In the secluded Omo Valley in the southwestern part of Ethiopia lives an indigenous tribe known as the Mursi. They are one of the last tribes that still wear traditional clothing and accessories such as the colourfully painted clay plates worn in the lower lip by women. The lip-plate is known as dhebi a tugoin and has become the chief visible distinguishing characteristic of the Mursi.
At the age of fifteen or sixteen, a girl’s lower lip is cut by her mother or another woman in the village and held open by a sodden plug until it heals. It usually starts with a one-centimetre diameter, and the painful process often takes over several months.
It is up to the individual girl to decide how far to stretch the lip by progressively inserting larger plugs for several months. Some girls persevere until their lips can take plates of 12 centimetres or more in diameter.
The Mursi are an egalitarian community, and the young girls' are not forced to pierce their lips but are free to choose to do it or not. However, like all teenagers, they feel some degree of peer pressure, but many girls marry happily without doing it. Sometimes, some change their minds and decide to go ahead with the process after marriage and having one or two children.
The lip plates are generally worn by single and newly married women on four main occasions; when they participate in ritual events, when they attend duels, when they dance and when serving food to their men. If a woman with a lip incision fails to wear the plate on these occasions, she is defined as lazy (karkarre) and can be whipped by relatives sometimes.
When the husband dies, the widow throws away her lip plate as a sign of mourning. If the woman is still young and subsequently remarries one of her deceased husband's brothers, she will return to wear the lip plate.
The origin of this custom and its meaning is not clear. However, there are several theories about it. Some believe that it was a way of keeping the women from slave traders by making them look unattractive and therefore, would not be captured for deportation.
Others believe that the lip plate is worn to protect the wearer from evil spirits. Lastly, others believe the size of the plate is directly proportional to the brideprice, though this theory has no evidence in reality since the brideprice is established when a girl is very young and does not yet wear the lip plate.
The dhebi a tugoin is a symbol of femininity and is linked to the concept of fertility. A Mursi woman who wears the lip plate can walk with her head held high. It is also a symbol of identity and pride in the culture.
LaTosky, Shauna (2006). Strecker, Ivo; Lydall, Jean (eds.). "Reflections on the lip-plates of Mursi women as a source of stigma and self-esteem" (PDF).
Perils of Face: Essays on Cultural Contact, Respect and Self-esteem in Southern Ethiopia. Berlin: Lit Verlag: 382‒397.
Beckwith, Carol; Carter, Angela (1990). African Ark: People and Ancient Cultures of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Collins Harvill. p. 251.