The Mursi people are among the least developed of the 56 indigenous tribes that inhabit the southern Omo Valley in Ethiopia. I visited this tribe during a day trip into the remote Mago National Park. Thick, black mud sucked at my shoes as I walked among chest-high straw huts scattered around a small clearing. The living conditions were miserable: no electricity, very little shade, and no sign of water. In fact, the Mursi exist mostly on meat, milk, and blood from their livestock. Several Mursi women followed me around, hoping to earn the five Ethiopian Birr they charge for the right to take a photo. I ultimately chose this Mursi woman with lip plate, who insisted on being paid ten Birr, an extra five for her infant.
Mursi women begin wearing lip plates when they reach puberty. In a special ceremony, a girl’s lower lip is cut and a small wooden stick inserted. Her lip is then stretched out over a one-year period by inserting increasingly larger plates made of wood or ceramic. The larger the plate, the more attractive and thus more marriageable the woman is said to be. Although women are not forced to go through the ceremony or wear a lip plate, there is strong social pressure to do so. A girl who refuses to wear a lip plate is considered to be lazy and risks being beaten by her mother, sister, and subsequent husband. A Mursi woman with lip plate is more likely to be unmarried or a newlywed. The longer a woman is married, the less she will wear it, and if her husband dies, the woman will remove the lip plate and never wear it again.