Suri - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The supreme deity, Tumu, is a vaguely defined source of power in, and of, the sky. There is no "cult" for Tumu, who is seldom addressed in prayer and ritual incantations. The ritual mediator is seen as having contact with the powers (presumably Tumu) that bring rain and growth of crops, livestock, and people, and he traditionally has the task of performing all rituals for the protection of crops, for bringing rain, and to avert epidemics and locusts. Certain ancestors of the clan line are seen as having powers influencing people's wealth and health. There are, however, no sacrifices or offerings made to them. Among Suri divination techniques are the interpretation of bird song and flight, the throwing of small wooden sticks, sandal throwing, and the reading of (cattle) entrails. Some older men and women also prepare amulets, made from secret roots and used for a variety of purposes ("love medicine," protection when traveling, and so on). Suri have no interest whatsoever in orthodox Christianity or Islam, if they have even heard of these beliefs.

Arts. Suri material culture is simple and unspectacular. The one expressive art in which they excel is body painting, for both males and females. They create intricate multicolored patterns, covering the entire body. These decorations have no symbolic or ritual value but are simply done for aesthetic reasons and on certain occasions. The Suri are a people who take great pride in beautiful physique (especially that of adolescents). No other "art" forms are well developed. Decorative talents also also come into play in beadwork, geometric designs on women's leather frocks, earrings, bracelets of carved copper, and clay ear and lip plates. Men make decorative iron and leather neck- or headbands for their favorite cattle.

Medicine. The Suri have their own elaborate traditional herbal medicine. Dozens of plants yield treatment for afflictions ranging from headaches to skin infections. Some treatments (e.g., the remedy for cut wounds) are known to all; experts are consulted for other maladies, (e.g., snakebite poisoning). They also have their own native "surgeons," who operate on people wounded in raids or during stick duels. For serious intestinal and stomach infections and for malaria, no effective treatments are known. No modern medical facilities exist in the Suri area. Occasionally the Suri visit the primary health care center in Maji, the main market town.

Death and Afterlife. A dead person is impure, taboo to touch for all Suri except members of the specified clan that sees to the actual funeral, after which they have to be washed with sheep's blood. Men who fall on the battlefield are not interred but are left there and covered with branches. Every deceased person is mourned in his or her homestead for five days. Cattle are sacrificed; the entrails are read, and the meat is distributed among the visitors. With the blood and certain other parts of the killed cow or ox, the compound is ritually purified. For the Suri, life is absolutely finished with physical death—there is no concept of an afterlife on earth or in heaven.

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