The Tana Orma are an ethnical group who predominantly live in Tana River County in Kenya. They are related to other Oromo people living in northern Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, with whom they share a common language and cultural heritage. First and foremost they are pastoralists and almost all, if not all, of them are muslims. In 2019 the Tana Orma numbered 158,993.
Location and Identity
The Orma are semi-nomadic herders who live in the semi-arid bushlands of south-eastern Kenya. They are the southernmost representatives of the once powerful Oromo (Galla) nation of Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. They are related to the Borana and other Oromo groups.
Some Orma had moved into the Tana area by 1850. Johan Krapf, the first Protestant missionary to Kenya, came with a desire to visit the "Galla." This older term, which refers to all the Oromo groups, is seen in some sources for the Orma.
In the late 19th century the Orma were forced by Ogaadeen (Ogaden) Somali to migrate farther south into Kenya. They are at home now along the river, from the rich delta area of the lower Tana to the drier western Tana area. They live near the river in the dry season, and move further inland to the west in the rainy season.
A group of about 15,000 called Munyoyaya or Munyo speak the Orma language and are included by some sources in the population for the Orma. The Munyoyaya are fishers. Both the Orma proper and the Munyoyaya are Muslims.
Before 1500, the Oromo-speaking peoples began migrating south from the northeastern highlands of Ethiopia, spreading gradually to the area north of Mt. Kenya and down the River Tana to the coast. These were cattle and camel herders, who raided more settled peoples as they migrated or ranged through various territories. The Orma were in approximately their current settlement areas by 1900.
They have come into increasing conflict with the neighboring Pokomo people.1 The Pokomo are farmers or fishers who live along the Tana River and depend on the river and its flooding cycles for the irrigation of their crops. The Orma are herders and need access to the river to water their herds Since 2001, there have been violent clashes and revenge raids between the two ethnic communities.2 Modern weapons have increased the number of fatalities and injuries in recent years over past conflicts.3
Drought conditions are always a threat also. In 2007, some relief was felt by Kenya from the long drought that had devastated crop production and thinned cattle herds. Conflicts with the Wardei people also continued after the drought condition had improved in October 2007.
The Wardei are a small ethnic group living in part of the Tana River District where the Orma live.4 The Wardei are also mainly pastoralists and live in the drier scrublands of the region, similar to the Orma. They, like the Orma and Munyoyaya, are Muslims. On the other hand, the Pokomo are Christians and more modern and more educated.5
Women traditionally are considered less important, even though they build the houses and take them down for tansportation when the group moves inland in the rainy season. Reports on the Tana River Water Project plans and goals indicate that the main beneficiaries of the project will be the women's groups and public institutions, like schools, clinics and churches.
A 2006 report on this project by the Kenya Water for Health Organization (KWAHO) stated that a marked change had already occured in the status and attitude toward women, as they have been empowered in various ways by the benefits brought by the water project. The report indicated that the skills gained from training by KWAHO, giving women a greater say in directing the course of their life. There is a move towards greater finaincial independence for women.
The 2006 report also indicated that progress in coordiating the water project implementation has been limited by the ethnic conflicts in the region.
The Orma language is an Eastern Cushite language of the Oromo family. Orma is similar to Borana-Arsi-Guji (also called Borana), but not mutually intelligible. Some Western Orma also understand Borana. Nearer the coast many speak Swahili.
Cattle are central to the Orma culture. Herding is their only means of survival; they keep goats and sheep alongside their cattle. Cattle are paid as bride price from the groom's family. They are also slaughtered at weddings and funerals. All of life focuses on the welfare of the cattle.
Meat is the main food, supplemented with milk and blood, though now some Orma also eat maize, rice, beans and tea. The arid climate of the upper Tana region is too dry to support agriculture, so the Orma there have no vegetables in their diet.
The Orma live in round houses which consist of a wooden framework covered with woven mats and grass. The women build these houses. When people move with the herds, the house is dismantled and put on a pack animal along with the household goods. A larger version of the houses are built for people who live in permanent villages.
Special ceremonies surround the birth of children. After a woman gives birth, the baby is dedicated at 7 days of age. The woman stays secluded for a total of 40 days. There is a feast with the other women in the village and the baby is dedicated again. The ceremony ends with the women dancing.
The expectations and demands of the encroaching technological modern life has led to cultural challenges. Government leaders foster modern education for the youth. This conflicts with the pastoral and traditional expectaton of Orma children to tend the herds. The children's lack of control over the herds in the current situation has led to further clashes with their Pokomo neighbors. It is proposed that educating Orma and Pokomo children together will build peace and future friendship.
The Orma are 99.9% Muslim. They converted to Islam starting three or four generations ago. They observe all the rites and festivals of Islam.
Both sexes are circumcised and the Tana Orma strictly adhere to marrying outside their moiety, a universally practised custom by all Oromo speaking people.
Although originally the Orma were pastoralists, they have now become increasingly sedentarized and economically diversified. The majority, however, is still pastoralist. The Orma pattern of seasonal livestock movement is based on alternating use of riverine floodplain pastures in the dry season and more arid pastures with scattered wells and ponds in the wet season.
Especially since the collapse of the Somali state in the nineties, regularly there were conflicts between the Orma, Wardey and Somali in Tana River County. In 2012-13 serious conflicts broke out between the Pokomo and Orma resulting in almost 200 dead people. The cause of the conflicts were Orma people encroaching on the Pokomo agricultural area. Two factors have contributed to the transformation of the previous fairly harmonious relationship of the two into very antagonistic conflicts. First the population increase has caused pressure on the limited resources. Secondly the Orma have been pushed southwards by Wardey and Somali people. Since these groups are often better armed, the Orma did not have an alternative but to move southwards, which brought them into conflict with the Pokomo.