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Eastern Cushites

El Molo boys fishing in Lake Turkana

Eastern Cushites in Kenya include older hunter gatherer communities and later pastoralists.


Language: Borana. Alternate names: Boran, Booran, Boraan, Southern Oromo, Oromo, “Galla”. The name Borana 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.

Language family: Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East, Oromo.

Origins of the community: The Borana are one of the resulting groups of the Oromo migrants who left the southern highlands of Ethiopia in the 1500s. Most of the Borana and related peoples live in Ethiopia. The Oromo had migrated east but were pushed back by the Somali leading to greater southern expansion.

The Oromos in northern Kenya first entered the region from southern Ethiopia during a major migratory expansion in the late 10th century. They then differentiated into cattle-keeping Borana and camel-keeping Gabbra and Sakuye.

Oromo/Galla girl

The origin of the Galla (Oromo) is to be found in the highland region around Bali in South-Central Ethiopia and traditions are unanimous in confirming this. The centre of the Galla dispersal is traced around the region, which is currently the homeland of the Boran. Over the years the vital areas of Boran migrations and settlements were the homelands of Dirre and Liban, and the lowland region of Golbo and Wanyama stretching from the east of Lake Rudolf (Turkana) to Qaddaduma and beyond in the east. It also included Dadasha Waraba as the furthest out post of Boran settlement in the north-east directions, in the lower reaches of the Dawa and Ganale Gudda rivers.

Population: According to the 2009 Kenya population and households census results the Borana number 161,399.

Geographical location of the community: The Borana are part of the Oromo cultural group. After their last migration, the Borana of Kenya settled the following areas: Marsabit District, Tana River District, Garissa District and Moyale District. The heaviest concentration is in Sololo area of Marsabit District and in Moyale District. Those in Isiolo District are concentrated in Merti and Garba Tula.

The Borana live in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya in areas where the weather conditions are basically dry and hot with irregular torrential rain.

The area the Boran (Oromo-Galla) occupy in Kenya includes parts of the Districts of Marsabit, Moyale, Mandera, Wajir and Isiolo; in Ethiopia, the Borana occupy the southernmost parts of the Sidamo Province. They are also found in some parts of the Jubaland Province of the Somali republic in the vicinity of the Dawa and Ganale rivers. They originated from the Dirre and Liban areas of southern Ethiopia.

Housing: They live in traditional round grass huts constructed by women. The houses consist of interwoven branches thatched with grass all the way to the ground. When movement of the homesteads is required -they lead a nomadic lifestyle (they move three or four times a year)- the transportable portions of the house are loaded onto the back of a camel or a woman and carried to the new location. They settle temporarily in groups of 10 to 30 houses. Women weave portable grass huts called “dasse”

Economic activities: The Borana are a pastoralist ethnic group. Cattle and camels are the main livestock kept but they also rear goats and sheep. Cattle and camels are the major resource of wealth and are applied to payment of bride price, for sacred sacrifices, and legal fines.

The Borana’s staple food is milk and milk products. Meat, although an important food, is consumed irregularly because only on very special occasions will they slaughter an animal and eat meat. They regard their livestock as very valuable.

The Borana’s economy and lifestyle is organised around cattle, though formerly taboo camels are becoming more important, and they now herd sheep and goats.

Education: Children are educated and enculturated through music, since every aspect the Borana’s culture is captured in song.


Language: Burgi. Alternate names: Bambala. Burji language is also known as Bembala, Bambala, Daashi.

Language group: Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East Highland.

Origins of the community: The Burji community arrived in Kenya at the turn of the 20th century from Yavelo Province, Ethiopia, courtesy of the then-commissioner of the Marsabit District in northern Kenya. To encourage farming in his administrative area and feed the colonialists and inhabitants -the Borana, Rendille and Gabbra- who were predominantly pastoralists, the British colonial official decided to ask his Ethiopian counterpart to send a few Burjis, renowned for their farming and entrepreneurial skills, to initiate farming in Marsabit. The British Consul at Mega in Ethiopia agreed to the request and sent a few Burji to Kenya, where an administrative post was set up in Marsabit to oversee the growing of crops.

Although the Burji fleeing the reign of Emperor Menelik moved into Kenya as early as 1896, the first Burji on record is Hille Ume who was found in Moyale around 1906 by Philip Zaphilo, the first British frontier agent in Moyale. Hille Ume went back home for a period of time but returned to Kenya during the years of the Great War accompanied by Nawe Gubbe. These two, then, were the first Burji in Kenya.

From about 1918 onwards, the Burji are recorded in government records as coming over in small numbers from time to time. Occasionally, the Burji would return home (Ethiopia) only to reappear once more with a few friends or relatives. In 1920 there were about one hundred and fifty of them in Moyale, and about three hundred three hundred ten years later in 1930.

Ancient Burji were agricultural people who lived around the Burji mountain. Their territory was to the east of the River Galana Amara, and south-east of Lake Abaya. To the west, across the Galana Amara was the Konso country, to the north the Darasa, and to the south and south-east the Boran.

Population: According to the 2009 Kenya population and households census results the Burji number 23,735.

Geographical location of the community: After their last migration, the Burji settled in Moyale, and Marsabit township area.

The Burji people reside in Ethiopia south of Lake Chamo. There are over 46,000 speakers in Ethiopia, and a further 10,400 speakers in Kenya.

In northern Kenya, the community mainly lives in Moyale and Marsabit towns and smaller numbers live and work in Nairobi and other towns around the country.

Economic activities: Ancient Burji were agricultural people who lived around the Burji mountain. Their territory was to the east of the River Galana Amara, and south-east of Lake Abaya.

According to Moyale District Annual Report, the Burji were a great asset in the district as they were the main agricultural workers. They also built the houses and the road between Moyale and Wajir and were producing enough flour to supply Moyale and other stations. By 1926, they were the sole supply of labour in the District.

Burji traders have established strong links with industrial manufacturers in Nairobi and Mombasa. They obtain goods such as foodstuffs, building and hardware materials, and second-hand clothes which they supply not only for local consumption in Moyale, but also for the south Ethiopian market. Burji businessmen and women own more than 90% of the 60 plus trucks in Moyale through which they control livestock and general merchandise transportation betweennorthern Kenya and Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa.


Language: Orma. Alternate names: Uardai, Wadai, Warday, Wardei. Orma is a member of the macro-language Oromo.

Language family: Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East, Oromo.

Origins of the community: The Orma are remnants of the once powerful “Galla nation” of Ethiopia and northern Kenya. In the late nineteenth century, wars with neighbouring tribes forced the Orma to migrate south. Some moved to the rich delta area of the lower Tana River, and others settled west of the river.

Before 1500, the Oromo-speaking peoples began migrating south from the north-eastern 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.

The Orma are related to the Borana and other Oromo groups. In the late 19th century the Orma were forced by Ogaadeen Somali to migrate south into Kenya. Some Orma people moved into the rich delta area of the lower Tana while others settled in the drier western Tana area.

Population: According to the 2009 Kenya population and households census results the Orma number 66,275. In 2005 the Orma population stood at 70,000 people. According to SIL Ethnologue the population count for the Orma stood at 69,000 in 2006 and showed an increasing trend.

Geographical location of the community: After their last migration, the Orma settled in North Eastern and Coast Provinces’ Garissa and Tana River districts. They live in the south-eastern parts of Kenya in Tana River and Lamu districts. They are mainly found in Hola, Garsen, Tarasaa and Witu.

The Orma are semi-nomadic herders who live in the deserts of south-eastern Kenya. They are the southernmost representatives of the once powerful Oromo (Galla) nation of Ethiopia and Northern Kenya.

The Orma live near the Tana River in the dry season, and move further inland to the west in the rainy season.

Housing: Orma women build the round, wood-framed huts they live in. The huts are thatched with grass and in some cases with woven mats. In some cases when the family migrates with the herds due to drought, they leave the frame of their homes behind, only carrying the mats. They will often return to the same site when it rains.

A larger version of the houses are built by people who live in permanent villages.

Economic activities: They are semi-nomadic shepherds who live in the south-eastern deserts of Kenya except during the rainy season when they move their herds inland. Raising cattle is their basic means of survival, breeding a distinct breed of white, long-horned Zebu cattle. The cows are commonly known as Borana cows (with a hump). Zebu cattle are used as “bride price” and are slaughtered at weddings and funerals. Apart from cattle, they also raise goats and sheep. Meat is the main food, supplemented with milk and blood, though now some Orma also eat maize, beans and take tea.

Cycles of Life Birth: Special ceremonies are performed at the birth of children. Babies are dedicated seven days after they are born. A woman stays secluded for forty days after giving birth. At a ceremony to end the mother’s seclusion period, the child is dedicated a second time.

Naming: The first born of either sex is named after one of the paternal grandparents.

Marriage: The Orma and the Somali, marry off the daughters aged 10-15. Dowry, which differs in amount depending on the age of the bridegroom and bride, is paid to the father of the bride-to-be and clansmen. Older men often pay more dowry than younger men.

Among the Orma, a hut is erected in the bride’s parents’ compound, a few metres from the cowshed. The groom comes over on the wedding day. The newly-weds stay isolated indoors for some days to consummate their marriage. The newly married couple stays with the bride’s parents until conception and possibly the birth of the first baby, after which they leave to go to the husband’s home. In case of childlessness, a sister or brother of the couple may give up their child for adoption by the couple.


Language: Rendille. Alternate names: Randile, Rendile.

Rendille is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Kenya by the Rendille.

The Rendille are believed to be alienated and experts believe the pure Rendille language speakers are confined to the two towns of Kargi and Korr. The rest of the towns/settlements especially those bordering the two Samburu districts speak more Samburu than Rendille language.

Language family: Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East, Rendille-Boni.

Origins of the community: The Rendille migrated from farther north, in Ethiopia and Somalia. They are said to have common ancestors with the Somali tribe. Oromo-speaking tribe drove them out, and forced their migration southwards into Kenya.

Before 1500, the ancestors of the Rendille were part of the people speaking “Somaloid” or Proto-Somali language with the ancestors of the Somali, Sakuye and Gabbra. They were organised round a complex camel culture at the time, which included an extensive ritual calendar, based on dual lunar and solar calendars involving ceremonies for the well being of camels and humans.

The 16th century Oromo expansion disrupted these Somaloid people causing migrations south and westward from their homes in southern Ethiopia and Somalia. These people were further separated when some groups of them developed ritual kinship arrangements with the Oromo (Borana) people for protection. The Rendille were the southernmost of these Somaloid people and maintained their own culture and language intact.

Population: According to the 2009 Kenya population and households census results the Rendille number 60,437.  According to SIL Ethnologue the Rendille population count stood at 34,700 in 2006 and showed an increasing trend. Geographical location of the community: After their last migration, the Rendille settled in an area in North Eastern Province of Kenya from the Merille River and Serolivi in the south to Loyangalani in the north, from Marsabit and Merti in the east to Lontolio in the west. The primary towns include Marsabit, Laisamis, Merille, Logologo, Loiyangalani, Korr, Kamboi, Ngurunit and Kangi. The climate of their homeland is semi-arid.

The Rendille are a Cushitic speaking ethnic group inhabiting the Kaisut Desert in the north-eastern part of Kenya. They also inhabit the south-eastern and southern regions of Mount Marsabit in the Marsabit Central District.

The Rendille roam the region of northern Kenya between Lake Turkana to the west and Marsabit to the East, between the Merille River to the south and Chalbi desert to the north, an area roughly 22,000sq km. The Rendille proper live in the northern part of this area, and a hybrid offshoot known as the Ariaal Rendille live in the south.

Housing: Women, children and older men live in semi-permanent villages that are moved only a few times a year and rarely more than a few kilometres.

The huts in which the Rendille live are prefabricated and portable to necessitate migration. They are erected by women while the men build the protective enclosure. The semi-permanent camp in which they dwell is called “gob”. A typical settlement consists of about two dozen houses, sheltering approximately one hundred persons. Each married woman has her own hut. The centre of a settlement is called “nabo” or “naapo”, and is a ritual enclosure where elders meet. A ritual fire is always kept burning. At every new camp after building the nabo and lighting the ritual fire, every woman takes some embers for her own house.

Economic activities: They are nomadic pastoralists who roam with their camels, goats, donkeys and most recently cattle across about 16,000 square kilometres of Northern Kenya. Their staple foods include meat, a mixture of milk and blood, commonly known as “Banjo” although they have now adopted other foodstuffs like maize flour, rice and beans.

The Rendille are not only dependent on the camel for food but also for transport. They do not ride the camel rather they use them to carry all their belongings.

The Rendille tend to favour camels for herds rather than cattle, probably because their lands are very dry and the camel is better suited to the environment. Because the terrain they occupy is very dry, the Rendille do not grow crops; their cultural and economic life is centred on their animals.

Cycles of life Birth: There are celebrations at birth irrespective of the sex of the baby. However, when a girl child is born, and the father is asked who has been born, his response was said to be: “she has given birth to one who will go away”. The birth of a girl is seen as security for family property. A man who has many girls is creditworthy because he will exchange his girls for wealth when they get married to enable him pay back his debts.

Among the Rendille, a pregnancy outside wedlock is unacceptable. The girl was hit on the stomach until she miscarried.

Naming: During the naming ceremony, both the boy and the girl are given a cow as their first gift and property to own. Initiation: The Rendille practice gadaa, a system of age-sets fourteen years apart. An age-set is a group of men circumcised together and remain in warriorhood for fourteen years before they are allowed to marry and give way to another age-set.

Girls undergo clitoridectomy, as a rite of passage, before marriage. However, there a few exceptions such as the “sabades” who marry sometimes after 40 years. The main consequence of the sabade is a birth control system, slowing down human demography in relation to the cattle.

Girls are circumcised between ages 10-13. After this, they are ready for marriage and are married off by arrangement between the parents. Boys go through circumcision a little later but are still considered children and do not have access to family wealth until they marry and become full members of the community.

Marriage: Marriages are usually arranged by parents, since it is not permitted to marry within one’s own clan and contact with other clans is minimal for younger people. A bride price in livestock is always part of the negotiations. Because men cannot marry until they have completed warrior phase, there is usually a sizeable age difference between a man and his wife. Marriage involves the husband paying bride wealth of 4 cattle to the wife’s family. The eldest son acquires this payment from his father.


Language: Somali. Alternate names: Standard Somali.

Somali (Daawood, Dir, Hawiye, Ogaadeen are nomadic clan families in Kenya). Dialect differences cut across clan differences.

The Somali language is spoken by ethnic Somalis in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya, and by the Somali diaspora.

Somalis in Kenya are naturalised citizens and residents of Kenya who are of Somali descent. Naturalisation is the acquisition of citizenship and nationality by somebody who was not a citizen or national of that country when he or she was born. Somalis are one of the largest Cushitic-speaking ethnic minority groups in the country.

Language family: Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East, Somali.

Somali war dance

Origins of the community: The Somalis in Kenya first started arriving in the area in the 19th century. Following the civil war in Somalia that broke out in 1991, many Somalis sought asylum in the Somali inhabited enclaves of Kenya. Recently, they have increasingly begun asserting themselves in the business sector as more have immigrated into the country as entrepreneurs particularly in Eastleigh.

Throughout much of the 20th century, the Northern Frontier District (NFD) was part of British East Africa. On June 26, 1960, four days before granting British Somaliland independence, the British government declared that all Somali-inhabited areas of East Africa should be unified in one administrative region.

However, after the dissolution of the former British colonies in the region, Britain granted administration of the NFD to Kenyan nationalists despite a) an informal plebiscite [a direct vote of the qualified voters of a state in regard to some important public question] demonstrating the overwhelming desire of the region’s population to join the newly-formed Somali Republic, and b) the fact that the NFD was and is still almost exclusively inhabited by ethnic Somalis.

After independence the new Kenyan administration was not willing to give up the Somali-inhabited area. The Somalis formed a party called Northern Province People’s Progressive Party (NPPPP) through which they vigorously sought union with their kin in the Somali Republic.

In response, the Kenyan government enacted a number of repressive measures designed to frustrate their efforts in what came to be known as the Shifta war. Although the Somalis in the region ultimately lost the war, they still identify and maintain close ties with their kin in Somalia, and see themselves as one people. 

The Somalis of Kenya are part of a much larger group which inhabits almost the entire area of the Horn of Africa. The history of the Somali people dates back to about AD 1000. There are folk genealogies tracing certain Somali clans to the Arabian Peninsula and associating their ancestors with the Sharifs, the family of prophet Mohammed. Linguistic, cultural and historical evidence, however, indicates they originally came from the southern highlands of what is now Ethiopia. Anthropological studies indicate the Digil-Rahawiin (Maay-speaking) peoples represent the earliest migration group and also the most southern. The Somali people were never under a unified political structure. Sporadic attempts towards a unified political structure such as the Gareen dynasty from the Ajuuraan in Central/Southern Somalia in the 1500s and the Bartire around Jigjiga, Ethiopia, in the late 1700s were overthrown violently by other clans.

Population: According to the 2009 Kenya population and households census results the Kenyan Somali number 2,385,572. This number is broken down into the various groups (specific clans) as stated: Somali (so stated) – 141,111; Ajuran – 177,855; Degodia – 515,948; Gurreh – 693,792; Hawiyah – 58,160; Murile – 176,821; Ogaden – 621,885. The figure given in the 2009 population census for the number of Somalis in Kenya is believed to be inaccurate and has been nullified pending an official recount.

In the 1989 census the community numbered 420,000 in Kenya. 45,098 Somali, 27,244 Hawiyah, 100,400 Degodia, 139,597 Ogaden.

The majority of the Somali people live in Somalia. They are also the principle inhabitants of the Ogaadeen (Ogaden) region of south-eastern Ethiopia, the country of Djibouti, and the North Eastern Province of Kenya.

Geographical location of the community: After their last migration, the Somali settled in North Eastern Province’s Wajir area.

The Somali people in the Republic of Somalia inhabit an area of approximately 828,800km² in the  Horn of Africa, running from 2 latitude south to 10 latitude north, bordered to the east by the Indian Ocean, to the west and north west by Ethiopia and Kenya. Neighbouring tribes are: to the south, the Wardy Oromo (Galla), to the north and north-west the Afar and to the west the Oromo – Itu, Ala, Aniya, Arussi and Boran.

Housing: Families live in portable huts; each wife has her separate hut made of bent saplings (a young tree) and woven mats. Villages consist of a group of huts for related families arranged in a circle or semi-circle with cattle pens at the centre. The huts are built by women.

Economic activities: The Somali are nomadic-pastoralists whose culture is primary centred around camels with a few cattle and goats in the more productive areas. Women and young children care for sheep and goats while young men herd camels. Their region of occupation receives less than four inches of rainfall annually on average, thus their lives are primarily consumed with finding water and grazing land for their livestock. Formerly, their diet consisted almost entirely of milk and milk products but now includes maize meal and rice for most.

Men herd and protect the camels and cattle (cattle mainly in the area south of Garissa and camels mainly to the north), while women are responsible of milking the animals, food preparation and family nurturing.

The most widely recognised symbol among the Somali is the camel, because it provides transportation, milk, meat, income and status to a majority of Somalis.


The Gabra (also written Gabbra or Gebra) are an Oromo people who live as camel-herding nomads, mainly in the Chalbi desert of northern Kenya and the highlands of southern Ethiopia. They are closely associated with other Oromo, especially their non-nomadic neighbors, the Borana.

Language: The Gabra speak the Borana dialect of Oromo, which belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family.

The name “Gabra” may have roots in the Oromo word gabaro, meaning “vassal” and possibly indicating an association within the Borana federation. They appear to have been a conglomerate of peoples living north of the Tana river in Kenya, the area around Lake Turkana and the highlands of southern Ethiopia. The details of Gabra origin are subject to debate within academia.

The Gabra’s ornamentation and physical culture is similar to many other Cushitic-speaking camel herders, including the Rendille and Somali, all of whom the Gabra describe as warra dassee (“people of the mat”), in reference to the mat-covered, portable tents, which accompany their nomadic lifestyle. The Borana, on the other hand, are described by the Gabbra as warrra buyyoo (“people of the grass”), in reference to the grass huts that characterize their sedentary lifestyle.

Gabra homes, called mandasse, are light, dome-shaped tents made of acacia roots, and covered with sisal grass mats, textiles, and camel hides. Each mandasse is divided into four quarters; a public quadrant each for male visitors, female visitors, and a private quadrant each for parents and children. A mandasse can be completely disassembled and converted into a camel-carried palanquin in which children and the elderly travel.

Gabra live in small villages, or ola made up of several mandasse. Ola move short distances as many as twelve times per year, in search of better grazing for the camels and other animals the Gabra rely on.

Gabra society is broadly divided into the lowland Gabra (Gabra Malbe) on the Kenyan side of the border, and the highland Gabra (Gabra Miigo) on the Ethiopian side of the border. The Gabra Malbe have been the subject of some missionary activity and anthropological research while little has been published on the Gabra Miigo. Gabra society is further divided into several semi-exogamous groups called the “five drums” (Oromo: dibbee shanaan). In Kenya, each of the “drums” generally resides in a particular grazing area which is historically tied to the region assigned them by the British colonial government in the early 1900s, though their previous territory appears to have been larger. The territory of the Ethiopian Gabra, is said to comprise a “sixth drum.”

The Gabra practice a monotheistic religion based on the traditional Oromo religion, centering on worship of the god Waaqa, infused with Islamic elements. The Gabra make pilgrimages to sacred sites, most of which are located in the mountainous terrain of what is today Borana territory.

Aweer or Boni

Detailed description can be found under hunter gatherers.


Detailed description can be found under hunter gatherers.


Detailed description can be found under hunter gatherers.

El Molo

Detailed description can be found under hunter gatherers.


Detailed description can be found under hunter gatherers.


Detailed description can be found under hunter gatherers.

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