In fact, I had come to speak Surichen well. I could communicate with boys and women in traditional clothes, and educated men in Western clothes, for as long as they wanted. The Suri’s language was a happy one. And even if I couldn’t understand a part of the conversation it didn’t bother me, because the people here didn’t seem to do all that much, so they couldn’t have been saying anything too important.
Their culture seemed reserved, cautious. When I asked women their names, they hesitated in apprehension before responding. Other times, they held my hand for a long time possessively when meeting me. But, even those who liked me didn’t make much conversation. Maybe I should’ve spoken to the men more? Socially, the genders were segregated; it was rare to see even a husband and wife walking together.
Voices of Surichen speakers whined and howled with a wacky, nasally high pitch. Or maybe it was only the people who drank too much “gesu” who had whining, wacky voices? In Kibish, nearly every adult drank too much gesu.
If you – the reader – were here, would you be able to learn this language? Would you men know what it meant if someone called you a “galgali”? Would you women understand if a Suri man told you you had a beautiful “teldey”? Or would you, like me, be a bit intimidated by the men? At least, they weren’t allowed to carry guns in town if they weren’t policemen or militia.
Or would you be as good at Surichen as an old Suri woman was at learning English? She had a hanging extended lower lip, and surprisingly pert breasts for a woman who’d had ten kids. She wanted to learn how to count. Because she’d had her four front teeth removed, like many Suri did for beauty purposes, she couldn’t make the sounds necessary to pronounce “three, four, five”. She pronounced them, “r-ree, or, iw”. “Iw” was the number of kids of hers who’d died. But, she was a happy playful person.
To help you learn Surichen, which would certainly be useful at your workplace, I decided to provide you with excerpts of the dictionary I was using. The organization which Ulrike the German woman was working for, SIL Ethiopia, had produced it. Words in the dictionary provided glimpses into the Suri people’s life-style: a remote culture of nomadic pastoralists.
“bara” – tapeworm
Intestinal disorders were the # 3 killer among the Suri, behind # 2 malaria and # 1 shooting deaths. Walking around in nature, they drank whatever water they found.
“barari” – powerful, spiritually
“baysi” – partially dried out; firm; a clever person
“bhoyogi” – a poor orphan with no siblings, corn, or anything
“bhuhogi” – a curse made only with one’s eyes
I once saw a Suri woman painfully wrinkle her eyes at an annoying Ethiopian. I wished I could’ve done that.
“bolisay” – victory markings, made on a tree by a champion stick-fighter
“boloy” – a communal fire area where neighbors can gather
“chabbalday” – clay lip plate
“chayto” – to exchange; to avenge
“chumaray” – a witch/wizard able to make curses
“deldela” – a long, bead necklace given to a boy from his girlfriend, possibly following a victorious stick-fight
“deni” – fortune-teller
“dhebe” – clay ear plug
“dhoye” – a cow’s hump
The Suri tied their young cows’ horns together, so that they’d curve inward towards one another and come to resemble earwig pinchers. The cows also had fatty, camel-like humps atop their necks, which contained delicious meat.
“digir” – clay from termite mounds, used to make “dhebes” and “chabbaldays”
“dumay” – silver earrings; a bullet that misfires
“ercha” – mud platform in a house, used for sleeping on
“egerchogi” – a bedbug that stinks when you squish it
“galgali” – a person or animal with large ears
“gawtey” – a traditional, wooden gold pan
“gigey” – bone blood debt
“gulsa” – leader; authority figure; chief
“gulugulu” – part of a cow’s intestine, hung by a murderor to ask forgiveness
“iloliyto” – to carry on one’s head
“irokto” – to sing to a cow
“kalamchi” – Kalashnikov rifle
“kangay” – a baboon; AIDS
“kejhogi” – small, scarification bubbles
Simple patterns of “kejhogi”, on men’s shoulders or women’s upper breasts, made the young Suri beautiful.
“keriy” – grass seeds eaten during “Hunger Times”
“koginyay” – a horn used to call cows
“kondo” – to kill; to stab; to write
“lebeng” – time of much food, following the first harvest
“loya” – a male who doesn’t stick-fight; a fox
“metu” – a headdress made out of baboon hair and chicken feathers, worn by women while dancing
“mirogi” – enemy
Each year, more than a hundred Suri were killed by guns. The leading murderors were (# 1) the Bume tribe of neighboring South Sudan, (# 2) the Suri themselves, and (# 3) the Disi. According to a young man named Bar Tu, fighting between his Surma people and the Disi had begun when the Disi unexplainably began slaughtering the Suri with machetes as they walked to the Disi town of Maji, on a market day two years ago. Forty Suri died. They returned with guns. But, Ethiopian soldiers intervened before the Suri could kill more than a few Disi.
Bar Tu smiled proudly, to say that Suri fighting with the Bume was more evenly matched.
“murnay” – three-pronged arrow, used to kill birds
“negi” – Kibish Valley
“nyologay” – necklace made from giraffe hair
“orey” – a sharp knife worn on the wrist
“ridhoy” – horseshoe- or line-shaped scarification, which a person earns by killing a Bume
“rori” – a group of men, positioned in order of advancing age; a groom
“salani” – sleeping mat made of palm fronds
“say” – goat/antelope skin worn by girls traditionally
“sigiro” – a donkey; when girls start dancing and hitting their hips to call others to dance
“tabhto” – to smear limestone on one’s body
“teldey” – corner of the eye
“teley” – a forked stick given to people by witch doctors, to protect them during a journey
“tila” – corn or sorghum mush; food
Friendly people who worked beside my tent at the police station offered me some of this flavorless mush. I put a scoop of it in my mouth, then took a leafy bite of a plant they’d boiled. They said they ate this mush three times a day.
“togto” – to herd cattle; to pay bride-wealth
“yeldo” – to search for food
“zigto” – to move to another dwelling place
You and I were going to need to learn Surichen, if we were to differentiate ourselves from the tourists who came in 4WD-vehicles and gave the Suri money and gifts in exchange for photos or a sad story. We wanted to have a human connection with them.
I rarely carried my camera with me. Happily, I discovered something I could say that usually turned the people from inferior and disrespectful beggars into my equals and friends.
“Anye ngawo tourist. Anye a komoni. Anye a bekaya Suri.”
(I’m not a tourist. I’m a visitor/guest. I’m a friend of the Suri.)
I hoped I would still grow closer to these people. We would see ...
“Te shee, galgali!”
(Stay well, Big Ears!)