‘Lip plates’, or ‘lip disks’, have been worn for centuries in communities across Africa and South America, and by Inuit tribes in northern Canada. Although most commonly worn by women, in some societies it’s been customary for men to wear such plates, sometimes in both their top and bottom lips. For many, this practice had ceased by the 20th century and, today, the tribal groups of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, in the southwest of the country, are thought to be some of the few people on the planet to still practice this art.
Amongst the cattle herders and cultivators that call the Omo National Park home, the Mursi people are best known for their dinner plate-sized lip disks, worn by women from their teenage years. The Mursi live in the lower stretch of the Omo Valley, 1,840 kilometres from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. It’s estimated that there are less than 10,000 people in the Mursi tribe today.
To mark the change of identity from girl to woman, teenagers as young as 13 choose to begin the process of stretching their lower lips. They start by cutting a centimetre-long incision in their lower lip, which they plug with a wooden peg – a sensitive process which, unsurprisingly, can cause the girls significant pain. A few weeks later, when the initial wound has healed, the peg is replaced with a larger one, and the stretching process starts to take shape as the gap is plugged with increasingly bigger pegs.
When the hole is large enough, the first clay or wooden plate, measuring around 4 cm across, is inserted. Over the period of a year, plates are replaced with progressively larger ones as the lip stretches. Women choose how far they wish to stretch their lips, some feeling more discomfort than others. Final plates can measure from 8 centimetres to more than 20, and women may have to remove some of their lower teeth to accommodate them.
Clay plates, referred to as ‘dhebinya’ by the Mursi tribe, are made by the individual wearer, each of whom decorates their art with ornate patterns. Finished plates may be white if left natural; red if coloured with gongui bark; or black if rubbed with grass or burned plants. In the Mursi tribe, it’s traditional for the men to make the older-style wooden plates (kiyo), which tend to be worn by unmarried girls.
It’s not necessary to wear your plate at all times, and it’s common to see women with their loose lower lips dangling free. Married women are expected to insert their plates when serving their husbands food, and during important ritual events such as weddings and stick fighting competitions. Unmarried girls, especially those with large lip plates, might wear them whenever they are in public, and those that don’t are considered lazy.
Several theories as to why lip plates are worn have been passed around. Some suggest that plate size refers to the bride price paid for each woman, while others believe that the practice of body mutilation was performed to deter slave traders. The strongest argument, and that which receives most agreement from the Mursi themselves, is the plates’ signification of fertility and womanhood; regardless of dimensions, wearing a lip plate in your teenage years defines a young woman as fertile and ready for marriage. Once the bearer is married, the plates remind her both of her ties to her culture and to her husband; if a husband dies, the plate must be thrown away. It’s also suggested that the Mursi relate the holes in their lips to almost every aspect of their lives: the health of their cattle, the availability of water, the fate of their children, and so on.
The Mursi’s fame as one of the few tribes in Africa, and perhaps the world, that still wear large lip plates as a common practice is known across the world. Tourists flood here to photograph the women, who have gained a fearsome reputation for their often aggressive manner. Women make clay plates to sell, and demand money for their photos to be taken, using the cash to buy grain, salt, goat skins for skirts, and arake – an alcoholic drink.
In the modern world, it seems that the Mursi tribe are battling a common dilemma. Their lip plates, and the cultural identity and political independence they signify, are a source of great pride for these people, but at the same time they acknowledge that this ancient practice, long since abandoned by other tribes, could point to their backwardness. Today, many young girls have started to choose not to stretch their lips, despite being referred to distastefully as ‘Kwegu’ – the name of a poor neighbouring tribe – for doing so. Such young women may face difficulty in finding a Mursi husband, yet they seem determined to leave the practice behind for a changing world.