The Mursi are a tribe who lives in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia and share a body modification practice with the neighboring Surma tribe: the lip plate.
One of the main distinguishing features of the Mursi is the practice of women to wear lip plates; the labial plates are an iconic ornament of this tribe, they are made of terracotta or wood, they are an exclusively female ornament and in the Mursi language they are called dhebi a tugoin.
When a girl reaches 15 or 16 years of age, her mother, or another woman from her village, makes a small incision just below her lower lip; a small disk is inserted inside this incision and is worn for a few months, the time necessary for the cut wound to heal.
The first lip disc is subsequently replaced with other increasingly larger discs to widen the incision that can become, after several months, even very large.
The Mursi girls, however, are not obliged to practice the incision and wear the lip plate, they can decide at their discretion whether to practice the incision, just as the size of the lip plate is an arbitrary choice of the individual girl.
Today many girls refuse to make the incision under the lip and to wear the lip plate because they consider it a sign of modernity, while for older women this is equivalent to the loss of their tribal identity.
Some girls decide to wear large lip plates, with a diameter of 12 cm or more; to be able to wear discs of this size it is necessary to remove the lower incisors.
The labial plates vary in style, shape, design and material: they are made of terracotta and wood, generally the wooden ones are considered the most beautiful; the terracotta plates have different decorations, some are dark and engraved with geometric designs, while others are painted with elementary designs in white, black and brick color.
It seems that the shape and colors of the lip plates and decorations do not have particular meanings, it is more likely that girls choose the plate based on their aesthetic taste.
Usually the Mursi women wear the lip plate only on certain occasions: when they participate in ritual events, when they attend duels, when they dance and when they serve food to their men; if a woman with a lip incision does not wear the plate on these occasions, she is defined as karkarre, or lazy, and can be blamed, sometimes whipped, by relatives.
Younger girls, especially those who wear very large plates, always wear it when they are in public, while carrying out their daily activities, such as fetching water or when they get together with their peers or when they go to visit someone.
The lip plate represents a strong sign of belonging to the Mursi tribe and highlights the commitment and dedication of a woman to her culture and above all to her man.
When the husband dies the widow throws away her lip plate so that it is no longer used, this gesture is done as a sign of mourning; if the woman subsequently remarries with one of her deceased husband's brothers and she is still young, she will return to wear the lip plate.
The tradition of the Mursi women of wearing lip plates in the lower lip has been practiced for a long time, the origin of this custom and its meaning is not clear, but there are several theories about it.
Some believe that the Mursi women began to practice incision to house the lip plate with the intent of disfiguring their face, in this way younger women would no longer appear attractive in the eyes of slave traffickers and therefore would not have them captured for deportation, but this theory has no way of being verified and seems untrue.
Others believe that the lip plate is worn as it is able to protect the wearer from evil spirits.
Finally, according to some others, the size of the plate is directly proportional to the remuneration that the future husband must pay to the father of the bride, even if this theory has no evidence in reality since the price of a girl is established when she is very young and does not wear yet the lip plate, moreover today many Mursi women no longer wear the lip plate but are still married.
Surely the insertion of the lip plate represents an important moment in a girl's life, from that moment from a teenager she becomes a woman, or bansai; it is a fundamental step that precedes marriage.
The dhebi a tugoin is a symbol of femininity and is linked to the concept of fertility, a Mursi woman who wears the lip plate can walk with her head held high and her movements are more harmonious and feminine in the eyes of others.
In addition to the lower lip, the plates can also be inserted in the ear lobes, unlike the lip plate, these can be worn by both women and men.
To create the hole in the lobe, a pointed pin is used that is left in the hole, then the pin is replaced with increasingly larger discs or plates.