Watha people

Watha - Waata - Sanye

Watha - Waata - Sanye

The Waata (Waat, Watha), or Sanye, are an Oromo-speaking people of Kenya and former hunter-gatherers. They share the name Sanye with the neighboring Dahalo.

The current language of the Waata may be a dialect of Orma or otherwise Southern Oromo. However, there is evidence that they may have shifted from a Southern Cushitic language, a group that includes Dahalo.

watha - Sanye people

The Sanye (Waata) of Kenya are numbering 16,500 (Peoplegroups.org, 2023). They are part of the Khoisan people cluster within the Sub-Saharan African affinity bloc. This people group is only found in Kenya. Their primary language is Waata. The primary religion practiced by the Sanye (Waata) is Sunni Islam.

These days the Watha are a mysterious people, able to blend almost seamlessly with surrounding communities, yet still mostly marrying amongst themselves and retaining their own identity. When they do marry outsiders, these outsiders seem to 'convert' in a sense and take on the Watha traditions.

Not being recognised as an official tribe by the government during national census, they are counted amongst the numbers of neighbouring people often with whom they do not share even close ethnic ties such as with the Giriama who are of bantu extraction where the Watha are a Cushitic people. Nearly all the terms that the neighbouring tribes have come to use for the Watha have a pejorative if not outright derogatory meaning and it is by these names that most people know them: N'Dorobo (a Maasai term for any and all hunter-gatherer communities), WaSanye (used by coastal Swahilis and is believed to be derived from an old Arabic term for packing up one's effects, hinting at their nomadic lifestyle), WaLiangulu (a WaKamba term which means Tortoise Eaters. The Watha have a folktale explaining the origin of this epithet) and Boni (Boni means "cattleless" a Somali term for the lowest of castes).


About Watha

Very little by way of literature exists about the Watha. Chief sources I have found dedicated to them are: 'What I Tell You Three Times is True' (Ian Parker), an unpublished essay by the same author, 'The Elephant People' a.k.a People of the Bow (Dennis Holman) and an article entitled 'The Elephant People' in a February 1977 volume of Ecologist magazine. They feature heavily in 'The Shadow of Kilimanjaro' (Rick Ridgeway) and 'The End of The Game' (Peter Beard). Other than this, one may find references to them hither and thither in other books more as a side note to a broader narrative. These asides rarely give much detail about their culture other than to say they hunted and ate elephants and these days often poach them to sell ivory and are very, very good at it. In truth, even Dennis Holman’s 'The Elephant People/People of the bow' is less a description of the tribe and their culture as it is a biography of Bill Woodley (one of the early assistant Wardens of Tsavo East National Park) with the Watha providing the role of worthy and honourable antagonists in Bill’s tales of derring-do.


Watha Origin Story

In the Watha oral history, they came down into the country we now call Kenya from the north in present day Ethiopia and, in some versions, crossed the Red Sea from present day Yemen. Somewhere deep in the mists of time they were a pastoralist people, a band of a larger group that went on to become the Orma, and Borana tribes with whom their language is a mutually intelligible dialect today. During this period there was a drought, which led to competition and war between these bands of common origin over water sources for their cattle. The Watha being few in number gave up the fight and their cattle and rekindled their not quite forgotten hunting and gathering skills to avoid annihilation at the hands of their enemies. 'Watha' is a contraction of a longer expression, which means 'to go with the will of god'. The sentiment being to live by one’s wits according to the whims of nature as opposed to the more controlled man-made order of raising one’s own livestock. They claim this benefited them as they became immune to the problems posed by pestilence and drought, which would periodically afflict their livestock-dependent neighbours.

The Watha retained ties throughout their history with the other Cushitic groups, especially the Orma. In their rendition of the migration south of the Cushitic peoples, it was the Watha who led the way learning the lay of the land via their hunting forays and informing their pastoralist cousins of water points and pasture when trading. They corroborate this narrative with evidence of places with names originating in their language from north to south. Malka Mari is a northern example. Sitting on the Kenya–Ethiopia border, “malka” refers to a watering point used by wildlife.

Traditionally an ideal place to ambush game. Tsavo is littered with place names in the Watha dialect - Aruba, Satao, Galdesa to name a few. Aruba comes from arrbe (elephant) the other two mean giraffe and baboon respectively. 'Galan' means river. Through Tsavo, the Athi river changes name to the Galana river. Going east toward the coast they claim Watamu and Dabaso as having Watha origins. If one were to say 'Watta moo' to a contemporary Watha, they would easily recognise it to mean 'he is not a Watha'. The folktale around the naming of the village is that, when the Arabs first arrived there, they would hear the local Watha say this phrase to each other, often during attempts at communication with them and eventually the Arabs referred to the area they had first contact with the Watha as 'Watamu'. Dabaso (an area close to Watamu) is a term for a species of long grass. Today there is a small Watha community living around Dabaso locally known as WaSanye.