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African Tribes With Lip Plates

Lip plates are a form of body modification that involves piercing and stretching the lower or upper lip to insert a circular disc made of clay, wood, or metal.

The disc stretches the lip over time, creating a distinctive appearance valued by some cultures.

Lip plates have been invented independently in different parts of the world, including Africa, South America, and Mesoamerica.

In this post, I focus on the African tribes that practice lip plating, exploring their history, the cultural significance of this practice, and whether it continues to be observed in modern times.

1. The Mursi and Surma (Suri) women of Ethiopia

The Mursi and Surma (Suri) are two closely related ethnic groups that live in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

They are known for their elaborate body decorations, including scarification, ear plugs, necklaces, and lip plates.

Their practice of lip plating started as a sign of beauty and maturity as well as a way of distinguishing themselves from other tribes in the region.

Lip plating among the Mursi and Surma begins when a girl reaches puberty, usually between 15 and 18 years.

She is pierced on the lower lip with a thorn and a small wooden stick is inserted.

The stick is replaced with progressively larger ones over several months or years until it is stretched enough to accommodate a disc.

 The final size of the disc can range from 8 cm to over 20 cm in diameter.

The lip plate is worn on special occasions, such as serving food to men, attending ceremonies, dances, and duels.

 It is also seen as a mark of social status and wealth, as the size of the disc determines the bride price that the woman’s family receives from her husband’s family.

The larger the disc, the more cattle the woman is worth.

2. The Sara women of Chad

Sara is an ethnic group that lives in southern Chad, parts of Cameroon, and Central African Republic.

They are known for their elaborate scarification patterns on their faces and bodies.

Formerly, Sara women pierced their upper lips when they were young girls, around 10 to 12 years old.

They would insert a small piece of wood or metal into the hole, which would be replaced by larger ones over time.

The Sara women wore their lip plates as a sign of beauty and social status and as a way of expressing their ethnic identity and resisting assimilation by other groups.

 However, the culture of lip plate wearing among the Sara women declined in the 1920s, due to several factors, including French colonial influence, the spread of Islam, and Migration to urban areas among other factors.

3. The Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique

The Makonde inhabit south-eastern Tanzania and northern Mozambique.

They are known for their intricate wood carving art and formerly wearing lip plates on both their upper and lower lips.

The Makonde wore lip plates as a form of body modification and personal decoration. 

They inserted an ebony plate in the upper lip, as a distinctive sign of social status. 

They also sometimes incorporated lip plates into their human face masks, which represented spirits or ancestors (known as midimu).

 The lip plates were only worn by married women among the Makonde.

4. The Lobi of Burkina Faso

The Lobi lives in southwestern Burkina Faso and parts of Ghana and Ivory Coast.

They are known for their animist beliefs, ancestral shrines, and sculptures.

Lobi women used to wear lip plates on their lower lips as a sign of beauty and fertility.

Lip plate wearing was initiated by the elders when a girl reached puberty, usually around 15 years old.

Her lower lip was pierced with a thorn or a metal needle and a small wooden plug was inserted.

The plug was replaced with larger ones over time until the lip could fit a clay or metal disc.

The lip plate was worn on special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, and ceremonies.

5. The Nuba of Sudan

Nubans live in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan.

The Nuba women used to wear lip plates on their lower lips as a sign of beauty and maturity.

The lip plate was worn on special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, and ceremonies.

The lip plates were seen as a way of expressing one’s personality and artistic skill, as the discs were decorated with various designs and colors.

The lip plate also indicated social or economic status, a mark of identity and belonging to a tribe, and to deter slave traders or invaders from stealing their women.  

Only a few elderly Nuba women still wear lip plates today.

Are There Any Health Concerns Or Risks Associated With Wearing Lip Plates?

Yes, the practice comes with a host of health concerns and risks.

To begin with, despite adhering to this tradition out of cultural obligation, women who wear lip plates often appear uncomfortable due to the physical toll it takes on their bodies.

The process of wearing lip plates involves piercing and stretching the lip tissue, which can lead to various health issues, including pain, bleeding, infections, and scarring during the piercing and cutting procedure.

Additionally, wearing lip plates can cause damage to the teeth and gums, resulting in tooth decay, gum disease, and tooth loss over time.

The effects of lip plates extend beyond the physical aspects. The wearers’ speech, eating, and drinking abilities can be affected, making these simple daily activities more challenging.

Women also endure considerable pain during the initial stages of getting the lip plates fixed and may carry this burden for an extended period.

The inadequate sanitary conditions during the process of fixing the lip plates can also pose an additional risk of infections.

Finally, the need to constantly remove the lip plates for eating, drinking, and sleeping further add to the difficulties faced by these women.

Are Lip Plates Still A Common Practice Among African Tribes Today?

Yes, lip plates are still practiced among some African tribes (for instance among the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia), but their prevalence has significantly decreased over time.

This is due to influences from globalization, changing societal norms, and increased interactions with the outside world.

The good news is, in most communities where the tradition is still practiced today, an individual has the freedom to decide whether they want to wear the plate or not.

The only problem is that girls who refuse to wear lip plates in those communities may be negatively judged and considered to have disrespected their community’s traditions.

In some communities, refusal to wear a lip plate may even attract certain consequences like low pride price payments.

Perhaps this explains why there are cases of women who get happily married without the lip plates in these communities but later change their minds and go ahead with practice after having one to two children.

Wrap Up

Lip plates are a fascinating form of body modification that has been practiced by various African tribes for centuries.

 They have different meanings and purposes for different people, ranging from beauty and status to identity and tradition.

 However, they have also faced many challenges and threats from external forces, such as colonialism, religion, modernization, and war.

Consequently, many tribes have stopped wearing lip plates or have reduced their size and frequency.

Nevertheless, some tribes still maintain this practice as a way of preserving their culture and heritage.

Kenyalogue Contributor


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