Surma boy,Omo Valley Ethiopia

Young boys who stay with the cattle all day, are taught to rub moist mud or clay all over their body to protect themselves from sun-stroke or from scratches from the thorny undergrowth.
Older boys and men often cover their mouth or entire head with ash from the cattle-bryre (burnt cattle-dung), or with fresh cattle-dung, since this deters flies.
However, the most important reason the Mursi and Surma paint their bodies is as a medicine, either preventive or curative. Earths and clays are known to have ‘active’ qualities, which people try to use to their advantage.
They speak of earth ‘hitting’ people, and of clays having ‘customs’, and just as one ‘eats’ food, people speak of ‘eating’ earths and clays by body painting.
There are big communal ceremonies when everyone from an area comes together and anoints with the same clays, morning and night, in order to send disease fleeing back into the earth from where it came.
There are also smaller and more intimate ceremonies held by a family and neighbours if an individual is struggling to recover from an illness. These collective ceremonies show how aware the Mursi and Surma are of illness and diseases which are community issues...
with a clear understanding of contagion through proximity and contact. Here, clays are used like vaccinations or antibiotics or soaps, to strengthen and cleanse a community.

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