"Rest of the World 2013-14" story # 43

Tulgit, Ethiopia           June 25, 2014

The Surma people, a.k.a. "the Suri", were fascinating. Aesthetically, they were the most interesting and beautiful people I'd ever seen.
     Several dozen Suri rode in the back of a truck, and I sat up front next to the driver as we drove from Ethiopia's "gold rush" town of Dima to the Surma people's land. Riding in the back of the truck, the Suri stood lazily with their thin dark bodies. They wore dark green or dark purple cloths that concealed their right shoulders, right breasts, waists, and upper thighs. Their silvery dark skin naturally matched with their green and purple cloths.
     The Suri in our truck looked young, with soft button noses. The Suri in our truck seemed peaceful; their eyes gazed softly at their wild land of stout trees and tall grasses.
     Unlike me, who was traveling with my two bags and two water bottles, they didn't carry much. The men carried spear-poles without their tips. Some women carried babies.
     They loved to decorate themselves.
     Most women pierced their lower lips with wide holes, then stretched these holes so they could wear large clay circles inside. Men and women did the same thing with their ear-lobes. The result was that, when they weren't wearing the clay plates, their lips and ear-lobes hung off them like dead skin. At first, I found this to be very unattractive - especially the hanging ear-lobes of the drunken militia man who'd yelled at me, with angry red eyes and a spear-pole, to give him money while I was in Dima.
     But, young girls became pretty - in a unique way - when they wore wooden plates in their lower lips. They looked like they could've played ping pong with them, or disguised themselves as platypuses. And the girls' ears looked beautiful, with huge pieces of cork sticking out of them and extending their holes.
     Men and women decorated the tops of their ears with tiny, bright white or yellow dots. They wore necklaces made from bright green, yellow, and white beads.
     They scarred their bodies with bubbling holes, for decoration. Circular patterns on their upper backs. Three rows of bubbles swirling around women's breasts. Bubbles tracing men's faces, like beards. These bubbles felt as rough as the Suri's skin felt smooth.
     And the men and women wore short, bubbling hair or bald heads. They shaved their hair into cool patterns. It was presently fashionable for them to wear two big circles of hair, one on each side of their heads, like flies' eyes. One boy went like this to a larger Ethiopian town (where the Suri were despised), and a hair-dresser said to him, "They allow you to walk around like that, where you come from?"
     As our truck traveled through their grassy jungle, Surma people appeared in the nature. Men stood beside the road, quietly and with handsome stares. They held spear-poles. Some carried AK-47s.
     The back of our truck erupted into cheers, whenever our female passengers saw their friends in the forest. One bald woman stood in the grass and smiled and shook her hand at us, playfully scolding her friends in the truck.
     We stopped in the middle of the wilderness to unload passengers. I got out to watch them.
     Where were they going? Were they homeless nomads? I envied their nudity and lack of possessions. Did they sleep in their cloths in the jungle? Maybe they walked around all night, and slept during the day? Man, there were a lot of AK-47s in this part of Ethiopia! I decided I should be very careful about where I slept this night.
     Just then, a twelve-year-old girl looked down at me from the back of the truck. She wore white dot earrings atop her ears, and big clay discs in her ear-lobes. She smiled a great white smile, and extended her hand.
     Not to beg - as would've happened in most parts of Ethiopia.
     No. She just wanted to shake my hand.
     Welcome to Surma, Justin.

I spent the night in the Surma tribe's first village. Koka. An Ethiopian military post marked the entrance to the village. The young soldiers were very welcoming and hospitable, and they let me camp there. This experience went much better than the last time I'd camped in an East African military complex.
     "Koka is not a peaceful place," the soldiers told me.
     Apparently, the Suri often killed each other in the forest. Sometimes, they shot each other while they were drinking.
     But mostly, they killed each other out of revenge. The Suri could take revenge on a person's fourth-generation descendant. They were like the Hatfields and the McCoys. I would be told by one boy, named Yelegoy, that because his drunk uncle had accidentally shot a man, it was unsafe for Yelegoy to go to his home village.
     So, I remained with the Ethiopian military until I could find a vehicle going to the next village. Tulgit. My destination. It was here where I would find a German woman named Ulrike, and an American pastor named Mr. John.
     I'd made it! Six nights on the road. Seven hundred kilometers ...
     Unfortunately for me, Ulrike couldn't offer me any volunteer work nor a free place to stay. I began staying in a peaceful and spacious guesthouse operated by the local church. The Ethiopian preacher/doctor gave me a discount on the price.
     I began living among the Suri. It made me happy to walk among them and see their beauty. I started learning their language and greeting them.
     Meanwhile, Ulrike and Mr. John told me some interesting things about the Suri:
     Some of the clay plates they wore in their lips and ears were painted with white swirls; this white paint was made out of chameleon poop.
     The Suri sometimes smeared white clay on themselves, for aesthetic purposes. This explained the naked white kid standing proudly by the road, when our car passed.
     Suri boys used the sap from a certain tree to dye their hair red, and the sap from another tree to dye it yellow.
     During the "Hunger Time" that preceded their first harvest, boys hunted small birds. They used bows, and three-pronged arrows so long they could nearly touch the birds with their arrows, and the birds just thought they were branches.
     The Suri began carrying guns a hundred years ago, Mr. John suggested, because the highlander Ethiopians (including the ruling Amhara tribe) had been taking the lowlanders as slaves.
     The Suri made bad slaves. They weren't submissive. If put in prison, they made a fuss and tried to escape.
     Good. I always felt an attraction to people who were resistant.
     And I liked the peaceful beauty of the Suri's land.
     One day, Mr. John drove me and some others up the nearest mountain.
     Atop the mountain, two boys and I walked through the tall grass and climbed a tree.
     Below us, the forest fell to the thick wilderness of the Kibish Valley. Lions and leopards roamed here. The forest rose on the other side to a jungly mountain ridge. On the other side of that, invisible to us, the wild Omo River flowed and cut southern Ethiopia in half. And in the foggy distance, a dark pyramidal mountain marked the border with Kenya.
     Sitting atop this mountain put me in a good mood. It seemed like a great place to be a naked nomad.

Modern Oddyseus

go to the previous story                                                                                   go to the next story

J. Breen's modern-o.com