Traditional African Mursi Lip Plates
To an outsider, a lip plate may be viewed as a form of body mutilation rather than body art but to a Mursi or Suri woman, it is an expression of female maturity and a sign that she has reached child-bearing age.
It is also a distinguishing trait that ensures she is not mistaken for a member of neighboring rival tribes who either do not pierce their lips (Kwegu tribe) or only wear small plugs inserted into their lower lips (Bodi tribe).
Although labial plates were also traditonally worn by Suya men of Brazil, Sara women of Chad, the Makonde of Mozambique, and the Botocudo of coastal Brazil (quite a mouthful, even without a lip plate), the only tribes that still follow this tradition are the Mursi and Suri tribes of Ethiopia.
Who Are the Mursi and Suri Tribes?
Close to the Sudanese border in the lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia live a nomadic tribe who number only 10,000 people. Known as the Mursi, they live in the most isolated area of Ehiopia, surrounded on three sides by rivers.
Until a decade ago they were a completely oral tribe as not one of the members could read or write.
How are Lips Stretched and Plates Inserted?
This tradition is customarily performed from 6 months to a year before a young girl is to marry, usually around the age of sweet sixteen.
During an initiation ritual, a small incision of between 1 and 2 cm in length is made in the lower lip. This ritual is usually performed by their mother or another kinswoman.
A wooden peg or ceramic disc is placed in the incision and this remains there for approximately 3 weeks or until the wound has healed. The peg is then replaced with a slightly larger disc, thereby stretching the lip gradually. This stretching process will continue until the lip has an opening of about 4 cm in diameter. At this point, the first clay lip plate will be inserted.
To accommodate the lip plate, at least two and sometimes four lower front teeth are extracted.
Each woman crafts her own lip plates and decorates them with pride. The stretching process using larger and larger lip plates will continue until a disc of about 10 to 15 cm will fit into the lower lip. There are reports of some women who boast lip plates that are 25 cm in diameter, though this is not the norm. This entire stretching process usually takes several months to complete.
Because lip plugs make talking difficult, women only wear theirs in the company of men, but remove them to eat and sleep or when they are only in the company of women or children.
This entire stretching process usually takes several months to complete.
Removing a Lip Plate
Does the Size Matter?
It is Mursi tradition that young suitors must pay the father of the bride-to-be when asking for his daughter's hand in marriage. Most of the marriages are pre-arranged with the future bride having little or no say in the matter.
Although it is often said that there is a correlation between the size of a young girl's lip plate and her bridewealth, this does not hold water, as the price of the future bride is usually determined prior to the initiation ceremony.
It seems that the plate's size is determined by personal preference and the wearer's ability to withstand the pain associated with the stretching of the lip.
Lip Plates of Suri Women
Body Paint and the Mursi Tribe
The Mursi tribespeople view their bodies as living canvasses and paint intricate patterns on all parts of their bodies from an early age.
The men paint their bodies with white chalk during dances and ceremonies. Using their fingertips as brushes, the men also paint intricate patterns on each other's bodies with a thin layer of clay from the river bank.
Besides adorning themselves with these enormous lip plates, the women also wear white body and face paint. They are also fond of wearing earrings made of fruit on their stretched and cut earlobes.
When Will This Form of Body Art End?
There are pressures on Mursi women from the Muslim-dominated Ethiopian Government to give up this practice. Another indirect pressure comes from the realization by the tribe itself that they will be excluded from social and economic benefits as long as they are perceived to be backward by outsiders. They recognize that the tradition affects other people's perception of their limitations and stands in the way of future development.
Tourists, on the other hand, are keeping the tradition alive. They travel great distances to see and photograph these lip-plated women that they presumably perceive as freaks in a freak show. The Mursi have, however, realized that they can earn a living by posing for these tourists and this in itself may be sufficient motivation for them to continue the tradition. The practice of stretching their lips has become an economic asset to the entire community.
The Mursi tribe will probably eventually have to heed the Govenrment's warnings, but until then, the tourists will keep coming.