Don’t give me lip

A young Mursi woman with a large lip plate

(Emma) Over the course of one year, a young Mursi girls’ bottom lip will transition from normal shape to a large flap of skin dangling six inches off her chin. The process to create this large hole is gradual; she will begin with a small hole and stretch it to fit larger and larger discs. When she is done, she will be ready to insert a large clay or wooden disc. No one knows where this unique tradition began, or why the Mursi still practice it today. Some believe it was to make the women unattractive to slave traders; others believe it is a way of showing their beauty and how much a man should pay to be her husband. This ethnic identity is unlike any of the surrounding tribes; only the Mursi have this practice.

The Mursi people are known for their aggression toward farangi (foreigners), so I was dreading their badgering for money. When we arrived, it was nothing like I had imagined it to be. It was close to pleasant; the people accepted us and only begged for money occasionally. The women were putting in their discs as we walked into the village. Considering that the disc must be fairly uncomfortable, the women only wear them for five occasions: dances, rituals like weddings, watching stick duels, serving men food and of course, when tourists arrive in their village. The plates in the women’s mouths were incredible, unlike anything I had ever seen before.

In the museum later that day, we read about the practice. When asked what would happen if the Ethiopian authorities were to follow through with their threats to ban this tradition, the Mursi woman replied, “If foreigners or government people come and talk to us, we will say: ‘I won’t cut my lip! No, we won’t cut our lips! We won’t put in the lip plates.’ We will say this to them. We will say it like this, but when they leave, we will go on living the way we do. And when they come back, we will hide our children until they leave again.” (May 2004)

The photographs I had seen previously could not do justice to the awe-inspiring sight. I cannot begin to comprehend what pain would come along with this tradition. The Mursi may not have been the happiest , most welcoming tribe, but I am grateful that I have seen their traditions before they become extinct.




A woman with her plate removed
















More horns, less plate











Alexandra and her new friends


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