I once accepted the invitation from a Surma chieftain to visit him and his tribe in place called Kibish, in the far south of Ethiopia at the border with Kenya. I arrived there after a three-day journey in a Defender (Ethiopia is much larger than the small fleck it appears to be on a map of the African continent). Arbula and I had first met on the terrace of my hotel. The chieftain, muscular and over two meters tall, immediately caught my eye – he was wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt. Here, on his home turf he greeted me naked. Everybody was naked. It was just after the monsoon season, the green hills around were still steaming and in marsh near the slope, a group of naked boys played football.
The Surma rear cows. Enormous herds are driven over the grazing plains by the community. For their traditional breakfast, cows are bled from the carotid artery and the blood mixed with their fresh milk in a gourd. The women perform the housework, work the corn and vegetables, raise children and prepare fresh beer daily, which is left out to cook in the sun until the late afternoon. Then, the men and women withdraw into a dark hut to drink the extremely wild tasting, extremely alcoholic brew. As the intoxication works its way, everyone present speaks and shouts out into the dark, until all personal and communal conflicts seem to find their resolution. Then it’s nightfall. There’s no electric lighting in Kibish and each goes to bed with their own gender. The women sleep with their children in circular huts made of cow dung and clay with straw roofs. In the center a pole rises up – the whole house is meant to resemble a breast. The men sleep outside beneath the trees.
Arbula tells me (the sound of the Surma language rings soft and light like birdsong) that his main wife orders one of his sons to bring him bread, with a branch sticking perpendicularly out of it, on her fertile days. Then, he is permitted to spend a few days with her in the house to beget children. When he dies, says Arbula, he will be buried sitting up. This is what the Surma, who have neither watches nor calendars, have always known: tradition.