Ethiopia: Where the beauty of Mursi women lies in clay plates embedded in lips

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What is beauty and how do you define it? A question which may sound so simple but which is, on the contrary, so complicated and multi-faceted to many. To better grasp this concept, I visited the Mursi, a local tribe residing in the Southern Omo Valley of Ethiopia famous for wearing beautifully decorated clay plates in their lower lips and other ornaments. 

The long journey from Addis Ababa spanned over a couple of days but in view of Ethiopia’s rich cultural and historical heritage and natural beauty, every second of it was worth it. I first flew to Arba Minch where I met my local guide from ‘Go Ethiopia Tours’; Solomon Gezu Haileameriam, and the driver. Gezu’s in depth knowledge of the area’s customs and traditions, and his enthusiasm contributed to making the trip one of the most memorable.

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Visiting other villages and tribes along the way while appreciating the stunning views, we headed down South to Mago National Park where we met the Mursi in Minisha Village. The village chief warmly welcomed us, and I had the opportunity to interact with the locals, especially the women, which is not always a given.

Indeed, since the number of visitors in their village has been growing over the last couple of years, they have become accustomed to them and their ways. This means that as soon as you get there, you start hearing them ask for money in exchange of a picture.

Luckily, I was wearing a beaded t-shirt which made me stand out and allowed me to have a real and fascinating conversation with the Mursi. Attracted to my t-shirt, women came to me with loads of clay plates, bracelets and even cloths. They were ready to negotiate using their belongings as barter.

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After all the hype about the beads I had on me, the talk turned to beauty. 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!”.

At the age of 10, Mursi women pierce their ear lobes, and at the age of 15, their lower lips to wear their trademark item; the colourful clay plates they are most famous for. These modifications are carried to enhance their beauty and power of seduction. To make me feel at ease, they even offered to pierce my lip so that I could join them in being beautiful.

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Mursi women also use face and body paint, all types of beads, horns, and scarification. The more ‘decoration’ they use, the more attractive they feel. This makes them special and unique in a region inhabited by many different tribes.

In fact, 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. And the value of gifts is not to be underestimated. They include 38 cows and one AK47 gun which are given to the bride’s family - so they better be beautiful!

Visiting the Mursi was an unforgettable experience. The women reminded me of one simple, beautiful, and humane fact; beauty criteria is all relative and essentially comes down to culture. This is definately not my last visit to Ethiopia.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw