11 Things You May Not Know About the Mursi (Omo Valley, Ethiopia)

Mursi Tribe_Omo Valley_Ethiopia_Kellie_Netherwood-7.jpgThe Omo Valley in Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most fascinating regions of cultural diversity, with nearly two-dozen tribes sharing borders in a spectacular but often inhospitable environment.

One of the most recognisable and interesting of these tribes is the Mursi, a pastoral and nomadic community occupying land between the Mago and Omo rivers.  They boast an elaborate and striking appearance, are skilled and accomplished warriors and enjoy a lifestyle that has – for the most part – withstood the test of time.

They also have an intimidating reputation for being fierce and aggressive, with both neighbouring tribes and tourists.  But despite this – or perhaps because of it – visiting a Mursi village remains a popular activity for travellers in the Omo Valley.

But the Mursi’s relationship with tourists is a complicated one.

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Some describe a visit to a Mursi village as an incredible opportunity to learn more about a tribe that has shunned outside technology and interference whilst maintaining their proud and rich culture.  Others liken the experience to visiting a human zoo, with the ‘pay for photo’ approach creating an uncomfortable, aggressive and ethically questionable atmosphere.

Some leave the village after rewarding interactions with men, women and children who are just as curious about us as we are about them.  Others reflect on the experience as being less authentic and varied as they hoped for.

And as travellers pay for the privilege of visiting a village, some question whether the benefits of tourism reach the wider community or are limited to a select few.

But whether you leave the village feeling positive or negative about your own personal travel experience, there is no question that the distinctive appearance, unique lifestyle and intriguing culture of the Mursi make them one of the most fascinating tribes of the Omo Valley.


11 Things You May Not Know About the Mursi

1. They are predominantly a pastoral and nomadic tribe, measuring their wealth in cattle.They are considered one of the richest tribes in the Omo Valley due to the number of cattle they own.

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2. Men have traditionally carried a two-metre stick called a donga with them, but these are being increasingly replaced with AK-47 rifles as a sign of wealth.

3. Scarification is common, with the design of small dots on the left shoulder of the men announcing their passing into adulthood.  Women have similar decorative designs across their chests and arms.

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4. There are four types of marriage: arranged, consensual, via force or kidnap and by inheritance.  An inheritance marriage refers to a widow being ‘passed’ to the oldest brother or closest male relative of her deceased husband.

5. Men name themselves after the colour of their favourite cattle and women after the patterns on their favourite wild animal.

6. The men wear a blanket tied over one shoulder whilst women wear a goatskin dress or skirt.

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7. Males cannot marry until they win a donga (stick fight), a fierce confrontation with two-metre poles that is used to prove their strength to girls and help them find a wife.

8. Mursi women are instantly recognisable by the clay plates they wear in their ears and lips.  As a Mursi woman approaches adulthood, a slit is cut beneath her lower lip, creating a small hole.  This is stretched over time, forming a loop large enough for a small clay plate to be inserted between the lip and the mouth.  The larger the lip plate, the greater the value of the woman when she is married.

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The purpose of the lip plate is unknown.  It has been suggested that it was originally a form of disfiguration used to discourage raiding, but the more common and locally accepted explanation is that it is an object of beauty.

9. Some cattle in the herd are decorated as ‘prized cows’ with their horns turned inwards and their skin scarred with elaborate design.

10. Their staple diet is a kind of dry porridge made from sorghum or maize, supplemented by milk and blood from cows.

11. Their huts are made from sticks with grass roofs.The hut is used for sleeping, cooking and eating, with dried cow skins adorning the floor.

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Have you visited the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley?  How was your experience?


More photos from Ethiopia:

PHOTO GALLERY: Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com


  1. Doncho Mengistu Dilbo says:

    I am really impressed with the facts you listed about Mursi. Please keep searching and displaying about this still virgin amazing culture.

  2. There are many tribes where the women have (had) a piercing in the lower lip. When this little thorn can grow into a small slice of some tribes or a large slice in other tribes, it’s because the young women want the older women’s recognition. When it’s important for young women to get the old women’s recognition, it’s because mursi women grow grain, along the Omo River when water levels fall. And those with the biggest slices get the best parcels and the most Karo men and women to command. The Karo tribe is resident and both men and women cultivate the land, and they are protected by the Mursi warriors against the other tribes.

    Compared to the Middle Ages England, the mursi warriors are: The Knighters. The Karo tribe is the farmer, and muris women with big lips are both nobility ladies and bailiffs.

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