What African Tribe Has Lip Plates?

The Surma people of Ethiopia are a peculiar group who, in spite of the ever-increasing pace of technological advancements, has kept intact their tradition and culture.

The Surma People Of Ethiopia

Photo: Matt Wicks

They are resident in the Lake Turkana and the Lower Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia. The group is divided into three intra-groups namely The Mursi, the Suri, and the Mekan people.

The Mursi, more evidently, are the last group of people in Africa whose women find it a normal practice to insert wooden discs or ‘plates’ in their lower lips. The lip-plate, also known as dhebi a tugoin is now the most obvious peculiarity of the Mursi and has made them a major attraction for tourists.

The History of Lip Plates

Mursi Lip

It is quite unclear how the lip-plate tradition came into existence. It is believed to have originated as a way to deform women and young girls and make them unattractive to slave traders. Some say it is a status symbol for societal importance or wealth within the tribe.

Another theory explains that the wider the plates, the more dowry is received by a bride. Others think lip plates were simply adopted symbolize a woman’s strength and self-esteem. They describe it as a sign of social maturity, indicating a young girl’s eligibility to get married.

How Do Lip Plates Work?

At 15 years, a young girl’s lower lip is cut by either her mother or a woman in the community. This cut is then held open by a wooden plug. This is left for about three months until the wound finally heals. How far the lip is stretched is mostly up to the girl. Some continuously insert wider plugs over several months and endure until their lips can take plates as wide as twelve centimetres or more.

Lip Plates and Marriage

One of the unseen importance of this lip-plate tradition is a boost to self-esteem. This is quite evident in the value placed on it during the marriage of a woman. The larger the plate, the higher the value placed on it. This means the father’s number of cows will increase when he is been paid her dowry. A man that wants to marry a Mursi or Suri lady has to be rich. Usually, the dowry requirement is between 40 to a whopping 60 cattle.

Lip Plates and Tourism

Smiling Surma woman with lip-plate
Surma woman with lip plate

Tourists see the lip plates of the Mursi as some classic ‘tribal’ existence, that is relatively ‘untouched’ by any civilization of fashion. Hence, they offer cash just to take photographs of them. The economy of the Mursi is also becoming increasingly dependent on market exchange. This consequently makes them willing to allow themselves to be photographed by tourists in exchange for some amount.

For a single photograph, a woman expects to be paid a sum of 2 Ethiopian Birr. This money is later spent in their high-land markets on items such as grain, salt, goat skins for skirts, and the alcoholic drink, ‘arake,’ which is in turn used to provide hospitality in parties.

Lip Plates Outside Africa

The young males of the native Amazonian tribe in South America usually have their lips pierced and start to wear plates once they start to become men. Here, lip plates are measured according to oratory and singing ability. The largest plates are worn by the best orators and war chiefs, like Chief Raoni of the Kayapo tribe.

Furthermore, within the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida tribes in the Pacific Northwest of North America, lip plates are worn by women to symbolize social maturity. It also reveals that a girl is now eligible to be a wife.

Check out this amazing video of the Woman with the World’s Biggest Lip Disc measuring nearly 60cm:

What do you think? Are lip plates something you ever want to explore?

Comment below!

Also Read: 8 Beautiful Words You Will Love From The Swahili Language

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