Lip stretching is one of the many unique traditions that have come out of Africa. The continent is home to some of the most complex and old tribal cultures that the world has known and the traditions that these cultures have kept alive through out history are no less intriguing than their lifestyle.
In Ethiopia, lives a tribe which has captured the imagination of the rest of the world since the first time it came in contact with “outsiders”. This is the Mursi Tribe.
The Mursi tribe hails from an isolated region in Ethiopia, called the Omo Valley. The women of this tribe are known for their wooden lip plates. With in the tribe, this is seen as a sign of beauty and helps women establish a unique identity.
The process is painful though, as when a girl reaches the age of 15 or 16, her mother cuts her lower lip which is then held open by a sodden plug till the wound heals. How much the girl’s lip is stretched is entirely up to her but the process is a painful one and often takes a few months to complete.
The tradition is for young unmarried women, or newly married women but not for married women with children. The plates are generally brought out for special occasions where food has to be served to men, at important rituals such as weddings and while milking cows.
Unmarried girls often wear their plates where ever they go as tradition dictates that a boyfriend or husband cannot sleep with his woman until her lip has healed completely. This tradition has been shirked quite often by modern men who will ignore it and sleep with their love interests regardless.
The lip plates of Mursi women are significant to them for a myriad of reasons. Most importantly because it is a sign of beauty in their culture. The plates are also seen as a mark of devotion to the woman’s partner as they wear it while serving food to him.
The lip plate is removed if a woman’s husband dies as it is believed that her beauty fades following his death.
The plates are also important because they demarcate the women of the tribe who can no longer be mistaken for being from another group.
While most modern societies would find it hard to understand the significance of such a tradition in today’s times, the Mursi tribe continues to pursue its culture and traditions with exceptional devotion and zeal, which is why they have managed to keep their way of life intact.