Suri - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Suri are predominantly cattle-pastoralists, certainly in outlook: they see themselves as free and independent herders. Cattle—and, in addition, goats and sheep—are 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.

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