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Understanding the Lip Plates and Traditions of the Mursi People

Aug 02, 2023 10:00AM ● By Okechukwu Nzeribe

Image: Mursi woman with lip plate. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr

The Omo Valley in Ethiopia is home to an indigenous group of people known for their unique features which is Lip Plates. The Mursi people are an ethnic group renowned for their distinctive cultural practices and appearance, including the use of lip plates.

Also known as labrets, this symbol of beauty and social status is part of a cultural heritage that has been passed down through generations of women and has come to form a unique identity for their people.

It was rumored that during the slave raid periods, the Mursi people wore these plates as a protective measure against the raiders who sought to capture their women but this was not really proven. On the contrary, these plates worn by women of the tribe were seen as a form of social status. In fact, it is opined that the larger the plate, the higher the social status of the woman in the community.

At the point of puberty, a small incision is made in the lower lip of a young Mursi maiden. A wooden plug is then inserted to stretch the lip. Over time, the plug is gradually increased to stretch the lips to accommodate a circular shaped clay or wood. This process can span for several months in order to reach the desired size.

Made from materials within the community, the preferred choice is made intricately and adorned with various patterns and images making them visually striking as a result of the various ornaments used in designing them. 

To an outsider, seeing these plates on the lips of the women might present a cringing emotion, but for the Mursi women, the lip plate is an epitome of beauty, maturity and a true expression of their femininity. Being a strong aspect of their cultural history, the lip plates showcase the woman as being available for potential suitors. The larger the lip plate the more desirable the woman is. 

With the advent of modernization, and the discomfort such as eating, speaking, and the weight of these plates on those who wear them bear, the predominance of these lip plates being regularly seen within the community might be waning but it is not completely eliminated.

The practice of wearing lip plates has become a source of curiosity for tourists who are willing to visit these locations to see the marvel and beauty of African traditions and customs in full display. This in turn has brought economic benefits to the Mursi people though one would argue that it also created the opportunity for cultural exploitation.

While this is arguable, it does not take away the fact that the Mursi people have continually taken steps to preserve this age-long tradition. It is a practice that has weathered the test of time, reflecting the beauty and ideals of the cultural significance of the people. 

Despite the discomfort, this tradition has remained a distinguishing Mursi identity. 

Upholding cultural traditions amongst Africans has continually remained the channel through which uniqueness of each ethnic group is not lost in the evolving dynamics of a fast-changing world. 

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 Okechukwu Nzeribe works with the Onitsha Chamber of Commerce, in Anambra State, Nigeria, and loves unveiling the richness of African cultures.
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