Suri - Orientation

Identification. "Suri" is the self-name of a little-known group of agro-pastoralists/cultivators straddling the borderland of southwestern Ethiopia and Sudan. They show some historical and cultural affinities with the Nilotic peoples in neighboring Sudan; they are also related to the Ethiopian Mursi and especially the Me'en, other "tribal" groups in this area. The Suri are composed of three subgroups; the Chai and Tirma (very closely related) and the Bale.

Location. The Suri live in a remote, inaccessible part of Maji and Bero-Shasha provinces in the Kefa region of Ethiopia. Some Bale live in Ethiopia but most are in Sudan, on the eastern side of the Borna plateau. Whereas the Bale group lives at a higher elevation (mostly above 1,500 meters), the Tirma and Chai are typical lowland dwellers whose settlements are all below 1,000 meters, in a semiarid area along one perennial river, the Kibish. Their present habitat lies between 5°10′ and 6°00 N and 35°20′ and 34°10′ E. During the 1980s, the Suri moved about 50 kilometers to the north, owing to drought, famine, and war with their southern neighbors, the Nyangatom. They now live closer to the Dizi and other highlanders, who are found in the agricultural zone to their north and east. Average temperatures in the lowlands are about 33° C in the dry season (October to April) and about 25° C in the rainy season (April to late September), with only minor cooling off during the nights. The Dizi highland area is notably colder and has more rain. The lowland area is vulnerable to droughts and occasional livestock epidemics. The last serious drought and famine period, in 1984-1985, claimed several thousands of Suri lives. Their area has no roads and no transport facilities. Even mule transport is absent, because highlanders fear that lowland flies (e.g., tsetse) will kill off their animals.

Linguistic Affiliation. Like the Me'en and the adjoining Murle, the Suri speak a "Surmic" (formerly called "Surma") language. It is classified (together with Mursi, which is very similar) as South-East Surmic. The virtually unknown Bale language, however, is probably South-West Surmic (like Murle, Didinga and Narim). These clusters both fall within the East Sudanic Group of the Nilo-Saharan Phylum. The Suri are mostly monolingual: Amharic or languages of the neighboring Dizi and Nyangatom are spoken only by a very small minority. Most of the Bale, however, also speak Murle.

Demography. Official census figures on the Ethiopian Suri (Tirma and Chai) for 1984 indicate a total of 8,194 people. Abbink estimated in 1992 that there were about 37,000 (8,000 Bale, 13,000 Tirma, 16,000 Chai).

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