I am used to visiting really poor communities. That has been part of my job and life for the last ten years. Sometimes it is fun to connect and share stories. However, most often it is sad to witness the daily struggle. Visiting the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley was unique. It was more confusing than sad, more reflective than fun.
The Mursi are some of the poorest people I have ever met. Their lives seem so hard to me — so dangerous, mundane, and short. However, they seemed to accept this with a grace I seldom see, proud of the culture they come from and a bit indifferent about finding superior solutions to the challenges they face.
The Mursi live in Mago National Park. Their houses are deep in the bush, surrounded by wild animals, and only made of sticks and cow dung with thatched roofs. The entrances are only waist-level high so that large wild animals cannot enter, and at night they block the doorway with piles thorny acacia branches for safety.
Not only do they have to protect themselves, but their livestock as well. The boys are trained from a young age to take the cattle through the bush in search of pasture and water, defending them from lions, as well as other tribes. They paint stripes on their bodies like a Zebra, which they believe will protect them, and then walk naked into the bush to face what may come.
At night they must keep the animals in the village so nothing eats them, which means during the day the village reeks of livestock urine, and hosts swarms of flies and mosquitos. Since it is a high malarial zone, there are piles of bushes burning around the village during the day, and in the huts at night to ward off the bugs. Smoke hangs everywhere, and the children have streams of slimy mucus running down their faces, and crusted all over their arms.
The location of their village would be a super rough place to camp for a night, much less live every day. It seems like human’s most basic concern is to assure they will not get eaten alive, and while most societies have solved that issue, the Mursi choose to deal with it on a daily basis.
The little huts are empty. No beds, no books, no water jugs, nothing. Just man made mud caves. All the Mursi seem to have is their animals, some bones, rocks and sticks. Yet, they do not ask for anything. What we have seems different, not necessarily better to them.
They do not have any questions for us about how our world works; they are happy to have us just come observe theirs for the morning. It feels refreshing yet awkward at the same time, since we will likely live much longer lives, full of so many more options. That just seems unimportant to them.
Most of our visit we spend sitting on a kudu skin in the middle of the circle of huts which comprises the village. The one thing we do have that interests them is arm hair. They have no body hair, and the children sneak up behind us, and yank at ours in endless fascination, until the chief scolds them away.
A young girl grinds some sorghum from their fields between two stones for most of the morning, and most of the village sits around chatting, seemingly with nothing better to do. They joke with each other, and our guide translates what he understands.
The epitome of the visit was when our guide (not jokingly enough) asked the chief if he could marry his daughter. The chief basically spat in disgust. Of course not, he explained. Only a Mursi man is suitable for her. It was the perfect example of how, despite the harsh conditions of daily life, he still held the people of his tribe above outsiders. He was not interested in the relative material wealth of our guide, he was interested in maintaining his culture in his bloodline.
I have seldom seen such pride amidst such poverty. I do not know if I can attribute this entirely to culture, but it seemed on that day to be the most salient factor. It is not that they were proud to be poor. They were proud to be the people their ancestors had been, and just seemed to feel like they had what they needed.
In today’s world with so many more options for a healthier more comfortable life, they seemed very poor, but maybe that is just an unfair projection of my values. Maybe a longer life is not a better life. Maybe other societies prioritize comfort too highly.
However, the experience was not so purely black and white, as they explained the rituals behind the clay lip-plates they insert in their lips, they asked us to take pictures of them, charging us $US 0.25 per picture. Then, one of the men ran and grabbed a hidden Kalashnikov hoping we would take more pictures of him.
The Mursi did have some possessions hidden away, they did have some desire to trade with us. My mental picture of their culture was not as clear as I originally thought, but that is not surprising. They did want some things that they did not have already, and our guide explained the money would mostly go to buy basic food and medicine. Maybe. I would have liked to stay longer to learn more.
In the end, I do not know. The visit was too short to understand what seemed to be a vastly different perspective, which felt tough and noble in a way I seldom see. Are they being blindly proud and short sighted for not wanting more, or have I been led astray by the mountain of possessions I have that I do not need?
Visiting the Mursi tribe was a small glimpse into a different reality. One that had pride without possessions, and made me acutely aware of the poverty of my imagination to envision life without them.
Author’s Note: We drove to Jinka and found a guide there to take us to a small village he had a relationship with deep in the Mago National Park. Visiting the Mursi tribe can be quite expensive if arrangements are made from Addis, so I recommend doing it in Jinka. You can also sleep out at the village, which sounded very cool, but we did not have the time.