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ETHNONYMS: Bale, Chai, Nyikoròma, Surma, Tirma


Identification. "Suri" is the self-name of a little-known group of agro-pastoralists/cultivators straddling the borderland of southwestern Ethiopia and Sudan. They show some historical and cultural affinities with the Nilotic peoples in neighboring Sudan; they are also related to the Ethiopian Mursi and especially the Me'en, other "tribal" groups in this area. The Suri are composed of three subgroups; the Chai and Tirma (very closely related) and the Bale.

Location. The Suri live in a remote, inaccessible part of Maji and Bero-Shasha provinces in the Kefa region of Ethiopia. Some Bale live in Ethiopia but most are in Sudan, on the eastern side of the Borna plateau. Whereas the Bale group lives at a higher elevation (mostly above 1,500 meters), the Tirma and Chai are typical lowland dwellers whose settlements are all below 1,000 meters, in a semiarid area along one perennial river, the Kibish. Their present habitat lies between 5°10 and 6°00 N and 35°20 and 34°10 E. During the 1980s, the Suri moved about 50 kilometers to the north, owing to drought, famine, and war with their southern neighbors, the Nyangatom. They now live closer to the Dizi and other highlanders, who are found in the agricultural zone to their north and east. Average temperatures in the lowlands are about 33° C in the dry season (October to April) and about 25° C in the rainy season (April to late September), with only minor cooling off during the nights. The Dizi highland area is notably colder and has more rain. The lowland area is vulnerable to droughts and occasional livestock epidemics. The last serious drought and famine period, in 1984-1985, claimed several thousands of Suri lives. Their area has no roads and no transport facilities. Even mule transport is absent, because highlanders fear that lowland flies (e.g., tsetse) will kill off their animals.

Linguistic Affiliation. Like the Me'en and the adjoining Murle, the Suri speak a "Surmic" (formerly called "Surma") language. It is classified (together with Mursi, which is very similar) as South-East Surmic. The virtually unknown Bale language, however, is probably South-West Surmic (like Murle, Didinga and Narim). These clusters both fall within the East Sudanic Group of the Nilo-Saharan Phylum. The Suri are mostly monolingual: Amharic or languages of the neighboring Dizi and Nyangatom are spoken only by a very small minority. Most of the Bale, however, also speak Murle.

Demography. Official census figures on the Ethiopian Suri (Tirma and Chai) for 1984 indicate a total of 8,194 people. Abbink estimated in 1992 that there were about 37,000 (8,000 Bale, 13,000 Tirma, 16,000 Chai).

History and Cultural Relations

The Suri, a nonliterate group, have no written history, but they do have an oral tradition that contains many historical referents. This oral traditionreconstructed partly through comparison of genealogies and stories about the movement of clan groupsrefers to a migration history of Suri constituent groups, starting in the lower Orno River area (i.e., north of Lake Turkana). No clues have been found as yet in their tradition to point to a historical base in, for example, southern Sudan, from where theyas their linguistic profile suggestsmight have originated. They claim that in former times their name was "Nagos," not Suri. They have substantial cultural similarities with the Mursi but deny the idea of an original unity with this group. Both groups place their "core area" in the same region, in the lower Orno Valley. In the early nineteenth century the Suri started to move to the west, toward Naita Mountain (which they call "Shulugui"), on the Sudan-Ethiopian border. Subsequently they migrated toward the highland ridge north of Naita (the "Tirma" range). They had their pastures well into Sudan. In general, their oral tradition is dominated by the theme of conflict with their southern neighbors, the Para-Nilotic Nyangatom (an offshoot of the Karamojong cluster, who speak a language very close to Turkana). There is, nevertheless, an oral tradition shared by the Dizi and the Suri, about a kind of historical pact or alliance between them: when the Suri entered the lowland area where they are now settled and which belonged to the Dizi people, their leading families established a ritual bond associated with the control of rain. The Dizi chiefs were acknowledged to have the ultimate mastery over the rain: when the Suri rain chiefs failed to produce rain in times of extreme drought, they would bring sacrificial animals to the Dizi and ask them to perform the rain ceremony. This pact has broken down, especially since the 1980s, owing to the changing balance of power between the groups. The Suri have regained their cattle wealth and have all acquired automatic rifles. They do not feel obliged to respect the Dizi any longer out of deference to any "historical agreement." Regular contacts between the leading families of the Suri and the Dizi have also diminished. Before the early years of the twentieth century, the Suri never belonged to any overarching state structureneither colonial nor indigenous. Their area of Shulugui and the Tirma range was penetrated by the imperial troops of the Ethiopian emperor Menilek II (r. 1889-1913) in 1897. The region was formally incorporated into Ethiopia, but the Suri were not really conquered, in the sense of being brought under political and administrative control. They were able to maintain their relatively autonomous way of life in this frontier area between the Ethiopian Empire and the British-controlled territories of Kenya and Sudan. The activities of soldier forces, northern traders, and hunters and adventurers in the new encampment villages such as Maji, Bero, and Jeba led to frequent raiding of the native groups, including the Suri, for cattle and slaves. The Suri, however, suffered less from massive slave-raiding than the "Gimira" or "Dizi" peoples, who were also made subservient as a kind of serf class. Few European travelers visited the Surithe first were probably the British consuls in Maji, among them A. Hodson. Italians entered Suri territory in 1932; they established three poststwo on the border mountains of Shulugui and Tamudir and one in Zilmamo, near the Bale area. These small settlements of soldiers only endured for about three years. Compared with the relations between northern Ethiopian settlers and Suri, relations between Italians and Suri were less tense and violent. There was barter and trade for livestock and foodstuffs, and peace generally prevailed. Intergroup raiding was suppressed. In the war of liberation of Ethiopia in 1940-1941, British forces crossed the Suri area in the south, toward Maji, to drive out the Italians (in 1940). The new administration established upon Emperor Haile Selassie's restoration included some soldier posts in the Suri area, and, in the first decade of the Haile Selassie era, part of the Suri paid taxes. In the last year of the revolutionary Marxist era in Ethiopia (1974-1991), the soldiers left the area, having become redundant and/or frightened because of the massive purchase of automatic weapons by the Suri from Sudan (through the Sudan People's Liberation Army, a guerrilla organization, or through Anuak gunrunners). The Suri effectively have "law and order" in their own hands and now form a kind of virtually autonomous enclave in the Kefa region. The struggle with the Nyangatom, their "archenemies," has continued unabated. Violent raids and counterraids, during which livestock are robbed and dozens of people are killed, remain one of the constants in Suri history.

The cultural affinity of the Suri is with other Surmic groups like the Me'en, Mursi, and Murle, with which they share certain core ideas and ritual practices (e.g., pertaining to marriage, burial, initiation, and purification). Also, many aspects of their material culture and their customs concerning cattle (which are central in their economy, culture, and worldview) are similar. They have undergone little influence from Ethiopian Highland or other cultures.


The Suri have always lived in closely settled and named villages of 25 to 80 domestic units, averaging from 250 to 350 people per village. Young men have their own "cattle-camp" settlements, near the pasture areas for livestock (which are usually kept together in very large herds). A village is part of a territorial unit called a b'uran, a term derived from the name of the (traditional) place where Suri cattle were herded. Villages are clusters of family units, each with their own small gardens and compounds. Most men have more than one wife, and each wife has her own hut, cooking place, and garden. Young men of herding age live in the cattle camps, which are from six to eight hours' walk from the permanent settlements.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Suri are predominantly cattle-pastoralists, certainly in outlook: they see themselves as free and independent herders. Cattleand, in addition, goats and sheepare their most prized possessions and their repository of wealth. Women also have their own cattle, but always in much smaller numbers than their husbands. The permanent villages, however, are the centers of maize and sorghum cultivation. These two products provide the mainstay of the Suri diet, but the Suri absolutely do not consider themselves "peasants" or "cultivators." Another subsistence activity is hunting: of antelope and virtually all other animals (e.g., buffalo, elephants, giraffes, leopards, lions, and ostriches), if they find them. The meat of some animals is eaten; skins, ivory, feathers, tail hair, and so forth formerly were sold to highland dealers. Suri hunting also occurs in the Ethiopian national parks. Berries and fruits are gathered. In the gardens, the women cultivate cabbages, peppers, pumpkins, cassava, and gourds. A very important commercial activity is the sale of gold, which the Suri pan and/or dig near the southern tributaries of the Akobo River, at the northern fringe of their territory. The gold is sold in the local towns. They probably took over this practice from the Anuak people to their north, or may have been inspired by Dizi people employed by the Italians in the search for minerals and metals in South Kefa in the late 1930s. Since the 1980s, the Suri have bought cattle and guns with the proceeds of the gold. This gold commerce is a wholly "indigenous" affair; only the traders taking it out to Addis Ababa are outsiders.

Industrial Arts. Crafts are virtually absent among the Suri. They make their own sparse household utensils of wood, leather, and gourds, but the only product sold to non-Suri are clay cooking pots and plates (bought by Dizi people). Some ritual objects like clan drums and ivory horns (only very few of which still exist) are old possessions of only a handful of leading families.

Trade. Apart from gold, livestock, and pottery, the Suri only occasionally sell surplus sorghum or maize to highlanders, in the harvest season. They take this produce to the local markets. In return, they acquire cash, iron or iron tools, coffee, bananas, and small items from the trade shops: razor blades, soap, clothes, or white cloth. On the illegal market, they acquire ammunition for their rifles.

Division of Labor. Boys and men of the two lower age grades are economically active: they herd, build houses, hunt, clear and burn the fields, and go to war or on raiding expeditions. Members of the two senior age grades are "retired." They are the debaters and formal decision makers (in public meetings). Women and girls are continuously active in the economic sphere, more than men: they cultivate the fields (weeding, planting, and caring for garden crops), engage in small trade and barter, and take care of all domestic tasks such as grinding grain, getting water and firewood, and preparing food and beer. They also produce and sell the pottery and do much of the leatherwork (cleaning, cutting, drying, and decorating the skins). Iron tools are made by certain male "smiths" (they do not forge iron but buy it from Dizi or in the towns); bracelets or necklaces are produced by either male or female experts. No Suri work as traders, government employees, or domestic servants in the towns, nor as plantation wage laborers.

Land Tenure. The Suri area as a whole is formally "government land," but, as there is no state administration or taxation, the Suri know only that the land they live on has been theirs since time immemorial. Land for cultivation is found around the permanent villages. There is no land scarcity in the Suri area, although crowding of many people in villages close to each other occasionally causes problems about the choice and division of fields. Pasture is sufficient except that there is always a threat of raiding from the Nyangatom in the far south.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Suri always say they belong to a unit called a keno, a word that means "branch" or "stem" and could be translated with the traditional concept of "clan," patrilineally defined. Strict descent is, however, only a loose condition for membership. These "clans" are not territorial units, as their members are found in all the territorial divisions and villages. Within the clans, the Suri see themselves as belonging to lineage groups, with a named, known (great-) grandfather. Their relationship terminology is of the Omaha type: on the mother's side, Ego's male agnatesfor example, mother's brothers and their sonsare denoted with the same term; mother's sister is called with the term for "mother." There is strong solidarity among lineage and clan membersat least when they live together in one village; it is manifest at occasions such as marriages, reconciliation ceremonies, and burials.

Marriage. Marriages are possible across keno (clan) lines only. This stricture is carefully observed, although sexual liaisons between members of nominally the same clan (some of them have fissioned in two named halves) do occur. Marriages are usually arranged after the rainy-season dueling contests have ended. At that time, a girl, having watched the contests and selected her favorite duelist, tries to approach the chosen one by indirect messages sent through friends and relatives. In traffic between the two families, the possibility for a marriage alliance is tested. Decisive are, first, the preference of the girl and, second, the amount of bride-wealth (in cattle, small stock, and/or bullets and a rifle) to be paid by the groom's family. After negotiations start, it may take months before agreement is reached. When a deal is clinched, the real wedding ceremony is organized, with beer, song and dance, and the ritual entrance of the girl into the new hut and into the family of the groom. Among the Suri, a marriage implies a multi-stranded alliance between two kin groups. Divorce is rare.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is basically that of a married wife and her children. She has her own hut, garden, economic activities, and social network. The husband is part of the unit as an added member, so to speak; he usually has to spend his time among various wives. He has no personal hut. He is marginal to most of the activities of this unit: he sleeps and eats in the hut of a wife, keeps personal belongings there, and meets and cares for his children there, but his main responsibilities are herding, guarding, occasionally gold mining, agricultural work, participation in raiding, and public discussions and meetings, all done outside the domestic sphere, and often outside the village. Domestic units are independent. There are no systematic patterns of cooperation between extended kin groups.

Inheritance. As the basic wealth of the Suri is livestock (but now also rifles), the rules and debates around inheritance of the herds is the main preoccupation of kin when an adult person dies, especially when it is a man. There is proportional division of the animals, according to seniority of age of the sons and brothers. Personal property (such as tools, milk containers, decorations, and a dueling outfit) is divided among sonsbut not without arguments. The favorite rifle (usually a Kalashnikov or an M-16) goes to the eldest responsible son. Older, nonautomatic rifles go to younger sons, or to brothers or brothers' sons. There is no inheritance of fields. Agricultural implements and other small items are divided among the children who need it. Some livestock and cash are also inherited by wives. Livestock property of deceased women is distributed among her sons and daughters.

Socialization. The Suri push their childrenboth boys and girlsto be independent and assertive: this is very evident from the games young children play. There is no physical punishment, such as beating or pinching, but much verbal discussion, encouragement, and reprimanding. Children of both sexes learn their respective gender activities by following their parents, older relatives, and peers. From the ages of 6 to 7, children start collective activities (play, gathering of fruits, some herding, drawing water, fetching firewood, grinding) in groups of their own sex. Adolescent males organize ceremonial stick-dueling fights, which are big, all-Suri events. Participation is a must for all maturing males. Suri elders form an age set that the younger people respect. In the domestic sphere, parents are much respected by their children. There is virtually no intergenerational violence, as there is among the Me'en, a closely related Surmic people. Although in the past the Suri had two primary schools, there is now no state school among the Suri, and Suri children do not frequent schools outside their own area. Thus, they are not exposed to much interethnic or out-group social contact. They develop a strong group consciousness and pride, which often results in disdain of all non-Suri groups.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Suri can be seen as a virtually independent ethno-political unit: they live in their own area (although the land is formally owned by the Ethiopian government), where there is no administration and where members of non-Suri-speaking groups do not live. They do not pay taxes to the state, no state agency has offices in their area, and they receive no agricultural and/or veterinary services. In the later Haile Selassie years and also in the first decade of the Dergue regime, there were such services in rudimentary form, but they have been crumbling because of security problems and the absence of transport facilities.

Suri political organization is not centralized. The formal war leaders and ritual mediators that are the figures of moral authority inherit their offices along three lines, within three clans. These men are much respected, not primarily for personal reasons, but because they are the incumbents of the ancient lines. These leaders have no executive authority and cannot force their will on any member of the society. They express and synthesize common opinionthat is, they are always the last to speak and summarize matters during public debates. They also initiate fields and perform protective rituals. Suri society is divided into age sets, of which the senior one (rora ) is the most important. The Suri have been able to maintain their basically acephalous structure without much interference from the Ethiopian state. There was a brief encounter between the Suri and Ethiopian revolutionary cadres in 1976, but this was not successful in bringing about change.

Conflict. On the interethnic level, there has always been tension and violent conflict between the Suri and the Nyangatom and Toposa. The Bale Suri see as their traditional enemies the Murle and the Anuak peoples, who live to their northwest. When the Suri area (including the Borna plateau) was nominally incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire, the level of intergroup fighting, stimulated by slave and cattle raiders in the wake of the conquest by Ethiopian imperial troops, intensified. Since the 1980s, the Suri (having been pushed to the north by the heavily armed Nyangatom and Toposa) have encroached on Dizi lands. This infringement has led to frequentalmost monthlyviolent incidents. Armed robbery on the roads to the market towns has been on the increase since the mid-1980s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The supreme deity, Tumu, is a vaguely defined source of power in, and of, the sky. There is no "cult" for Tumu, who is seldom addressed in prayer and ritual incantations. The ritual mediator is seen as having contact with the powers (presumably Tumu) that bring rain and growth of crops, livestock, and people, and he traditionally has the task of performing all rituals for the protection of crops, for bringing rain, and to avert epidemics and locusts. Certain ancestors of the clan line are seen as having powers influencing people's wealth and health. There are, however, no sacrifices or offerings made to them. Among Suri divination techniques are the interpretation of bird song and flight, the throwing of small wooden sticks, sandal throwing, and the reading of (cattle) entrails. Some older men and women also prepare amulets, made from secret roots and used for a variety of purposes ("love medicine," protection when traveling, and so on). Suri have no interest whatsoever in orthodox Christianity or Islam, if they have even heard of these beliefs.

Arts. Suri material culture is simple and unspectacular. The one expressive art in which they excel is body painting, for both males and females. They create intricate multicolored patterns, covering the entire body. These decorations have no symbolic or ritual value but are simply done for aesthetic reasons and on certain occasions. The Suri are a people who take great pride in beautiful physique (especially that of adolescents). No other "art" forms are well developed. Decorative talents also also come into play in beadwork, geometric designs on women's leather frocks, earrings, bracelets of carved copper, and clay ear and lip plates. Men make decorative iron and leather neck- or headbands for their favorite cattle.

Medicine. The Suri have their own elaborate traditional herbal medicine. Dozens of plants yield treatment for afflictions ranging from headaches to skin infections. Some treatments (e.g., the remedy for cut wounds) are known to all; experts are consulted for other maladies, (e.g., snakebite poisoning). They also have their own native "surgeons," who operate on people wounded in raids or during stick duels. For serious intestinal and stomach infections and for malaria, no effective treatments are known. No modern medical facilities exist in the Suri area. Occasionally the Suri visit the primary health care center in Maji, the main market town.

Death and Afterlife. A dead person is impure, taboo to touch for all Suri except members of the specified clan that sees to the actual funeral, after which they have to be washed with sheep's blood. Men who fall on the battlefield are not interred but are left there and covered with branches. Every deceased person is mourned in his or her homestead for five days. Cattle are sacrificed; the entrails are read, and the meat is distributed among the visitors. With the blood and certain other parts of the killed cow or ox, the compound is ritually purified. For the Suri, life is absolutely finished with physical deaththere is no concept of an afterlife on earth or in heaven.


Abbink, J. (1992a). "Settling the Surma: Notes on an Ethiopian Relief Experiment." Human Organization 51(3): 174-180.

Abbink, J. (1992b). "Gold and Famine: The Suri Effort at Self-Rehabilitation, 1985-1991." In Preproceedings of the Sixth MSU Conference on Northeast Africa, April 23-25, 1992, edited by J. T. Hinnant and B. Finne, 12-28. East Lansing: Michigan State University, African Studies Center.

Klausberger, F. (1985). "Notizen zur Kultur und Sozialordnung der Boma-Suri im Süd-Sudan." Wiener Völkerkundliche Mitteilungen 27:49-79.

Lyth, R. (1947). "The Suri Tribe." Sudan Notes and Records 28:106-115.

Rizetto, F. (1941). "Alcune notizie sui Tirma." Annali dell Africa Italiana 4(4): 1203-1211.


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Suri (Jain teachers): see DĀDĀ GURŪS.