Two ethnic Suri girls with their traditional ethnic body painting decorations and designs sitting in front of their hut at Omo Valley in Ethiopia. Recently, Grace Jones put up their dressing and body painting style on a performance at Parklife in Manchester.
Suri people Nilotic-pastoral people living Omo River Valley area of Ethiopia and in South Sudan. In South Sudan Suri people are known as Kachipo. In Ethiopia, Surma is the official umbrella term for three ethnic groups in South Ethiopia: the Suri people, the Mursi people and the Mekan people. So in some books you will see Suri classified as Surma.
The Suri (Kachipo) people number about 30,000 and live in the Boma plateau of south-eastern Upper Nile bordering the Murle, the Giye and the Anyuak. They extend into Ethiopia, where their tribal headquarters is at Koma. Administratively, they occupy Meoun Payam of Pibor County. The Suri relate linguistically, culturally and in appearance to the Tirma (Ethiopia). They however acknowledge no blood affinity with any other tribe in the area.
The Suri country is hilly with deep valleys. The climate is mild with heavy rainfall. The Suri are predominantly sedentary, agrarian community with the economy built on agriculture. The rich fertile soil results in a remarkable size and quantity of crops. Crops planted are millet, maize, cabbage, marrow, beans, yams, tobacco and coffee. They keep goats and sheep. They also hunt large game and collect honey during the dry season. They pan gold in the streams and make pots. They engage in trade with the Jiye, the Murle and the Ethiopian highlanders in tobacco and pots (Jiye and Murle), lion and leopard skins, giraffe tails, honey and ivory, rifles and ammunitions (Amhara and Shangalla)
Mythology and History
The Suri believe that they originally lived on the banks of the Nile, in the country now inhabited by the Bor Dinka. They claim that in former times their name was “Nagos,” not Suri. It is said that they then migrated eastwards towards the Akobo. From here, the Meyun clan broke off from the main body of the tribe, coming south to Boma, and subsequently taking up their abode at Meyun. The rest of the tribe crossed the border, making their way southwards, and finally settling at Koma. The Suri have been continually harassed at Koma by the Amhara, Ghimira, Tirma, and other tribes. This forced large numbers of Suri to join the Meoun clan at Meyun in about 1890. They were shortly afterwards settled on Boma plateau in about 1925.
The Suri speak an Omotic-Surmic language that is close to Tirma in Ethiopia.It is classified (together with Mursi, which is very similar) as South-East Surmic. The virtually unknown Bale language, however, is probably South-West Surmic (like Murle, Didinga and Narim). These clusters both fall within the East Sudanic Group of the Nilo-Saharan Phylum. The Suri are mostly monolingual: Amharic or languages of the neighboring Dizi and Nyangatom are spoken only by a very small minority. Most of the Bale, however, also speak Murle.
The Suri society is made up of six exogamous clans namely: Jufa; Meyun; Beela; Kembo; Durugan and Baale, with the Jufa being most dominant.
Marriage among the Suri is performed, like in many other groups, among people who have no blood relations. The bridegroom collects and pays dowry in form of gold dusts and nuggets, tobacco, goats and sheep. Divorce among the Suri is said to be difficult.
Cicatrisation is common but is not universal. It is performed according to taste, but is usually not extensive. The deliberate creation of keloids is not practised. Both sexes practise the boring and stretching of the ear-lobes. The result does not usually exceed three inches in length.
Initiation into Adulthood
The practice of piercing and stretching the lower lip is universal amongst the women, and is performed at puberty or a little before or after. It is considered a sign of beauty, and the bride price payable is proportionately greater. The practice is said to have been learned from the south – may be from the Kikuyu – or the Maasai.
The Suri practice age-set system, which are fighting sets. Each of the fighting sets is held in considerable respect by those junior to it. If this is not shown, the offending set is severely beaten by their seniors. Initiation ceremonies are held at intervals of about 10 years. They are held on village basis but all ceremonies take place on one day. In each village a sheep is suffocated to death, and its dung is smeared on the bodies of the initiates.
Suri Political Organisation and Traditional Authority
The ‘Gonarabi’, the spiritual head of the Jufa clan and recognized as temporal head of the Suri, lives at Koma. The clans have sub-chiefs whose realm is not administrative but spiritual. The clan chiefs are recognised through symbols or emblems namely an ivory horn, blown in times of sickness; a drum beaten to announce death; and a set of fire-sticks for producing fire on certain occasions e.g. beginning of the hunting season. The duties of the temporal chiefs consist of leading their villages in times of war and peace, judging cases, etc.
Spirituality, Beliefs and Customs
The Suri believe in the existence of a supreme being – Tumu, is a vaguely defined source of power in, and of, the sky. There is no “cult” for Tumu, who is seldom addressed in prayer and ritual incantations. The ritual mediator is seen as having contact with the powers (presumably Tumu) that bring rain and growth of crops, livestock, and people, and he traditionally has the task of performing all rituals for the protection of crops, for bringing rain, and to avert epidemics and locusts. Certain ancestors of the clan line are seen as having powers influencing people’s wealth and health. There are, however, no sacrifices or offerings made to them. Among Suri divination techniques are the interpretation of bird song and flight, the throwing of small wooden sticks, sandal throwing, and the reading of (cattle) entrails. Some older men and women also prepare amulets, made from secret roots and used for a variety of purposes (“love medicine,” protection when traveling, and so on). The Suri have only one rainmaker, and the office is hereditary. Should his services be required, chips from a certain tree are masticated, and the resulting juice is mixed with clay and smeared over a man’s body. Rain may be expected to fall. The same effect may be obtained locally by dipping a stick of the same tree in water and throwing the latter upwards.
Suri have no interest whatsoever in orthodox Christianity or Islam, if they have even heard of these beliefs.
Arts. Suri material culture is simple and unspectacular. The one expressive art in which they excel is body painting, for both males and females. They create intricate multicolored patterns, covering the entire body. These decorations have no symbolic or ritual value but are simply done for aesthetic reasons and on certain occasions. The Suri are a people who take great pride in beautiful physique (especially that of adolescents). No other “art” forms are well developed. Decorative talents also also come into play in beadwork, geometric designs on women’s leather frocks, earrings, bracelets of carved copper, and clay ear and lip plates. Men make decorative iron and leather neck- or headbands for their favorite cattle.
Medicine. The Suri have their own elaborate traditional herbal medicine. Dozens of plants yield treatment for afflictions ranging from headaches to skin infections. Some treatments (e.g., the remedy for cut wounds) are known to all; experts are consulted for other maladies, (e.g., snakebite poisoning). They also have their own native “surgeons,” who operate on people wounded in raids or during stick duels. For serious intestinal and stomach infections and for malaria, no effective treatments are known. No modern medical facilities exist in the Suri area. Occasionally the Suri visit the primary health care center in Maji, the main market town.
Death and Afterlife. A dead person is impure, taboo to touch for all Suri except members of the specified clan that sees to the actual funeral, after which they have to be washed with sheep’s blood. Men who fall on the battlefield are not interred but are left there and covered with branches. Every deceased person is mourned in his or her homestead for five days. Cattle are sacrificed; the entrails are read, and the meat is distributed among the visitors. With the blood and certain other parts of the killed cow or ox, the compound is ritually purified. For the Suri, life is absolutely finished with physical death—there is no concept of an afterlife on earth or in heaven.
Neighbours and Foreigners
The Suri neighbour Murle to the west; the Anyuak to the north; the Toposa and Jiye to the south; the Amhara, Ghimira, Tirma and other Ethiopian groups to the east. The Suri have had bad relations with their neighbours who continuously harassed and raided them until 1936 when the Boma plateau was militarily occupied. The Suri, however, have had good relations with the Jiye and the Shangalla.