Many of us who grew up in Western countries were brought up to believe in a very narrow definition of beauty, and the media pounding us with images of skinny, fair top models with long hair hasn’t helped. But really, what is beauty? The Mursi people help us redefine beauty — a multi-faceted word which can mean different things to different people.
Mursi woman wearing the clay plate she is most famous for in Minisha Village
Determined to grasp the concept a little better, I decided to set out on a journey to the Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia where the Mursi reside to find out more about what beauty means from the women who are most famous for wearing clay plates in their lower lips. It took me a couple of days to reach the Mago National Park — home to their villages. Considering Ethiopia’s very rich historical and cultural heritage and stunning natural landscapes, every second of the trip was worth it.
Natural landscape around Arba Minch
In Arba Minch, I met my driver and local guide, Solomon Gezu Haileameriam – the young and ambitious founder of ‘Go Ethiopia Tours’. Born and raised in the area, Solomon is extremely knowledgeable about local customs and traditions, and very much loved by the people themselves. This, combined with the beaded t-shirt I was wearing, made approaching the Mursi in Minisha Village much easier.
Mursi woman in Minisha Village
Having the opportunity to interact with locals, especially women, is not always a given. Since tourism in the area has been growing lately, the Mursi have become more accustomed to visitors and their ways. This translates into locals asking you for money in exchange for a photo as soon as you step in.
Luckily, the village chief and Solomon were good acquaintances, so they warmly welcomed us. I also quickly came to realize that the beads sewn on the t-shirt I was wearing were not only valuable for their beauty, but also for barter.
Beads play an important role in traditional Mursi culture. They are used in many ceremonies, but also in everyday life as a symbol of seduction. Attracted to the ones I wore, Mursi women approached me with many bracelets, clay plates and cloths to negotiate the price of my t-shirt.
After all the hype, beauty became the main topic of conversation. A woman confessed:
“Look at me now. Without my clay plate, I look horrible. Nobody’s paying attention to me. But you will see, let me wear it now and I will be the most beautiful woman on earth!”
Mursi woman in Minisha Village
Young Mursi girl with her ears pierced
When they are 10 years old, Mursi women pierce their ear lobes, and when they are 15, they cut through their lower lips to wear the colorful clay plates they are famous for. They carry these modifications to enhance their physical beauty and seduction skills. To make me feel welcome, they even offered to pierce my lip so that I could join them in being beautiful.
Mursi woman mastering the art of seduction
The Mursi are very creative with their ornaments. They also use face and body paint, beads, horns, and scarification. The more ‘decoration’ women use, the more attractive they feel, and the more attractive they actually are to men. This, they believe, is what makes them special and unique in the region which is also home to many other tribes.
It would be no exaggeration to say that, in the local context, Mursi women are great masters in the art of seduction. In the light of the many gifts which accompany each marriage, unmarried women use as many beauty symbols as possible to attract a potential husband. Unmarried pay attention to beauty, and the value of gifts is not to be taken lightly. Presents include 38 cows and one AK47 gun given to the bride’s family!
Mursi man holding an AK47
Meeting the Mursi, especially the women, was an unforgettable and powerful experience. They taught me a beautiful lesson by reminding me of one simple and humane fact that we sometimes tend to forget: beauty criteria are relative as it essentially comes down to culture. So let’s all enjoy being beautiful. This is certainly not my last visit to the area!
Young Mursi boys in Minisha Village
Have you experienced how the Mursi redefine beauty? Have something to add? Please share in the comments below!