The Mursi Tribe, of which there are less than 10,000, is well known for the large plate the women wear in their lower lips. These plates are however not permanent and can be put on or taken off whenever the woman wants to eat, drink or talk.
The Mursi are a Surmic ethnic group in Ethiopia. They principally reside in the Debub Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region, close to the border with South Sudan.
The custom of wearing a lip plate is linked to the female’s fertility and eligibility for marriage. When a Mursi girl reaches puberty (around age 15 to 16) she will have her lip cut by a female member of the tribe and a small wooden stick is inserted. The lip is then slowly stretched over a period of time, first by inserting larger sticks each night and eventually by wearing plates of various sizes and decorations.
It is said that a woman who does not wear a lip plate is considered lazy and will not warrant as large a bride wealth (a dowry which usually consists of a certain number of cattle). With some lip plates reaching up to 12 centimeters in diameter, it is certainly a mark of perseverance and bravery on the behalf of the woman who wears it.
The lip plates, which may be made from wood or clay, are generally worn by single or newly married women on four main occasions: when serving food to men, at special events (like weddings), at donga dueling competitions, and dances. After several years of marriage, the woman may slowly stop wearing her lip plate, removing it altogether if her husband passes away.