Suri - 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 tradition—reconstructed partly through comparison of genealogies and stories about the movement of clan groups—refers 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 they—as their linguistic profile suggests—might 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 structure—neither 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 Suri—the first were probably the British consuls in Maji, among them A. Hodson. Italians entered Suri territory in 1932; they established three posts—two 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.


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