Facts about the Surma Tribe of Ethiopia

The Surma people are found in southwestern Ethiopia. Surma is a collective name bringing together three ethnic groups: the Mursi people, the Suri people and the Mekan people. The name Surma is also used by the Ethiopian government when referring to the Suri. The Surma people live in Bench Maji Zone.

Their history


According to Surma’s oral tradition, the tribe occupied their current territory about 200 years ago. The tribe initially occupied the Sudan-Ethiopia borderlands. They first settled at Akobo which is located east of the River Nile. The tribe absorbed other small tribes in the areas they settled. In the 1890s, the Surma came into constant harassment from the northern settlers and the Ethiopian imperial troops. This led to several small sections of the tribe moving to the Boma Plateau located in Sudan.


The Surma are constantly in conflict with the Nyangatom who also occupy the southern part of Ethiopia. The Nyangatom occasionally team up with the Toposa and invade the Surma for cattle. There have been a lot of conflicts the region which has forced many neighboring communities into the Surma territory. The Surma are there in constant fighting to defend their land, pasture and water. The clashes are always prevalent during drought seasons. During dry seasons the Surma move with their cattle to the southern part to get new grazing fields.


Cultural background


The Surma are settled in relatively remote places in the valleys, foothills and semi-arid plains. In the recent times, the group has had bloody conflicts with the Nyangatom and the Toposa from South Sudan. These conflicts have escalated due to increase in access to firearms as well as lack on immediate government interventions. The Sudanese Civil War has been a major source of weapons for the groups.


The Surma are a culturally proud and self-conscious people. They have a liking for saginé or commonly called ‘ceremonial dueling’ which is a rite of passage for young boys and brings a lot of prestige to men in the community. The ceremony is especially important when a man is seeking a bride to marry. The rite is very competitive and in some cases leads to serious injuries and sometimes death.


As a sign of beauty and preparation for marriage, most women pierce their lower lips and then insert a clay lip plate; very different from our homemade facial mask recipes for dry skin. This has become the main identifying mark of the Surma people and one of the main reasons why tourists flock to the region. Some women stretch their lips to accommodate plates of up to sixteen inches in diameter. An increasing number of young girls are however doing away with this old age culture. Apart from lip piercing, girls also remove their lower tooth. Many young girls are opting for face painting instead, with children painted with white clay.


The Surma people settle in small villages of between 40 to 1000 people with a few villages reaching 2,500 people. In charge of the villages are the Suri ‘chiefs’, locally called komoru. They perform ritual functions, they have no executive power but they are the most respected elders in the communities.