The Borana Oromo people, also called the Boran, are a subethnic section of the Oromo people who live in southern Ethiopia (Oromia) and northern Kenya. They speak a dialect of the Oromo language that is distinct enough that it is difficult for other Oromo speakers to understand. The Borana people are notable for practicing Gadaa system without interruption. They are predominantly Waaqeffataa
Demography and language
Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, the Oromo people had differentiated into two major confederation of pastoral tribes: the Borana and the Barentu, and several minor ones. The Barentu people thereafter expanded to the eastern regions now called Hararghe, Arsi, Wello and northeastern Shawa. The Borana people, empowered by their Gadda political and military organization expanded in the other directions, regions now called western Shawa, Welega, Illubabor, Kaffa, Gamu Goffa, Sidamo and thereafter into what is now northern Kenya regions. The Borana further subdivided into various subgroups such as Macha, Tulama, Sadacha and others.
The Borana speak Borana (or afaan Booranaa), a dialect of Oromo language, which is part of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. In the border regions of Ethiopia-Kenya and southwestern Somalia, one estimate places about 1,094,000 people as Boranas. Another estimate in 2019 suggests 874,000 Boranas in Ethiopia, 210,000 in Kenya and 10,000 in Somalia. The Borana are the southernmost Horners of the Horn peninsula.
The Borana are one of the major semi-nomadic pastoralist Oromo Cushitic-speaking people living in Eastern and North Eastern Africa. Cushitic speakers have occupied parts of north-eastern and eastern Africa for as long as recorded history. There are almost 4 million Borana people, most living in Ethiopia.
Borana people are found mainly in Ethiopia (99%), but are spread from as far as:
Even as far south as Lamu Island.
The Borana characterize one of largest of the Cushitic groups occupying the Horn of Africa. Their physical features, culture, language and other confirm clearly the fact that they are native to this part of Africa. The Borana tribe is a section of a major group known as Galla. There are four sub-groups – the Gabbra, the Sakuyye, the Boran-gutu and the Waat.
The word spelled Borana is pronounced with the final vowel silent. It refers to the people or their language and also means "friend" or "kind person". Thus, a bad person may be told he is not Borana.
Three hundred and twenty kilometers north of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, the road of Addis Ababa takes a traveller to a dry region of the country. The landscape here is quiet different from the cooler and wetter Kenya highlands. These two geographical regions are separated by Isiolo, a town which serves as a gateway to the large expanse of land previously called the N.F.D. (Northern Frontier District). This area, which includes the present day of Northern Eastern Province and a large part of Eastern Province of Kenya (Marsabit, Isiolo, Wajir, Garissa and Mandera Districts), covers 240,000 square kilometers which is forty percent of Kenya.
The land gradually rises northwards towards the Ethiopian Highlands, and is largely made of very ancient sedimentary and volcanic rocks. The country is mainly flat, though in Marsabit District are found cones and craters which form mountains such as Marsabit (1705 m), Kulal (2831 m), and the Hurri Hills (1456 m). During the Old Stone Age (about one million years ago) the Marsabit volcanic flow overran a lake. As a result the lake dried up and its bed formed the present-day Chalbi Desert. Lying close to this is the Dido Galgallu Desert whose barren and rocky surface is difficult to travel across.
The N.F.D. as a whole has both a semi-desert and a desert climate. Most areas have an average of only 200 or 300 mm of rain a year or even less. There are two rainfall seasons (March to May and October to December) and an average monthly rainfall of 50 mm or more occurs only in April or May. The rest of the rain in November and December comes down in heavy storms.
The average temperature is between 22 and 27C, but the temperature range is very wide. The skies are almost always clear, and this fact, together with the intense heat, means that all surface water evaporates at a great rate. So surface water is very scarce and the only reliable sources of water are the Webi Daua River on the Kenya-Ethiopia border and the north Uaso Nyiro River which originates in the Nyandarua mountains and drains into the Lorian Swamp, 530 kilometers away from its source.
Except for the forest round Marsabit and those near rivers, the land is composed of thorn bush, thickets and true desert scrub and grass.
Most of the bush is deciduous, and some is evergreen. The thin grass cover is so sensitive to water that soon after rain the sun-burnt bare land is covered by a luxurious sea of greenery. Among other animals, we find here the reticulated giraffe, common and Grey’s zebra, ostrich, gerenuk, oryx, black rhino, elephant, buffalo, dikdik, lion, leopard, hyena and cheetah. Also occupying a fairly large part of the N.F.D. are the pastoral Borana people who are believed to have herded their livestock down from the Horn of Africa into their present homeland a long time ago.
Borana are speakers of Afaan Oromo. Afaan oromo is Eastern Cushitic language, a classification that belongs to the family of Afro-Cushitic. Borana refers to their language as afan Borana, a dominant language spoken within the Borana region in Ethiopia and Kenya. The parallel "modern" phenomena of rapid population growth and decreasing availability of productive grazing land threaten the Borana people. Contacts with other nomadic peoples lead to clashes, sometimes bloody, for land. Also they have been increasingly dependent upon relief agencies for help, which is culturally repugnant to these proud people.
Because there are several peoples who now speak the Borana language, the Borana proper may be further distinguished as the Gutu Borana. Their language has been adopted by the Gabbra and Sakuye, who originally came from the same roots as the Somali and Rendille peoples. About 8,000 of the Ajuuraan also speak Borana.
The origin of the Borana people is straightforward but as a result of political nature of ascension to the Ethiopian Central government, some other Ethiopians rely on erroneous history to deny Borana (and their parent tribe Oromos) as aliens in Ethiopia. Relying on European they claim "“These Gallas are one of the Abyssinian problems. They burst into the country in the sixteenth century. Where they came from is uncertain, but they made good their position, and contributed in no small degree to the ruin of the Abyssinian Empire, especially after the queen mother, about the middle of the 18th century, for purposes of her own, brought about a marriage between the king, her son, and a Galla, and thereby introduced Galla intrigues into the political complications of the kingdom. The name "Galla" is said to signify, in their tongue, "invader," but the Mohammedans have a curious legend that it was given them by Mohammed, when a messenger sent by him to their chief to require them to profess the Mohammedan faith, returned, saying, "He says, no" (ga la). "Then," answered the prophet,” let that name be henceforth the name of the whole race who have refused to believe the revelations of the Angel Gabriel."
There can be no greater mistake than to confound, as has been done, the Gallas with the Moors. They are a completely different race”(Views in Central Abyssinia, Sophie F. F. Veitch, 1868).
The Gallas, with the usual pride of wild and independent nations, call themselves exclusively Orma, i. e. " men," " the people "; and an individual among them is Ilm 'orma, " a son (or one) of the people," corresponding literally with the Arabic ibn-el-nas—" gentilis," " well-born," "free"—as opposed to the abd or slave.
In the same way, therefore, as the free Galla styles himself Ilm 'orma, he calls his language Afan Orma, "the people's tongue"—lit. " mouth." (Philological Society (Great Britain)., Philological Society (Great Britain), Louis Loewe – 1846)
About the word “Orma”..
The Orma is a tribe found in Eastern Kenya, mostly along the lower Tana River. They are also called Galla, a term used in Ethiopia (but now considered pejorative) to refer to Oromo people.
The Orma are semi-nomadic shepherds. They live in the southeastern deserts of Kenya except during the rainy season when they move their herds inland. The tribe has a population of about 70.000 people (2005). It has is own language, also called Orma (Encyclopedia).
“...They (Gallas) came out from Guinea and have subjugated and invaded the following provinces of Abyssinia; Gedma, Angota, Dawra, Fatagar, Wied, Ifar, Gurage, Ganz, Cont, Damota, Walcka, Bizama, Shewa and Bali”(Ancient and Modern History and Geography, Jean B. D’Audiffret, 1694).
The above quotations from sources denying Oromo people and for that matter Boranas as not indigenous Ethiopian tribe is a palpable falsehood. It is believed that Oromos inhabited a territory surrounding mada walabu, a region located in southern Oromia region of Ethiopia, before expansion in all direction.
Existing information indicates that the Borana lived as a community of people for thousands of years in East Africa (Prouty at al, 1981).
Bates (1979) asserts, “The Gallas (Borana) were a very ancient race, the indigenous stock, possibly, on which most other peoples in this part of eastern Africa have been grafted”. It is possible that they have existed for a longer period of time side by side with their northern Semitic-speaking neighbors.
Harold G. Marcus hints northwest Borena as the original homeland of the Borana. Settled Borana began to integrate with their Amharic-speaking neighbors at least from the 17th century on.
Borana trace their origin to Tulu Nama Durii, currently known as Mada Walaabu. The Liban territory, together with another Borana region, Dire that is located to the west of Dawa River, are still some of the traditional territories of the Borana. The population growth caused congestion in small areas and imposed strong pressure on resources. It was then decided that each clan should look for new land out of Madda Eela Walabo territorial area. The Borana, which is the eldest clan, was instructed to move towards the south. The Gujii took the portion of the West. Arsi, Karrayyu and Qottu pushed towards the east. The Maccha and Tulaama Oromos headed towards the west. The expedition was made with retreat. In the process some of the Oromos were engulfed by other ethnic groups and lost their language and culture. Thus, they are not known today.
The expansion of the Oromo nation was one of the great events in the annals of African history comparable in its magnitude to the expansion of the Zulu nation of southern Africa and the Fulani nation of West Africa. These are three of the most expansive population movements by well-organized pastoral societies that have been recorded by historians of Africa.
According to Waaqqoo Aboo, and as other Oromos also believe, the Oromo, speaking the Cushitic language, is said to have originated from a place called Madda Eela Walaabo (spring of Walaabo) in Bale Zone, 35 km East of Bidre town which is about 95 kms away from Negelle Borana town. At Madda Walaabo the Oromo, prior to their dispersion, had been ruled by 25 successive abba gadas. That was about 200 years as one-abba gada rules for eight years. The Borana migration to the present region was led by an abba gada called Abbay Baabo Oroo. The Borana have bee ruled by 43 abba gada since then, which may be 540 years ago (1449), and this is also confirmed by Borbor Bule (Golloo Huqqa, 1996).
The Liiban Borana often refers to themselves as Sarkamtu. They believe that they are defenders of Borana identity symbolized by the guutu, a braided tuft of hair on the top of the head. This wore by men from warrior-hood until the final culmination of buufata at Gadamoji, entry into retired elder-hood.
A man without cattle is called Qolle guutu hiikhan, “a destitute whose gutu is unbraided “. Such a person cannot perform his social obligations, marry or participate in rituals. In effect he loses his identity as a Borana. A person cannot be Borana by birth alone, since becoming stockless can deny that identity. Borantiti has a moral dimension of peaceful well being, unselfishness and respect for a common law. Violator of these moral standards are like foreigners, nyaap’a or perpetual enemies, Sidi.
The oral traditions of Borana demonstrate that their ancestors (at least the majority) were resident in Dirre and Liiban before arrival of Boran Guutu in the sixteenth century. Boran guutu, a small but politically and ritually more powerful group, incorporated the clans of Heero Abba Biiya and only then did the identity of Borana proper as known today, emerge.
Through trade and intermarriage the Garre gradually got a foothold in Borana territory and established small settlements. To gain access to key resources they influenced Borana leaders with gifts, fiina.
During the 16th century, following the wars between the kingdom of Ethiopia and the neighboring Sultanate of Adal, which resulted in the exhaustion of both states, Boranas moved north into their territories.
The Ethiopian monk Bahrey, writing in 1593, credited the Borana achievement to the existence of too many non-fighting classes in the ruling Ethiopian hierarchy, as opposed to the Boranas, whom he illustrated as having a homogeneous warrior class.
He also affirmed their spread (as result of their inhospitable homeland) into northwestern areas such as:
Several Borana chieftains gained power in government of the monarchy. Particularly Emperor Iyoas I (1730-55), who was half Borana, favored his mother’s Borana kinsmen and allies, and in his era, the Borana language was the language of the court in Gondar.
By the late 18th century, the influence of the central government of Ethiopia had declined, and local governors and kings enjoyed greater autonomy.
During the era of Zemene Mesafint (which lasted until 1855), the Borana dynasty of chiefs of Yejju were the most important uninterrupted line of warlords to dominate the figurehead emperors of Ethiopia.
They turn out to be sub-kings of Begemder, Regents of the empire, as well as imperial father-in-laws. Ras Ali I of Yejju attained this dominance in 1779, and it continued, although contested by other warlords, until the 1855 defeat of Ras Ali II of Yejju by the upstart Kassa Hailu (who became Emperor Tewodros II).
Due to the powerlessness of the Emperor of Ethiopia during the Zemene Mesafint, the Yejju Borana were successfully the rulers of Ethiopia. Other tribes and chiefs of the Borana people were also famous, such as:
• Lady Menen of Wollo who became Empress in 1800s
• Ras Mohammad of Wollo who became Ras Mikael, later Negus of Siyon and father of Emperor Iyasu V
• Menen, of Ambassel, who became Empress Consort of Haile Selassie
The Borana migration to the southernmost lowland occurred around sixteenth-century. This migration was facilitated by the Gada system, with its militaristic and expansionistic features; Gada system was a Boran traditional institution that has structured social, political and economic life of the wider Borana. Since the 1600s, the Borana have been migrating, and currently distributed all over the world (North America, Europe, Canada, England, and Australia) forming part of a wider African Diaspora network.
The Borana are pastoralists, though a few also grow crops around Marsabit and Moyale, or in the southern Ethiopian highlands. There are also a few irrigation schemes in Isiolo District. The rest of the country has too harsh a climate for growing crowing crops and here the Borana are pastoralists. The Waat are hunters and gatherers and, because of their very small numbers, they have long attached themselves to other Boran clans, and in the process they have become completely dispersed.
In the higher regions around Moyale, and in the river basins in Isiolo District, cattle are kept by the Boran-gutu. Here the weather is less harsh, grass grows tall, and cattle can obtain water on average every three days. During the dry season, livestock make use of river flood vegetation along the river basin. But during the rainy season, the riverine forest becomes unhealthy for livestock. Swarms of mosquitoes, tsetse flies and other insects sting both man and his herds.
Also, by this time the areas along the river have been overgrazed, while places far from water the grass has grown again because of seasonal rain. If the rainfall is heavy enough, what was previously a dry river-bed or a small stream may suddenly become a large fast-flowing river. Some water may also collect in large pools or dams. The stock is moved into these areas, either along with the whole village, or only under the care of herd-boys. During extreme water shortages wells are dug, and some of these have to be very deep. A large concentration of people and livestock gather around the water holes and often the areas round the wells become overgrazed. The distance between food and water then becomes very great. But the dry season progresses, the wells may run dry. When this happens, the nomads and their herds are forced to migrate back to the river once more.
To the north of Marsabit there are no permanent rivers, and most of the land is covered by sand and gravel, such as the Chalbi Desert, or by bare lava stones as are found in Dido Galgallu Desert. This is the homeland of the Gabbra, who herd camels. Camels can easily go without water for as long as three weeks. They feed on thorns and leaves and in this poor environment they produce more milk than cattle do. Other hardy stocks kept by the Gabbra are goats and sheep, both of which thrive in arid areas where frequent watering is not possible.
Borana keep livestock for various uses. Donkeys are kept as beasts of burden by each section, though mainly by the Boran-gutu who do not keep camels. Cattle, sheep, goats and camels all provide milk (and milk products), meat, hides and skins. In addition, camels provide transport. The Borana also use them for exchange: a cow may be bartered for a donkey, fifteen sheep for a cow, and two cows for thirty sheep for a camel. A pair of elephant tusks used to fetch thirty cows when taken across the Ethiopian border.
People used to set on a long trading journey which took many months. Many people still tell tales of how these traders walked as far south as Nyeri in central Kenya and even reached Mombasa. Sometimes, if they could not sell their stock quickly, they had to stay in one place for a long time.
For this reason they called Nyeri ‘Teto’ (settlement). The journeys were long, tiresome and dangerous. Some of the tribes through whose country the traders had to pass were very hostile. Animals and their products were directly exchanged for tea, sugar and clothing. There was also the exchange of stock for food crops and handicrafts going on between the Borana and the neighboring Burji and Konso.
Apart from their use in trade transactions, cattle and camels occupy a very important ritual place in the lives of the Boran-gutu and the Gabbra. They are used to pay bride, religious sacrifices and to pay fines in the courts of law.
The wealth and, to a certain extent, the social status of a person is determined by the number of livestock he possesses. The average number of heads of cattle owned by a family used to be at least three hundred. One thousand was not unusual and anybody with less than twenty heads of cattle was a very poor man who required a loan in the form of cattle from his close clansmen. This kind of loan entitled the borrower to use the animal’s milk and its offspring while it was in his manyatta.
The Borana social structure includes two moieties (kinship groups) Sabbo and Gona (By Borana law sabbo man can only marry a girl from the gona group, and vice versa. Each of these two groups has its own ritual leader, the qaalu), five sub-moieties, 20 clans and some 60 lineages based primarily on patterns of male descent. Each with their own well, and one man known as the Aba Harega is assigned by the clan to manage this well.
Sabbo is divided into three sub-groups, while Gona is divided into two broader sub-groups. Further each Sub-group is broken down into a fixed number of clans, which are in turn divided into lineages. This is a very difficult system to describe fully, and is not really important to an understanding of the Borana way of life. It is enough to say that the term gona refers to one’s tribe, sub-group and clan. All children belong to the group, sub-group, clan and lineage of their father. Closely related clansmen turn to each other for help in their immediate needs, and they are expected to give assistance to each other.
The Gabbra and Sakuyye are not divided into the gona and sabbo groups. Instead they have only clans and sub-clans, which are their largest units. For instance, the Gabbra are divided into five sections, namely; Garr, Alganna, Sharbana, Odol and Galbo.
The Borana take their cows in search of water every couple of days, and rotas are drawn up by the Aba Harega, who informs each person of the set time that they can visit the well. Clans are widely distributed among madda and are the primary mechanism for wealth redistribution. There are about 35 madda with an average area of 500 km². Each madda, on average, may contain several well clusters serving some 100 encampments, 4000 people and 10 000 cattle. Some 100 clan meetings are held each year in which the poor petition the wealthy for cattle. Political structure is related to the social structure.
The Boran achieve consensus on important community issues through open, participatory assembly. Consensus and enforcement of social norms is achieved under the umbrella of the "Peace of the Boran", which refers to traditional values and laws. Two peer-group structures for males, the age-set system (Hariya) and generation system (Gada) are discussed with respect to distribution of social rights and responsibilities and/or regulation of human reproduction.
These two systems share many similar attributes, but ultimately are complementary in function. All males have a position in each. Hariya consists of 10 eight-year blocks of similarly aged individuals between the ages of 12 to 91 who share a collective identity that evolves with ascension into subsequent age sets.
The Gada system is integral to the Borana and governs all parts of their life; acting as a political, religious, judicial and social institution. Gada is for males only, but not every man goes through this system. Those in the system are called ilmaan korma (children of the bull). A man born into the gada system goes through eleven different stages, and he takes eight years to complete each stage. A man’s son must belong to the grade which is five “rungs” or forty years behind his father. So as soon as the son of a gada member is born, he is recruited into the appropriate grade. Thus, the son of a man born into a high grade may belong to a grade whose members are forty years or much older than he is. The table shows the grades arranged like a ladder. As a man goes up the ladder, he undertakes various responsibilities, and performs various rites.
Those children who at birth are placed in the first grade (daballe) keep a long hairstyle decorated with cowries’ shells. They look like girls, and are in fact addressed as intal (girl). They are sons of fathers in the raba grade (see table). The daballe are considered special and treated with great respect which other children of the same age cannot hope for. They cannot be punished, and even their mothers hold a special place among the womenfolk. Other women always accord them warm hospitality and approach them for blessings.
The Borana society is highly organised, divided into different age sets; the overall leader is the Aba Gada who rules, using advice from the elders and consent from the community. He is elected in a meeting known as the Gumi Gayo or Assembly of the Multitudes: a huge, open meeting that takes place every 8 years. Gada grades can contain males of vastly different ages. Among other attributes, the Gada grades confer political and ceremonial duties and subject members to different rules regarding sexual behaviour. It has been hypothesised that the Gada was created during the 1600s to help the society cope with a population explosion. The rules and regulations dictating the way a Borana should live are renewed and adapted at each meeting, so that the system advances with time. All disputes are resolved through the Gada and it is believed to be one of the most democratic systems in Africa.
Social cohesion is built up around the well; they are important meeting points and all clan members – young and old – help to maintain them. The wells are built from mud so they need constant repair and attention. If one person does not contribute to this labour, they must slaughter a cow for the others or they are not allowed to use the well.
The Gada system works like social welfare: all Borana in the same clan are expected to help each other in times of hardship. If one person, for example, loses his cattle to disease, other clan members will club together to provide him with more cows, so that he will be able to survive.“If there is a problem we investigate it with the help of the traditional judges: the elders. We all come to the shadow of the tree to discuss the problem. Anyone in the community can voice their opinions and problems are discussed until we resolve them,”
Computer models have suggested that Gada rules on reproduction served to reduce the population by 50% by the mid-1800s and the population may have slowly grown ever since. The human population in the study area may have been about 7 people/km² (or 108 000) in 1982 and may be growing at a rate of 2.5% per year. Hypotheses to explain this apparent surge in growth include (1) improved provision of food and medical inputs from outside agencies; (2) declining adherence of the population to traditional Gada norms; (3) external interference with the Gada system from national political interests; and/or (4) cyclic, functional aberrations in effects of Gada rules due to demographic shifts in the population.
It is a foundation of Borana life which attracts pilgrims from Ethiopia and Kenya. The assemblies of 1966 and 1988 are discussed in terms of key cultural and political proclamations. For 1988 the proclamations were indicative of a society under resource pressure. These included decrees to better maintain water points, restrict cultivation, establish calf fodder reserves, protect valuable indigenous trees, reclaim grazing reserves for cattle and prohibit water sales and alcohol abuse.
A Borana household consists of a male head, his wife and a number of children. Brothers, and in fact most of the close relatives, live near one another. So one gets brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, and often people whose only relationship is that of common ancestry, living together in the same village as an extended family. Where a man has more than one wife, the children from all the wives are equal brothers and sisters. A brother from the eldest wife will be responsible for the home after their father dies. All the other brothers and sisters, irrespective of their different mothers, are under his charge. The eldest wife occupies a senior position.
There are strong rules and taboos which help hold this large family together, and also maintain respect. Children must never address anybody older than themselves by their names. The family tree (Fig. 6) gives the names by which members of the family address one another. You will notice that the brother of your mother is called abuyya. Similarly, two people who would both be called ‘aunt’ in English (your mother’s sister and your father’s sister) are called by different names (arera and adada). Elderly people who are not related to you are addressed as abbera and haato. These terms are nearly equivalent to ‘father’ and ‘mother’ respectively. A younger non-relative is either a ‘brother’ an ‘uncle’, or an ‘aunt’. A maternal uncle is treaded with special respect because if he should curse you, you will meet with bad luck.
Sons are more attached to their father than anybody else, and from an early age they learn from them all that men are expected to do. They gain experience in hardship and learn to build cattle bomas, to excavate wells and to water animals. On the other hand, a girl grows up under the strict watch and guidance of her mother. She is taught how to sterilize gourds so that milk stays fresh; she makes beds and often welcomes and feeds guests. She also helps her mother in the fetching of water and collection of firewood. Such teaching is very important because a man looking for a wife always judges a girl by her mother. A good mother trains her daughters to be good future wives.
Every family belongs to a clan with which its members identify themselves, especially in times of trouble and need. The smallest unit of a clan is called milo, and this consists of close relatives.
There is no family name as in the western world. Instead, a man is named after his ancestors, each in turn. For example, Jilo Godana, Luke means, ‘Jilo son of Godana, grandson of Luke’. He may also bear a fourth name, that of his great-grandfather. Many families can trace back their ancestry through their names and may discover that they have a common ancestry with a different family or families. If a baby’s grandfather is still alive, he may be named after him, so that he bears the name twice – Luke Godana Luke. For instance, the first names given to children are usually chosen to match the time of day when they were born: Guyo is the name of a boy born in broad daylight, and the feminine equivalent is Guyyatu.
Others are named after a major event; a ceremony (Jil), a rainy season (Rob) or a dry season (Bon). Still others are named after week days (as is especially common among the Gabbra section) while a few get odd names such as Jaldes (ape), Funnan (nose), Gufu (trees-stump) and Luke (lanky long legs).
Each family belongs to a village which has its elder, the ‘father of the village’. The village is referred to as ‘the village of So-and-so’. A family may decide where it wants to live. Members of the village share a spirit of unity, especially in times of crisis. Often a whole village has to move in search of pasture. All important plans, such as where to move to, and where to dig a well for water are made by all the village men together.
A Borana hut is made from wood and skins. After a suitable spot has been chosen, beds are placed on the ground and holes dug all round them in a circle. Two or three long sticks are planted in these holes, and the tops of the sticks are bent to meet at the top. Ropes are wound round the sticks to link them all together. Other sticks bent into semicircles, are tied across to provide a strong support for the framework.
Thatch (called Gela) is woven from the middle of young doum palms. These are placed on the framework until the whole hut is covered. About twenty-five to forty pieces of such thatch are needed to construct one hut, the average size of each being about 1 to 1.5 meters. In addition to this, the Gabbra weave a thatch called dase from the fibres of the sharp-tipped chakke plant (scientific name: Sansivieria guineenis). This thatch may last many years, and it is carried along when a village moves. In order to prevent the hut from collapsing during gales and thunderstorms, supporting poles are placed in the centre and at the rear part of the hut.
The hut is divided down the middle into two sections. There is a bed on each side of the rear part, and his bedroom is separated from the living room by a wall of hides and skins. The room at the front contains a fireplace and is often used as a place to tether calves, lambs and kids, especially during thunderstorms. During a move the hut is dismantled and everything is loaded on camels and donkeys. When the family arrives at its destination, all the women immediately start the construction of the huts. No man will ever be seen helping women in putting up or taking down a hut. To do so is against dignity of men. But among women, the size and shape of their huts is of great concern, for it is a measure of tidiness and responsibility. Within a few hours they can put up or take down a whole village of about twenty huts.
It is also the duty of women to draw water, collect firewood, fumigate or sterilize containers for keeping milk fresh, milk the animals, feed the children to sleep. But the men too have their own role to play. They alone dig water holes, water animals, build or repair cattle bomas, and in times of trouble protect the family from dangerous wild beats and enemy tribes
The Borana traditional dress was made from goat and sheepskins. Three sheep were needed to make a complete garment for a woman. This dress was twisted round the body and held in place by a leather belt, and thong passed over the top of the shoulder held two corners of the garment together. Sandals were made from a single layer of hides.
Men wore very wide short which covered the loins and left all other parts bare. The pair of shorts trousers was held in place by a leather belt. Young men and boys either wore loin clothes (hidda) or a cloth wound round the body, and knotted at the back of the neck. Old men wore turbans on their heads, often with a long, wooden toothbrush sticking out.
In addition to garments, there are various ornaments worn by men and women. Ear-rings are worn by women for beauty. Men, too, may wear a flattened aluminum ring in one ear. Bracelets and arm bangles are worn by women. A twisted double copper wristlet was worn only for a special reason; either by one who had given birth to sons or by members of a clan referred to as ‘the people of black beads’ (or ‘of good luck’). Malda, which comprises three different wristlets and an elephant tusk armlet, is worn by a man to show that he has killed an enemy or a bull elephant. Sakuyye and Gabbra women wear a twisted aluminum and copper head ornament.
Special types of necklaces, worn by Gabbra women, are rectangular and are made from melted aluminum saucepans. They are called qalim. Various types of necklace and other ornaments are worn by both men and women either for special occasions or to mark a particular achievement.
A Borana is not allowed to eat certain kinds of food. He may not eat meat or drink milk from animals which do not have cloven hooves. That is to say animals belonging to the dog, cat, and horse families. He may also not eat fish, birds, reptiles or insects. Foods such as maize, millet and wheat are eaten by the Borana who lives in the higher and wetter areas, Marsabit and the southern Ethiopian highlands. For the majority of the members of the tribe, the staple diet is milk and meat. Because a man may own as many sheep, goats, cattle and camels as he can afford, there is sufficient milk from the many animals to feed his family, except during server droughts. They drink fresh or sour milk, and they use it to produce butter of ghee.
Meat is not a daily food, but forms a regular part of the diet. People are more apt to kill goat and sheep, but during a server drought a bullock or a cow may be killed for food. The meat is cut into strips and hung up until it dries. It is then fried and stored in animal fat. Sometimes the dried meat is pounded into fillets, fried and stored in fat. In both cases, the meat lasts for many months without going bad.
Blood may also be used for food. It is either drunk pure or mixed with milk. The blood comes from the jugular vein in the neck of a living cow or bull. The vein is made to stand out by tying a rope tightly round the cow’s neck. Then the vein is pierced with an arrow and the blood is caught in a gourd. Blood that has clotted is warmed and eaten. But no one bleeds the same cow day after day; one cow may give only a few pints of blood, and even then, maybe only once or twice a year.
Important aspects of Borana life; – the lifestyle of ilmaan jarsa are those members of the tribe who do not participate in the gada rites.
When a Child is born.
When a child is born, it must be given a sip of milk. This is done to show the importance of cow’s milk. If the child is a boy, a piece of cow-hide is hung above the entrance of the hut. Then the child’s father puts on a special dress; he wears a white turban and carries a whip and a long wooden stick.
He announces three times that a son is born. Neighbours come with gifts of milk, animal fat and perfumes, while the father distributes some tobacco and makes a sacrifice of coffee berries. During the following four days, dances are held by the women to celebrate the arrival of the new born son. For health reasons visitors may only greet the mother from outside, through the wall of the hut. The mother is not allowed out of the hut for the first week, and even then she can only sneak out during the early hours of the morning or late in the evening, bearing a ceremonial knife and a stick in her hands.
The mother and child have to remain indoors for forty days, after which the child is introduced to the outside world. He is taken out to the cattle boma. The mother takes the remains of the umbilical cord, which she has kept safe since it dropped off. She places it on a heifer which will become the first property of the child. In the Gabbra section the present is a camel. For girl children, there is neither a dancing celebration at birth, nor any present for the umbilical cord.
Before the child can be carried on a person’s back, it undergoes what is called bargasa. At the age of about four months he or she is made to sit astride the two feet of a person of the same sex who has been noted for his or her speed in running. This is done in order to make the child grow into a fast runner.
As soon as a boy is able to walk he joins other boys of the same age group and spends the day playing or hunting lizards, mice and butterflies. There is a prize of a heifer from the maternal uncle or father for the first mouse or butterflies killed. Girls do not hunt like this, but spend their time building miniature huts and making ‘babies’ from clay or wood. By the age of five or six, boys begin to help their parents look after lambs, kids and calves. During the day, herd-boys from different villages get together and play games or have wrestling matches. Then, as they grow bigger, they look after cattle and make cattle bomas.
At about the age of fifteen or a little earlier, both boys and girls undergo circumcision. On this day the candidates take a cold bath very early in the morning, and the boys gather at the entrance of the cattle boma. They are then blindfolded and operated upon by a skilled man. He detached foreskin is kissed by the mother as a blessing and placed on the back of a heifer in the cattle boma. The boy will give this heifer to his mother. The boys spend the days in the shade, away from the village, hunting birds and lizards with bows and arrows. The wound is treated with a special resin to stop the bleeding. Circumcised girls are kept still by having their legs bandaged together, and they stay at home until they recover.
In his late teens a boy starts to mix with his age-mates. He joins with them in hunting wild animals, mainly elephant, lions, rhino and buffalo. If he kills one of these animals he gains a special status among his age-mates. A man who has accomplished many acts of bravery and wisdom has more chance of being chosen as leader of the age group. A leader has the admiration and respect of everyone.
At this stage young men provide most of the labor. They walk after livestock over a very large grazing area, often staying many years away from the central home. They dig wells in dried-up streams and water animals from them. The hunting of wild animals leads to greater acts of courage. The young men now organize raiding parties against enemy tribes. They do this in order to acquire enemy livestock, but if a man kills an enemy, he becomes a hero. He can wear an elephant tusk armlet and boast of his achievement.
In the Borana culture a man is the dominator in almost every system. Until 70’s it was forbidden by custom (during raba grade) to raise daughters for period of five years. Because of this, all Borana nomads were forced to give away their born daughters as adoption for Waata tribes. Nowadays, that dangerous culture has changed, but there still remain other reasons as to why a man is still the dominator. As per the title above, I am interested in their marriage traditions so let me write little about it.
In Borana culture there is almost no marriage, which is based on love, because it is forbidden for a couple to get married without the approval of their families. Culture is the main criteria by which parents approve marriages. Other criteria’s includes, the man has to be a Borana with an economic capability, which can enable him to feed his family. Secondly, the boy and girl have to be of different moieties SABBO AND GOONAA except Qallu karayyu,who can marry with Mattari-metta of Sabbo moeity and the last marriage is forbidden between girls and men whose fathers are members of the same generation.
As soon as a boy reaches the age of marriage (which in most cases when they enter raba grade) it is in most cases his father who will search for the girl (would be wife) and duly informs the son who he would have “got” or “ found” for him.
Borana is a tribe in southern Ethiopia, which shares its living with the Gabra and the Watt tribes. These are few in their numbers. As I mentioned above, it is forbidden to get marry with these tribes largely because of the cultural differences created by the tribal differences. The underlying reasons for this are: firstly, a Borana family would not like their daughter to adopt a new type of culture which she has never been exposed to as this can arise into problems. Secondly, and above all the Borana are very conservative in preserving their culture (we call it aadda borana) and laws (seerra), which probibit them from marrying any person outside of Borana itself.
One may ask as to why their marriages are not based on love but instead on the choice made by their parents? Let me put it like this, as I mentioned earlier, aadda borana (the culture) comes first, which means that in Borana it is only the boys who can heritage the family wealth. Because of this a girl cannot choose the one she loves as in so doing she may choose a poor boy, to remember that any Borana without cattle is not considered as Borana anymore or she might make a terrible mistake of choosing a boy from the same moiety. Another argument can be that given the fact that the wealth is on the hands of the boys, if they were allowed to choose whom to marry on the basis of love then the less attractive girls would be pushed aside and this could create economic hardships for the concerned families (let me mention that this culture has made it possible for an equitable distribution of wealth among families). Actually, because of their strong culture and social bondage, they have been able to survive and keep their culture alive. In order to reduce this complex, for all borana it is allowed to have garayyu (mistresses) from any clan. Relationships between husband and wife is more distant and respectful, while between mistresses (garayyu) is more lovely.
Let me now turn to the marriage procedures. The main steps to be followed before a marriage takes place are as follows:
Cloth gifts for the girl’s parents and the nearest relatives because in the Borana tradition one of the relatives for example an uncle or a cousin can refuse the proposal. Therefore in order to get married with a girl, one has to persuade the relatives too. At this stage, the clothes should be first given to the parents and if they are accepted, then they will be passed on to the relatives (i.e. the uncles and cousins) If all accept, then the next batch of gifts will follow. What is important to understand in her is that if the gifts are accepted at this stage, then there will be no obstacles in the steps to follow and these are:
And then comes what we call a “tax” which is a combination of a cow, an ox and a blanket (badoo). The cow will be given to the mother while the ox and the blanket goes to the father.
The last gift is “Annuna” – is mother’s exclusive cow, which she gets from her son-in law.
After the giving of the gifts is completed, the boy’s father may say “Fudha natolcha” – fix the month to take the girl. When the date of marriage approach they may ask again “Ayyana natolcha” – fix the date for me to take the girl.
According to tradition, each household in the village and the neighboring village has to come with milk in a form of contribution to the wedding. We call it gumachis and in reward, they are given tobacco (tambo).
When couples get married, there is no exchanging of rings just like in most societies. Instead a man uses a ring only when he has killed wild animals like lions, elephants etc. To be recognized as a distinguished hero.
Traditionally, when a man gets his first child or kills a lion he will make one fleet of hair on the top of is head. The difference is that when he has killed a lion,he will decorate it with a red thread.
How then can we identify a married woman?
According to Borana tradition, when a girl is born they will immediately shave the top of her hair on the head like a circle (we call it gubbe) until she gets married. Once she gets married, she will then fleet her hair (this is not allowed until a girl gets married). This will help in identifying her as a married woman and she will not have the gubbe any longer.
The wedding cloth in borana is called Gorffoo. It is made out of gazzel leather and decorated with shells. On the wedding evening the entire village population will gather to drink coffee, fried coffee as whole with milk and batter (bunn qalaa) while the girls parents and relatives will give advice to the future husband of their daughter on how to treat their daughter, on how to put their differences and above all giving them blessings.
On the next day the couple will leave for their new home early in the morning looking beautiful with her hair oiled with butter. On this day every married borana women who turns up for the wedding has to hold her siikke while the men has to hold his ororro which identifies them as married persons and that is one of the presents which the newly wedded couple has to get on this day.
On the day after the wedding, the newly wedded couple will leave for their new home accompanied by one of the family members. The bride will stay there for three days and on her coming back to her parents, a sheep or goat will be slaughtered as a blessing for the new couple’s first nights together. On the following day, she will receive gifts from her relatives, which she may use in her new home.
According to Borana tradition, it is strictly forbidden for a girl or a boy once married to just come and eat or drink at their mother’s home without any invitations. The vice-versa also applies. Another rule is that the mother-in law and the son-in law will never see each other face to face for the rest of their lives. In case they want to talk to each other, they can do so without exposing their faces. For example, during an invitation the son in law can sit in the living room whereas the mother-in law would be some where in the house might be in one of the sleeping rooms and from there she could communicate with the son-in law. If they were to meet suddenly on the road, then they would to have to cover their faces until they passed each other.
The negative side of this tradition is that the husband has full powers over his wife to the extent that he can beat her whenever he deems it necessary. Even if she escaped, her family would then negotiate with the elders and return her to the husband (that is only in cases, which are negotiable).
It is important to mention that in the Borana marriage system if a woman loses her husband she cannot remarry, while it is in order for the man to remarry if he lost his wife, but this is a more deeper issue, which we do not look through it at this stage. Another thing is that the married couples are allowed to have heartily lovers (as long as their marriage is not based on love). This is accepted on both sides. Therefore, when a woman loses her husband then her heartily lover will act as an husband but they cannot marry each other.
Borana tradition actually accepts polygamy up to two wives. Beyond this is not accepted but the elders in consideration of the men’s economic capability can tolerate it.
After eight years the daballe child undergoes a naming ceremony. His relations ask God’s blessings and thank him for the child.
A boy exists publicly only after he has been named. Before that, even his death is mourned privately and he would only be said to have ‘gone back’.
The naming ceremony of a first-born is attended by all his relatives, seven officials and an important person called qadadu. A large shelter is built by the women. A fresh fire is lit by a Waat clansman, a feast is held and the father names his son. After the naming ceremony the father is addressed as ‘father of So-and-so’. Other sons receive only a simple naming ceremony.
Although Islam has influenced their society, they believe traditionally in one God called Wak. They believe Wak sends all good things, especially rain. In the legend, they have to give gifts to their god, the biggest sacrifice that can be made being the first baby. In this case, it is a shaman who lives in the forest who will kill the new born. They also have intermediary priests named Qalla. Their spiritual leaders are granted a powerful veneration. In their religion, spirits (Ayana) which possess people and things are of a great importance. Their believes are related to their herds which are indispensable for sacrifices and rituals to guarantee fertility, health, and assistance from spirits.
Islam has become influential in Borana society in the last 20 years. The Borana around Isiolo are radical Muslims. There has been some response to the gospel by Borana in Nairobi and Marsabit and in trading posts of southern Ethiopia.
Christianity: This large and ancient people have had only minimal contact with Christianity, due in part to their nomadic life style. Yet an indigenous church exists and probably with adequate support and scripture in their own language, they will be able to evangelize their own people and neighboring groups. There are about 25 missionaries targeting the Borana, and some Borana Life Ministry workers. There is one Baptist church of Borana in Marsabit. The traditional 50% of the Borana less affected by Islam seem the most likely community to target.