage, without serious risk of death. Often as many as 50 unmarried men will compete from 2 age sets between 16 and 32 years old. The ultimate winner is born away on a platform of poles to a group of girls who will decide among themselves as to which one of them will ask for his hand in marriage. Donga stick fights take place at the end of the rainy season and continue for a 3-month period. Each week, chosen villages come together and the top fighters from each village challenge each other.
When a young Mursi girl reaches the age of 15 or 16, her lower lip is pierced so she can wear a lip plate. The larger the lip plate she can tolerate, the more cattle her bride price will bring for her father. Made famous by anthropologists, old photos and recent National Geographic magazines, the custom of wearing lip plates is one of the distinct features of the women of the Surma and Mursi tribes in southern Ethiopia.