Turkana and Mursi Piercings


About six months ago Ian took a trip through Africa and snapped these pictures. Above, with the smaller gauge piercings in metal and wood, are Turkana tribesmen in Kenya, and below are Mursi tribeswomen that he photographed in Southern Ethiopia with ultra-large gauge stretched earlobes and lip discs. Continue reading for a closeup of the same picture.



28 thoughts on “Turkana and Mursi Piercings

  1. now that’s a lip disc lol

    sadly I watched a show on tribes that have lip discs,etc…infact I think it was the Mursi tribe…But apparently nowadays cultural removal of this modification is taking part…As certain women aren’t into it anymore and because of their decision NOT to get this modification, they’re actually having trouble getting married,etc as the tribe views it as a sign of beauty/status,etc…So they wouldn’t marry a girl who doesn’t have a lip disc,etc.

  2. Ive always wondered what the reaction would be from these tribes to see white (western) people practicing their rituals traditions and customs through body modification.. Are they happy? offended? indifferent?

  3. All aboard the Failboat, I have a stupid question. I’ve always wondered how do lip discs affect kissing? I mean, obviously with it in kissing wouldn’t be very comfortable, but then with it out I would imagine that it would still be weird… right?

  4. At the same time though Shannon, MANY of the Borneo and related island tribes are typically very open and welcoming to visitors and tourism (as it is fairly commonplace there in recent times).

    But from everyone I’ve talked with, the Surma/Mursi tend be be much more guarded and closed off to strangers. Obviously, yes, people do visit them, and they are becoming more accustomed to it, but they are often not too welcoming.

    regardless, it’s a very interesting question that I have wondered about very often myself.

    I can fathom three outcomes:

    -They would be amused and curious about it (as seems to be the case with the Dayak peoples in most situations)

    -They would be offended (not likely.)

    -They would be indifferent! (they are surrounded with other peoples/tribes who practice body modification/stretched piercings. who they encounter on a somewhat frequent basis)

    (these are my speculations)

    I do wish to make the trip out to Ethiopia someday myself, so I’m hoping I have positive reactions to my piercings! I’d love to be able to connect with them on that level. (and maybe convince them to sculpt me some jewelry? haha. Not likely. but maybe One of the children will share. they seem to be the only ones who’s ear jewelry would fit mine.)

    Something i think will be even more fascinating is their reaction to my tattoos!

    With them being a people who are so preoccupied with adornment (that largely takes shape in the form of body painting and bright colors… and also scarring..) it would be neat to see how they react so large, and very colorful/bright tattoos!


    Thanks so much for these photos Ian/Shannon!

  5. Contemporary Mursi have been swamped with tourist visits and wannabe anthropologists, as have the other ethnic groups along the Omo Valley. They are all typically pastoral societies, with cows as currency. The bigger the lip plate, the more cattle the potential husband and his brothers and father, would have to give to the bride’s male relatives. Whilst it is true that most of the women actively desire and anticipate lip plates from an early age, in recent years there have been a few exceptions who refuse the lip plates and risk the prospect of not getting many cattle for her male relatives, or not being married at all. This would have been unheard of a couple of decades ago. I believe that this is a direct influence from the tourism, Western trade and Western influence they are increasingly exposed to.

    Anyway, I think they are beautiful. I’d absolutely love to visit the Mursi, or other people from along the Omo Valley, but I do worry about how Western exposure will affect their traditional ways of life.

  6. Im actually in south afica for a month on holiday, ive been here just under a week and the reaction to my mods has been HUGE, ive got 1 inch lobes which are the most visible ones and everywhere i go, whether into an upmarket shopping centre or a not so affluent neighbourhood to see a friend, i always get stared at openly, more so than where i live in manchester u.k.

    however i have found one thing different, more people seem willing to approach me here and engage in conversation than back home, and im willing to put up with crowds staring if more people will approach me and ask out of intrest about my mods.

  7. I can only ever really appreciate a lip plate on someone in an African Tribe. Their languages, for the most part, do not involve the use of the bottom lip, so they’re not sacrificing function of their body for a mod. Any time I see a westerner with a lip plate, I just can’t help thinking that they have made a terrible decision.

  8. Sleepwalker33, that is a majorly sweeping generalisation, there are thousands of languages within the 52 countries of Africa and many groups who traditionally wear lip plates. If you’ve ever watched any documentaries on groups such as the Mursi or the Suri, you can see that the lip plates do impediment normal speech to a cetain degree.

  9. The plates are removed sooooo often though for general activities like working, eating, and just hangin out with the gals.

    SO even thought the jewelry may be awkward and effect speech, it’s really only worn at certain occasions. (usually in the prescence of men.

  10. Don’t forget that some bottom teeth are knocked out before the lip is stretched. Despite wearing the plate or not, the bottom lip being stretched so much does have an impact. The mouth has to totally adapt the way in which speech is communicated. Try talking with your bottom lip stuck far out. That’s not to say that these women don’t adapt, because they do – but it does affect normal speech.

  11. Bruce Parry noted that Mursi women were growing up in times where more of them wanted to leave the tribes they had been part of for so long. As a result of this they found the lip plate rather an inconvenience when adapting to ‘the outside world’. They complained of dribbling when the plate is not worn and an inability to speak properly when the plate is in.

    Hanargh mentions the forced removal of the bottom row of teeth as well which has been described (by the women themselves) as excruciatingly painful.

    Further information on Mursi lip-plates and tourists can be found in this fascinating account.


  12. The removal of the bottom teeth is really not forced unless the woman doesn’t want to participate in lip plate process (which does occur). Some little girls have been known to actively knock out their own bottom teeth in anticipation of the lip plate. But I think that what Giles mentions about them wanting to leave the tribes and the lip plates inconveniencing this is a direct impact of Western influence. The fact that they have the choice of leaving such a culture if they so desire to is great for them, but when it faces such a wonderful traditional culture being left to slowly die out, it does make you wonder. I’m studying for a degree of anthropology in Africa, and the amount of traditional cultures being abandoned for coca cola cities and AK47s is astonishing.

  13. I don’t see it as a bad thing that the women are refusing to have this done to them. Modification is cool if it’s a choice, but if it’s pressured upon someone then I see it as no different than other tactics of repression.
    I’m surprised more people don’t feel more of a kinship with the women choosing not to be moded. After all, they are being punished by their society by taking control of their bodies in much the same manner as people in the west.

  14. one of the reasons some tribes did major modifications like this to their women was so that waring/enemy tribes wouldnt kidnap their women because this made them aesthetically unattractive.

  15. #21 – That is a speculation, it is also thought that it was to deter Europeans taking the women as slaves during colonisation.

  16. Hanargh why would you be scared to have an affect on these people? It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you don’t go into their town/village with your mouth wide-open and gawking, you’re probably going to have the same affect on them as you would have with anyone.

    I’ve never understood why anyone would go into a situation like that thinking, that somehow their presence is going to disrupt some delicate balance. They’re not romantic, they’re not going to break with because of your passing.If you want to experience different cultures,then go for it! Their culture isn’t going to breakdown unless they choose it to be so.

    Oh yeah,I’ve always found lip plates so utterly amazing.I think those women are so beautiful.

  17. That size lip plate was a first! Nice to see what it looks like with it out too. NICE lobes as well!

    Thanks for sharing!
    The comments have been quite informative too!

  18. Sade, quite simply because, people like the Mursi get a hell of a lot of (mostly Western) tourists just “passing through” their villages each week. Not all of them are as respectful as you’d like to think. Not to mention the countless anthropologists and ethnographers who completely miss the point anyway. No, they’re not going to break, but people seem to generalise Africa and get the above images in their head, and get disappointed when their bus drops them off in built up cities. I’d just hate to be a constant photo opportunity, having the world and his brother trampling through my house for a look around. The fact is, most visitors WILL gawp. There’s only a small percentage who have ever actually seen anything like the lip plates we look at on modblog. Perhaps the Mursi don’t mind because tourism brings in money, but I just don’t like the Western assumption of being able to go anywhere we like just because we can.

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