The Surma or Suri people live in the southwest plains and hills of Ethiopia in the Omo River Valley.
Both men and women paint and scarify their bodies generally creating intricate and delicate patterns. Scarification is done by making a pattern of small incisions into the surface of the skin with a razor blade or knife and rubbing in (sterile) wood ash which, as the wounds heal, creates raised bumps or scars.
Many women wear lip plates made of wood or clay – although many of the younger women are now giving up the practice. The front lower teeth are removed to facilitate the wearing of the lip plate.
The ears are also usually pierced for the wearing of a plate or plug.
Usually during the year before marriage and at around 15 to 18 years of age the woman’s lower lip is pierced by her mother or one of her female relatives. The initial incision of the lower lip is small, perhaps 1 to 2 cm length, and a wooden peg is inserted. When the wound has completely healed, two and three weeks later, the peg is replaced with a slightly larger one to begin to stretch the lip to accommodate an eventual plate. When the diameter of the hole has reached around 4 cm the first clay lip plate is inserted. Every woman crafts her plate by herself and often takes pride in including some ornamentation. The final diameter ranges from about around 10 cm to in excess of 20 cm and largely depends upon the elasticity of the lip rather than any indication of status though women bearing a large plate are considered to be very attractive and may receive a higher bride price.
The women usually only wear the plate at particular times of day for a limited time or for ceremonies as they are heavy and uncomfortable to wear for long periods.
The origins of the wearing of lip plates are lost in the mists of time but slavers would not take women with this disfigurement and so this may have added to the custom’s growth and expansion within both the Surma – and their ethnically close relatives – the Mursi peoples.
Beaded necklaces, numerous metal bracelets and shaving the hair into carefully created designs using a razor blade complete the unique look of these striking and often beautiful people.
These photographs are part of The End of Days – The Last of the Omo Valley Tribes series.