By Maina Kiarie
In Kenya, Cushitic language speakers are divided into the Eastern and Southern Group.
Cushites form a significant minority of Kenya’s population. They speak Afro-Asiatic languages, and originally came from Ethiopia and Somalia in north-east Africa. Cushites are concentrated in the northernmost North Eastern Province (formerly known as Northern Frontier District -NFD), which borders Somalia.
The Cushitic people’s form a small ethnic minority of about 2%, mostly represented by Oromo and Somali speakers.
The Southern Cushites were the second earliest inhabitants of Kenya after the indigenous Bushman hunter-gatherer groups, and the first of the Cushitic-speaking people to migrate from their homeland in the Horn of Africa about 2000 years ago. They were progressively displaced in a southerly direction and/or absorbed by incoming Nilotic and Bantu groups until they wound up in Tanzania. As a consequence of these movements, there are no longer any Southern Cushites left in Kenya.
The Eastern Cushites include the Oromo and the Somali, of which the Somali are the most recent arrivals to Kenya, having first come from Somalia only a few centuries ago.
Cushites, or Cushitic people, live in the arid and semi-arid eastern and North-Eastern parts of Kenya. They reside along a very large area of land that runs from the east of Lake Turkana, stretches to the north of Kenya, and through to the Indian Ocean. Cushites include Somali, Rendille, Borana and Oromo tribes. Due to the dryness of their habitat throughout most of the year, Cushites are mainly nomadic pastoralists who keep large herds of cattle, camels, goats and sheep. Cushitic people maintain very close ties with their kinsmen – the Cushites of the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia.
The Cushitic languages (spoken by Cushitic peoples) are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family spoken in the Horn of Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Egypt. They are named after the Biblical character Cush, who was identified as an ancestor of the speakers of these specific languages as early as AD 947 (in Masudi’s Arabic history Meadows of Gold). The most populous Cushitic language is Oromo with about 35 million speakers, followed by Somali with about 18 million speakers, and Sidamo in Ethiopia with about 2 million speakers. Other languages with more than one million speakers are Hadia (1.6 million), Kambata (1.4 million), and Afar (1.5 million).
Cushitic was traditionally seen as also including the Omotic languages, then called West Cushitic. However, this view has largely been abandoned, primarily due to the work of Harold C. Fleming (1974) and M. Lionel Bender (1975). These scholars consider Omotic to be an independent branch of Afroasiatic. While some scholars including Zaborski (1986) and Lamberti (1991) have kept the issue alive and suggested that Omotic can still be classified as part of Cushitic, Rolf Theil (2006), in keeping with the noted Chadicist Paul Newman, excludes Omotic from Afroasiatic altogether.