Surma Tribe

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Travel, Visit, Discover Suri, Surma, Tribes

Surma Tribe

Surma Tribe

Travel, Visit, Discover Suri, Surma, Tribes

Surma, “Suri” is the self-name of a little-known group of agro-pastorals/cultivators straddling the borderland of southwestern Ethiopia and Sudan. They show some historical and cultural affinities with the Nilotic peoples in neighboring Sudan; they are also related to the Ethiopian Mursi and especially the Me’en, other “tribal” groups in this area. The Suri are composed of three subgroups; the Chai and Tirma (very closely related).

 The Suri live in a remote, part of Maji and Bero-Shasha provinces in the Kefa region of Ethiopia.

The Tirma and Chai are typical lowland dwellers whose settlements are all below 1,000 meters, in a semiarid area along one perennial river, the Kibish. Their present habitat lies between 5°10′ and 6°00 N and 35°20′ and 34°10′ E.

Linguistic Affiliation. Like the Me’en and the adjoining Murle, the Suri speak a “Surmic” (formerly called “Surma”) language. It is classified (together with Mursi, which is very similar) as South-East Surmic. The Suri are mostly monolingual: Amharic or languages of the neighboring Dizi and Nyangatom are spoken only by a very small minority.  

Cultural and Activities of Suri, Surma, Tribes

The Suri have no written history, but they do have an oral tradition that contains many historical referents. This oral tradition—reconstructed partly through comparison of genealogies and stories about the movement of clan groups—refers to a migration history of Suri constituent groups, starting in the lower Ormo River area (i.e., north of Lake Turkana). No clues have been found as yet in their tradition to point to a historical base. They claim that in former times their name was “Nagos,” not Suri. They have substantial cultural similarities with the Mursi but deny the idea of an original unity with this group. Both groups place their “core area” in the same region, in the lower Orno Valley. In the early nineteenth century the Suri started to move to the west, toward Naita Mountain (which they call “Shulugui”), on the Sudan-Ethiopian border. Subsequently they migrated toward the highland ridge north of Naita (the “Tirma” range). In general, their oral tradition is dominated by the theme of conflict with their southern neighbors, the Para-Nilotic Nyangatom (an offshoot of the Karamojong cluster, who speak a language very close to Turkana). 

The Suri have always lived in closely settled and named villages of 25 to 80 domestic units, averaging from 250 to 350 people per village. Young men have their own “cattle-camp” settlements, near the pasture areas for livestock (which are usually kept together in very large herds). A village is part of a territorial unit called ab’uran, a term derived from the name of the (traditional) place where Suri cattle were herded. Villages are clusters of family units, each with their own small gardens and compounds. Most men have more than one wife, and each wife has her own hut, cooking place, and garden. Young men of herding age live in the cattle camps, which are from six to eight hours’ walk from the permanent settlements.

The Suri are predominantly cattle-pastoralists, certainly in outlook: they see themselves as free and independent herders. Cattle—and, in addition, goats and sheep—are their most prized possessions and their repository of wealth. Women also have their own cattle, but always in much smaller numbers than their husbands. The permanent villages, however, are the centers of maize and sorghum cultivation. These two products provide the mainstay of the Suri diet, but the Suri absolutely do not consider themselves “peasants” or “cultivators.” Another subsistence activity is hunting: of antelope and virtually all other animals (e.g., buffalo, elephants, giraffes, leopards, lions, and ostriches), if they find them. The meat of some animals is eaten; skins, ivory, feathers, tail hair, and so forth formerly were sold to highland dealers. Berries and fruits are gathered. In the gardens, the women cultivate cabbages, peppers, pumpkins, cassava, and gourds. 

Marriage. Marriages are possible across keno (clan) lines only. This stricture is carefully observed, although sexual liaisons between members of nominally the same clan do occur. Marriages are usually arranged after the rainy-season dueling contests have ended. At that time, a girl, having watched the contests and selected her favorite duelist, tries to approach the chosen one by indirect messages sent through friends and relatives. In traffic between the two families, the possibility for a marriage alliance is tested. Decisive are, first, the preference of the girl and, second, the amount of bride-wealth (in cattle, small stock, and/or bullets and a rifle) to be paid by the groom’s family. After negotiations start, it may take months before agreement is reached. When a deal is clinched, the real wedding ceremony is organized, with beer (called “Borde”), song and dance, and the ritual entrance of the girl into the new hut and into the family of the groom. Among the Suri, a marriage implies a multi-stranded alliance between two kin groups. Divorce is rare.

 Socialization. The Suri push their children—both boys and girls—to be independent and assertive: this is very evident from the games young children play. There is no physical punishment, such as beating or pinching, but much verbal discussion, encouragement, and reprimanding. Children of both sexes learn their respective gender activities by following their parents, older relatives, and peers. From the ages of 6 to 7, children start collective activities (play, gathering of fruits, some herding, drawing water, fetching firewood, grinding) in groups of their own sex. Adolescent males organize ceremonial stick-dueling fights, which are big, all-Suri events. Participation is a must for all maturing males. Suri elders form an age set that the younger people respect. In the domestic sphere, parents are much respected by their children. There is virtually no intergenerational violence, as there is among the Me’en, a closely related Surmic people. Now, government is trying to school the Suri tribes’ children with free of charge. They are not yet exposed too much interethnic or out-group social contact. They develop a strong group consciousness and pride, which often results in disdain of all non-Suri groups.

Surma stick fighting and Surma Woman with lip Plug culture

Piercing and lip plates are a strong part of the Suri culture. At the point of puberty most women have their bottom teeth removed in order to get their lower lip pierced. Once the lip is pierced, it is then stretched and a lip plate is then placed in the hole of the piercing. Having a lip plate is a sign of beauty and the bigger the plate, the more cattle the woman is worth. This is important when the women are ready to get married. It is still unknown why and how lip plates came to be used. One theory says lips plates were used to discourage slave owners from taking the women who had them. 

Stick fighting. In most cases, stick fighting is done so young men can find wives. It is a way for young men to prove themselves to the young women. To the Suri, the ideal time to stick fight is just after it rains. The fights are held between Suri villages, and the fights begin with 20 to 30 people on each side. Of these 20 to 30 people, all get a chance to fight one on one against someone from the other side. During these fights there are referees present to make sure all rules are being followed. Many stick fights end within the first couple of hits.

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