Surma People


Surma is the general term used for a num-ber of tribal peoples who live in the south-west of Ethiopia along the Omo River. The Ethiopian census of 2007 notes that there are around 186,875 people belonging to one of the three main groups: the Suri, the Mursi, and the Me’en. Others who live in the same area and speak related lan-guages include the Bodi, Chai, and Tirma.

They all speak Nilo-Saharan language referredtoasSurmic,whichseemstobe closely related to Nilotic, though is dis-tinct from it being part of the Eastern Sudanic language family. The small but separate group called the Kwegu (which numbers only around 500 in total) also seemstobelongtothegenerallanguage group, but have been dominated by the Mursi, Bodi, and others for several centu-ries.

The Kwegu are bilingual, speaking their own language as well as those of the larger groups who dominate them in a patron-client relationship. The Kwegu depend on having a Musri or Bodi patron to protect them from other Mursi and Bodi and provide various services such as navi-gation on the dangerous Omo River.

The Surma and related peoples live in one of the most remote areas of the world and appear to have done so for millennia. They developed an economic system that utilizes the various environmental conditions of the region. The Omo River runs through an arid area subject to drought; thus they practice agriculture growing crops of millet or dura, sorghum, maize, peppers, cabbage, beans and sweet potatoes along with raising herds of cattle. Their diet consists of cereals such as millet and sorghum with milk and blood from their livestock.

British anthropologist David Turton notes that the Kwegu work for the Mursi and Bodi, clearing needed agricultural fields while the Muris and others take their cattle away from the river during the wet season. The Surma and related peoples supplement their diet with some hunting and gathering, though again, Turton notes that hunting and gathering is also expected of their Kwegu clients.

Kwegu not only help clear fields for culti-vation once the seasonal floods recede, but also provide their patrons with honey, which is traded with Ethiopians in the high-land towns for bullets, a practice that con-tinues today. Among themselves, cattle, goats, and bullets function as currencies. Since the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, Italian guns have been available to the Surma, but they are dependent on highland Ethiopians for bullets.

The Surma place high value on their cattle and once had large herds that ranged into Sudan for pasture. Like the Nilotic peoples, cattle play a significant role in Surma society. Part of their domination over the Kwegu was the change in Kwegu marriage patterns; today, they are forced to use cattle and other livestock in bride wealth payments, which, according to David Turton, they have a remembered past, before being dominated, where live-stock played no role in marriage.

The Surma are well known for their body paint. Children learn to paint their bodies with chalk and earth by imitating their elders, and close friends frequently paint identical designs. For adult Surma men, body painting is part of the “dress” for stick fighting and to attract women.

Surma women extend their ear lobes and their lower lip by inserting clay disks. Extending the lower lip may have begun to discourage slavers, but, for the Surma, they are seen as enhancing a woman’s beauty, and the size of the lip insert increases the number of cattle a potential husband will have to pay as bride wealth.

The Surma and related peoples celebrate harvest time, when there is enough food in November with Donga tournaments. Donga tournaments are stick fights, con-sidered one of the most vicious of all African sports. The donga are held twice a year, in November and in February, and the fights are a means to relieve tension and to settle disputes. It has been noted that the competition is also part of courtship practices, as the winner of the tournament becomes the first choice of the most desir-able girls.

Each man carries a 6-foot (1.82 meters) wooden pole tipped to look like a phallus. The object is to knock down the opponent, and tournaments will draw men from up to 50 villages. The winner is the one man left still standing at the end. While the men wear little other than elabo-rate body paint, unmarried girls wear a cache sexe made of heavy iron beads that can weigh up to 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms).

In the 19th century, the Surma were subjected to slave raids from Arabs and Highland Ethiopians. Following the Ital-ian occupation of Ethiopia and after World War II, slavery came to an end, but due to subsequent long droughts and epidemics of livestock diseases, the Surma have lost a good number of their cattle.

Since the beginnings of the Sudanese Civil War in the l950s, the Surma have been subjected to violence that spilled over across the bor-der, causing the Surma to migrate north, which put them into armed conflict with other pastoral peoples over water and grazing lands. In the 1980s, the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army moved its opera-tional headquarters into Surma land; and many of the local people were able to pur-chase automatic guns, which have gener-ally replaced older makes from the Italian occupation.

The wide availability of auto-matic weapons, and the cultural ideals of manliness and revenge, in conjunction with greater restrictions on water and grazing lands for their precious herds of cattle, have started rounds of localized warfare among the Surma.More recently, the Omo has been tar-geted for a national park, the Omo National Park, which threatens the grazing lands of seven Surma and related peoples, the Mursi, Suri, Dizi, Me’en, Nyangatom, Kwegu and Bodi.

The park was “estab-lished” in 1966, but the boundaries were designated only in 2005, and local people were forced to sign away their lands, with no compensation. Many were unable to read the documents they were forced to sign. David Turton warns what the conse-quences of such forced removal would be in terms of violent conflict with the national government as well as the envi-ronmental consequences to lands humans have used for millennia.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. African Ceremonies. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002.

“The Kwegu.” (accessed April 1, 2010).

Native Solutions to Conservation Refugees. April 1, 2010).

Silvester, Hans. Ethiopia: Peoples of the Omo Valley. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2007.