The Daasanetch (also known as the Marille or Geleba) are an ethnic group inhabiting parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan. Their main homeland is in the Debub Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region, adjacent to Lake Turkana. According to the 2007 national census, they number 48,067 people (or 0.07% of the total population of Ethiopia), of whom 1,481 are urban dwellers.
Ther names for the Dassanetch people (Daasanach, Dasenach, and Dassanech) are also called Geleb,Merile, and Gabarich
The Daasanach are also called Marille especially by their neighbours, the Turkana of Kenya. The Daasanach are traditionally pastoralists, but in recent years have become primarily agropastoral. Having lost the majority of their lands over the past fifty years or so, primarily as a result from being excluded from their traditional Kenyan lands, including on both sides of Lake Turkana, and the 'Ilemi Triangle' of Sudan, they have suffered a massive decrease in the numbers of cattle, goats and sheep. As a result, large numbers of them have moved to areas closer to the Omo River, where they attempt to grow enough crops to survive. There is much disease along the river (including tsetse, which has increased with forest and woodland development there), however, making this solution to their economic plight difficult. Like many pastoral peoples throughout this region of Africa, the Daasanach are a highly egalitarian society, with a social system involving age sets and clan lineages - both of which involve strong reciprocity relations.
The Daasanach today speak the Daasanach language. It belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. The language is notable for its large number of noun classes, irregular verb system, and implosive consonants. For instance, the initial D in Daasanach is implosive, sometimes written as 'D.
Modern genetic analysis of the Daasanach indicates that they are more closely related to Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo-speaking populations inhabiting Tanzania than they are to the Cushitic and Semitic Afro-Asiatic-speaking populations of Ethiopia. This suggests that the Daasanach were originally Nilo-Saharan speakers, sharing common origins with the Pokot. In the 19th century, the Nilotic ancestors of these two populations are believed to have begun separate migrations, with one group heading southwards into the African Great Lakes region and the other group settling in southern Ethiopia. There, the early Daasanach Nilotes would have come into contact with a Cushitic-speaking population, and eventually adopted this group's Afro-Asiatic language.
The Daasanach are a primarily agropastoral people; they grow sorghum, maize, pumpkins and beans when the Omo river and its delta floods. Otherwise the Daasanach rely on their goats and cattle which give them milk, and are slaughtered in the dry season for meat and hides. Sorghum is cooked with water into a porridge eaten with a stew. Corn is usually roasted, and sorghum is fermented into beer. The Daasanach who herd cattle live in dome-shaped houses made from a frame of branches, covered with hides and woven boxes (which are used to carry possessions on donkeys when the Daasanach migrate). The huts have a hearth, with mats covering the floor used for sleeping. The Dies, or lower class, are people who have lost their cattle and their way of living. They live on the shores of Lake Turkana hunting crocodiles and fishing. Although their status is low because of their lack of cattle, the Dies help the herders with crocodile meat and fish in return for meat.
Women are circumcised by removing the clitoris. Women who are not circumcised are called animals or boys and cannot get married or wear clothes. Women wear a pleated cowskin skirt and necklaces and bracelets, they are usually married off at 17 while men are at 20. Boys are circumcised. Men wear only a checkered cloth around their waist.
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The Dassanech people (also spelt as Daasanach, Dasenach, and Dassanetch, and called Geleb,Merile, and Gabarich), who speak an East Cushitic language, live in Ethiopia and Kenya on the northern shore of Lake Turkana and further north along the Omo River. The name Dassanech means ‘People of the Delta’. The Ethiopian Dassanech (the majority) live in Dassanech Woreda (District), South Omo Zone, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR). The population of the Ethiopian Dassanech is estimated at 48,067 (CSA 2007: 84).
According to unpublished data from the South Omo Zone Administration, the land area of the Dassanech is 2,575 sq km. Until 2006, the area was part of the administrative unit of Kuraz woreda. Following the 2006 administrative restructuring,Dassanech land was elevated to a district level with its capital at Omorate, some 852 km south of Addis Ababa. The Dassanech district is divided into 40 units called kebele. A kebele is the lowest administrative unit responsible for government functions such as local administration, the collection of tax, provision of extension service and food aid, elections, etc. Except for Omorate (the capital of the district), which hosts migrants and local people, all other kebeles are inhabited by agro-pastoral Dassanech communities.
Traditionally, the Dassanech are divided into eight territorial sections (emeto). These include the Shirr, Inkoria, Narich, Elele, Riele, Oro, Randal, and Kuoro. Despite the recent re-organization of the Dassanech society into ‘modern’ administrative units by the government, the emeto structure remains strong and functional throughout the Dassanech territory.
Territorial sections, which are seen as identity markers of the residents, are autonomous in terms of managing internal affairs such as resource use, transfer of generational power, religious/ritual functions, offensive/defensive actions, raiding, and conflict resolution. Furthermore, the Dassanechare divided into eight exogamous and non-territorial clans (turo), namely, Turinyerim, Fargar,Galbur, Turat, Ili, Mur, Edze, and Tiyeme. The clans reside in all territorial sections, although each section may not have all eight clans.
Today, the Dassanech people are predominantly agro-pastoralists, who complement their income from livestock production with cultivation of crops on the flooded banks of the Omo River and fishing. The Dassanech claim to have lost much of their lands to Kenya in the south and in the west during the last century. The loss of land translated to massive decreases in the numbers of their livestock, which forced many people to adopt alternative livelihood strategies: cultivation and fishing.
It was this historical process that turned the primarily pastoral people into primarily agro-pastoral communities. Cattle and goats represent the most commonly raised and highly valued livestock.
Besides, the Dassanech also raise sheep, donkeys, and in some parts camels. Sorghum is the staple food crop grown in the area. In addition to sorghum, the Dassanech grow some maize and beans.
The degree of dependence of the Dassanech on these different economic activities vary from one territorial section to another. The Shiir (the largest group), the Narich, the Oro, and the Kuoro combine livestock and crop production. The Inkoria and the Randal rely heavily on livestock production, while the Elele and Riele count more on cultivation and fishing and less on animal husbandry. The variations in the degree of dependence on different economic activities may be explained in terms of proximity to the Omo River, loss of animals that necessitated reliance on other activities, and the suitability of locations for the types of production.
The Lakeshore is reported to be more suitable for cattle than for goats. The riverbank is best suited for flood retreat cultivation.While those who raise large numbers of goats (e.g., the Inkoria) tend to sell their goats to buy food, those who raise cattle have to grow their own food because selling cattle to buy food is less common in Dassanech. Cattle is slaughtered when getting old or when the family needs it.
When Dassanech people lose their cattle to disease, drought or a raid by a neighbouring tribe, they are unable to sustain their usual way of life. Instead, they become the Dies, or ‘poor people’ and turn for their livelihood to Lake Turkana, where they fish and hunt crocodile and even occasionally hippopotamus.
For those who have lost their cattle, there is another option. That is to cross tribal boundaries, which have always been fairly permeable, and join with another group where an individual might have a family connection.
Those Dassanech who have lost their herds and turned to fishing also risk their lives hunting for crocodile at night in the shallow waters of the Omo River delta. Even a small crocodile can provide a good meal for a family. In fact, the fishermen are in some ways luckier than their herding cousins, whose livestock is often at risk from the enduring drought now affecting the Lake Turkana region. They can still obtain good sources of protein from fish during even the harshest droughts.
The men hunt at night from small dugout canoes. They hunt in silence, making occasional hand gestures to instruct the oarsman to change direction. Using a torch – their only concession to modernity – to pick out the crocodiles’ eyes in the darkness, they slowly manoeuvre their canoes close to the crocodile before letting fly with a harpoon attached to a rope. Once the barb penetrates the tough skin, the crocodile has little chance. It is hauled alongside and repeatedly speared until it is safe to haul it inside the canoe. As Bruce found out, sometimes the crocodiles can be very large indeed and it requires great bravery and skill to ensure no one is hurt.
The tribes here have always traded between each other, for beads, food, cattle, cloths and so on. More recently, the trade has been in guns and bullets. Inevitably, as roads are made through the area, other goods like beer and food find their way into the villages.
The Dassanech are surrounded by four ethnic groups (namely, the Turkana, the Gabra, the Nyangatom, and the Hamar), who are considered as enemies (kiz) because of a long history of conflict. The Turkana and the Gabra are located in Kenya, while the Nyangatom and the Hamar are Ethiopians.
As indicated earlier, the conflict between the Dassanech and their neighbors may be explained largely in terms of pasture and water scarcity and certain cultural factors. The alleged involvement of external agencies (e.g., commercial raiders and elements of the Kenyan security force) seems to be changing the dynamics of cross-border conflict.
Although, it is a male dominated society, having a girl also gives a social status among peers and therefore; is celebrated with special occasion after a girl is born.
They are governed by an Age –Set System, one of the oldest political institutions in Africa, which divides people into age categories for the purpose of political, economic and social structure. Dassanech men are recognized for their beautiful hair style in the region which also signifies position in Age-Grade system.
The Dassanech tribe is not strictly defined by ethnicity. Anyone – man or woman - will be admitted, as long as they agree to be circumcised. Over the centuries, the tribe has absorbed a wide range of different peoples. It’s now divided into eight main clans, which to some extent reflect the wide-ranging origin of its members. Each clan has its own identity and customs, its own responsibilities towards the rest of the tribe, and is linked to a particular territory.
The largest clan is the Galbur, or Water and Crocodile clan. The Dassanech believe its members have the power over both water and crocodiles and are responsible for dealing with diseases of the glands across the tribe. The Turat clan is responsible for dealing with burns from the fire. They have powers to keep away snakes and to cure many diseases, and also have the ability to keep away enemies from their animals. Another important clan is Turnyerim, which has powers over drought. They pray for rains during dry periods and they can also cure snakebites by spitting on the wound.
Other clans claim to have healing powers over eye infections, scorpion bites, muscular problems, and so on. Members of the same clan are forbidden from marrying – or indeed dancing - with each other.
Dassanech girls are circumcised young, at around 10 or 12 years of age. If they are not circumcised, a girl can’t marry and her father won’t receive her bride-price, so he has a direct interest in her going through the ordeal. Until they are circumcised, girls are called ‘wild animals’ or ‘men’ to tease them – the idea is that their clitoris has to be removed before they act like women.
Girls may be circumcised in their mother’s house, or in another village, but always with other girls of their age going through the same ritual. The cutting itself is usually done by an older woman who will be helped by the girl’s relatives. She’s held down, and a leather strap is tied around her ankles or in between her legs. It is kept tied to restrict the girl’s movement, until the wounds have healed and the pain has subsided.
When the ritual has been completed, the girl is given sour milk to drink and a necklace by her mother. From then on, she is allowed to wear a leather skirt to show she is now considered an adult. Marriage for girls often takes place soon after.
The biggest ceremony in a man’s life is called Dimi. Its purpose is to celebrate and bless his daughter for fertility and future marriage. When he has gone through Dimi, a man becomes an elder. About 10 cattle and 30 smaller animals are slaughtered and other stock is traded for coffee. Men and women dress in animal fur capes to feast and dance, and the leaders of the village bless the girl.
Dimi ceremonies, with their need to slaughter cattle, take place in the dry season – when cattle aren’t producing much milk, and grazing has limited value. Slaughtering cattle at this time of year provides meat when other food sources are low.
Lake Turkana – the largest desert lake in the world – periodically expands and shrinks. At present, it is shrinking and becoming more alkaline. The reasons are mainly climatic – drought in the region means that less water is flowing into the lake. Also, higher temperatures mean more lake water is evaporating. The situation has not been helped by the damming of several large rivers that once fed it, and the increased used of water from the Omo River for irrigation.
As Lake Turkana shrinks, the Omo River delta, where most of the Dassanech live, is growing in size as the river flow declines. It is now nearly 250 kilometres across at its widest point and is rapidly becoming a wetland of major international importance. It’s also beginning to attract more human settlement, risking further deforestation and overgrazing.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government and the African Parks Foundation threaten to take over and fence game parks in Southern Ethiopia. This could seriously restrict the access of local tribes, if not chase them out. The Dassanech fear that they will be denied grazing rights if a park is established in the delta area.
Though the Dassanech have begun to get help from the Ethiopian Government and outside agencies such as the United Nations, life remains tough. For longer term help, the people need practical solutions to relieve their ongoing problems of healthcare, water scarcity and a precarious way of life.