Modification Around the World: the Tribes of Ethiopia

by Lorna
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East African tribal modification

Ethiopia is a country in Eastern Africa, rich with life and tribal tradition.  Several rivers make a home there, including the Omo, Dawa, Awash, and a portion of the Nile.  It’s along these rivers that over 50 indigenous cultural groups make their home, each with a unique method of visual social identification and societal hierarchy.

map showing Ethiopia

The Mursi tribe, for example, are known for their large stretched lips in which handmade wooden plugs or clay plates are worn.  The women of this tribe are pierced by their mother or another female elder when they’re teenagers, and then begin the arduous process of stretching the piercing with wooden pegs, then plugs, then plates.  All of these implements will be fashioned by the girl herself, usually from the wood of any nearby tree.  Once the lip is large enough to accommodate flat plates, these will be made from earthen clay and may be inscribed with a unique design.  Women of the neighboring Surma tribe are also know to stretch their lower lips.

 Omo River Valley tribal stretching

Scarification is popular amongst Ethiopian tribes as well.  Members of the Karo tribe, both male and female, will be scarred in intricate patterns across the chest and torso.  For the men, this represents a ferocity in battle, but for women it’s very feminine and contributes to their beauty.  Women from many other tribes use scarification for this same reason or as an initiation into adulthood.  The general method across most groups is to score or puncture the skin with a sharp implement and rub either clay, colored ashes, or acidic plant juices into the sore to cause the formation of keloids (raised scars).

A great number of cultural groups also employ tattooing.  The women of the Konso tribe still engage in beautiful facial tattooing as a rite of passage, breaking the skin and rubbing in a dark, henna-like paste.  The traditional tattoo style consists of a long thin line extending from the hairline down the nose bridge, and two shorter lines across the forehead on either side.

Almost all tribes in the Omo River Valley region, and indeed most of Ethiopia, engage in some type of body decoration.  Amongst the most common are piercing and/or stretching of the ears, and painting of the body, which is usually done with pastes made of white, yellow, or red clay.  Some ethnic groups, like the Hamer tribe, even paint or dress their hair, using mixtures of clay and animal fat to roll the hair into many small bundles or locks.  Yet other groups make themselves elaborate headdresses, generally composed of mollusk shells, dried fruits, animal horn, beads, feathers, small branches, or flowers.

ear piercing, stretching, and painting

by Lorna

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