The Mursi

Chatting with the guide about the young womanIt’s quite difficult sometimes, taking off your doctor’s hat and becoming an ordinary tourist for a few days. This thought was going through my mind as I looked down at the two young Mursi people sitting with their backs against the walls of a couple of the handful of mud and straw huts in front of us.

We had just been inside one of the huts, ducking down into the interior gloom through a small doorway – clearly designed for anyone who may be around 18 inches tall – to be confronted by a terrified calf who shared the hut with its owners. (Excellent conditions for rearing decent veal, I thought, although this scrawny animal didn’t exactly have a surfeit of decent grass on which to munch.)

The young woman is on the leftOutside in the sun and the heat, to my right was a young woman, perhaps in her early teens, sitting quietly on the dirt holding her left elbow. It was tightly bandaged, and she was clearly in pain. Through our guide translating it appeared she had fallen from a vehicle of some kind a few days before. Gently removing the ridiculously tight bandage I found two things – firstly she had probably broken the bone just above her elbow; and secondly there was pus oozing from a small wound on her elbow tip. She needed an x-ray, probably plastering, and an antibiotic.

The leg woundTo my left a slightly older young man was sitting. On the front of his right shin was a vertical open wound a few inches long, subcutaneous fat clearly visible. A couple of sticks (a bit like lollipop sticks) had been put either side of the wound and some strips of strong vegetative material had tied them in place. Out of the wound a slightly bloody fluid was running down his leg. A couple of days ago he had taken part in the “donga” – a (technically illegal) male Mursi rite of passage designed to impress young women that involves young men beating each other senseless with long sticks. So that’s when this obviously infected wound had been inflicted. He needed the sticks and strips of banana leaf removing, and the wound needed cleaning, dressing and days of careful nursing care. He also needed an antibiotic.

Helpless to do much else, I gave what advice I could to apply some traction to this young woman’s arm, to clean and dress the young man’s wound and I promised them they would receive an antibiotic each from the guide, who would be returning the next day with more tourists.

Posing for us, but the lip plates are very genuineBefore we left some of the Mursi women loaded their lip plates into their stretched and distorted lower lips so we would photograph them in return for a few Birr. We dutifully obliged, and left to return to Jinka, slightly disconsolate that such primitive lives are still played out in this modern world, only a couple of hours drive from a relatively decent town.

Our passenger, photographed secretly from behindA short way out of the village our vehicle (a 5-seater Toyota 4x4 with 400,000 km on the clock) was brought to a halt by a group of Mursi men, wearing not much at all, demanding a lift to that day’s “donga” taking place a few miles down the road – a long walk for them, but a short ride for us. Our driver and guide started some negotiations whilst several of the young men began clambering on to the roof of the vehicle. Several minutes later negotiations concluded with the men on the roof climbing off, and one older man wearing only a blanket around his middle and quite a lot of mud squashing into the front seat with the guide. A rather threatening situation turned into an amusing journey, when our driver closed the window next to the Mursi man and turned on the air con. The poor half naked guy was quite startled by the blast of cold air that came out of the vent in front of him. It has since dawned on me that all this air con technology is necessitated only by the fact that we wear so many clothes. Maybe there is something we can learn from the Mursi…

We dropped our erstwhile passenger off at the location the fighting was going to take place and drove on, declining the offer of paying a few thousand Birr to sit around for several hours and watch young men injuring themselves in pursuit of young love. Arriving back in Jinka we found a pharmacy who sold me two packets of antibiotics for the guide to take back to the village the next day. There were no guarantees that the pills wouldn’t be given to the cattle rather than the two youngsters. Ah well, you can but try.

That day we had passed close by a clinic SIM set up to help and treat the Mursi people – a clinic one of my nurses, Tigist, had worked in for a while. It was reassuring to know SIM has a presence in the area, and that efforts are on-going to have the Bible translated into the local languages. The Gospel has made considerable inroads into the south of Ethiopia. One of our missionaries caused a bit of a theological rumpus a few years ago by baptising 80 or so new converts in a river, several of them accompanied by all of their wives. And then what do you do when your new converts turn up to church to worship, almost naked? Answers on a postcard please…




Fascinating story! The pictures. Of the plate lipped women remind me of the Nat Geographic mags I read as a child - not the 21st century! Re the baptism, polygamy is not forbidden in the scriptures although monogamy is recommended for Christians, I assume in order to minimise distractions..... As for naked worshippers, well were Paul's instructions on modesty cultural or matters of principle? Personally I am against "cultural imperialism" - except for for God's clear moral boundaries. Neither polygamy nor modesty appear in the 10 commandments!




I would have thought that answers on a t-shirt or trousers would be more appropriate! Well done for your efforts, and for SIM's. We pray for the advance of the gospel.

I do hope they took their medicine. Praise God that even in such a dark culture, His light is able to shine.

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