Booranaa: The Cultural Heritage Land of Oromia

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.ClimateThe 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.

Map of present-day Borana region

 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.

The people

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.

Borana Women Singing

Classified as Eastern Cushites, the Galla are believed to have been gradually pushed westwards from the horn of Africa by the Somali around the tenth century, until they entered Ethiopia in the sixteenth century. Through constant warfare the Borana displaced the War day (Oromo) section of the Galla from southern Ethiopia (Dirre region) in the mid-seventeenth century. Dirre and Liban then became for a time their permanent home, and even today they maintain strong ties with this area. They believe that they were ‘created’ in Liban, and all their important shrines and their political headquarters are there.

The Borana migration southwards into what is now south of Ethiopia and north of Kenya was speeded up by two major events. In 1897, in the reign of Menelik II of Ethiopia, the Amhara annexed Boranaland. Then in the 1900s a Somali named Mohammed Abdille Hassan waged a religious war (jihad) in the Horn of Africa. The pastoral Borana was gradually pushed as far south as Marsabit district in Kenya. Then, defeating the Samburu and Rendile, and moving with the seasons, they spread further south until they reached the Tana River (Galaan Maro).

The Economy

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.

Livestock and Trade

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.

Borana woman milking a goa

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.

2 Social and Political Organizations

The Kinship Groups

The Boran-gutu is divided into two major kinship groups. Every member of the Boran-gutu section must belong to one of the two groups. They are called 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.

Plan showing clan Kinship groups

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 Gada System

Within the Boran-gutu there is a strict system of age-sets and grades called gada. 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 Naming Ceremony

After eight years the daballe child undergoes a naming ceremony. His relations ask God’s blessings and thank him for the child.

The Gada system

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.

The Higher Grades

We will now follow the fortunes of a boy who was born into the first grade of the gada system. After eight years he goes into the second or gamme didiqqo stage. His hair is allowed to grow long, except for the top middle part of the head, which is shaved. The boys are no longer confined to their huts, expected to look after calves in the immediate neighborhood of the village.

After a further eight years, at the age of 16, the boys begin the third grade, gamme gugurdo. They learn to take part in raids, the hunting of wild animals, and the herding of cattle. They often undergo several hardships far away from home, where they live in very simple camps. Under the leadership of one of their number they move from village to village, demanding feasts from their elders. From each village they gain new members and move along, singing and dancing. This annual activity ceases after five years and during the sixth year a ceremony called ‘to see each other’ starts. This is finally followed by ‘feeding’ ceremonies when a lot of cattle are sacrificed.

The fourth grade is called cusa. After a complex ceremony which includes a campaign and the election of leaders, the young men settle down as herdsmen and as warriors. By the time they reach the eighth year of this grade they are looking forward for the beginning of the next grade when they can marry. They are not allowed to marry before this stage, and by this time the oldest members of the group (those who started as daballe) are 32 years old.

In grade 5 (raba) the men become warriors. In the old days they were responsible for conquering enemy tribes. At this stage those who wish to marry and are old enough may do so.

Group of Borana Women

Remember that because a boy joins a grade five ‘rungs’ below his father, there will also be quite young children in this grade. Until he is 32 no ilmaan korma may marry and, until he is 40, he may not have children. At the end of raba an important ceremony takes place. The previously ruling gada (the next grade) hands over the office to the incoming raba. This transfer of power involves the exchange of milk and blessings between the incoming and outgoing leaders of the grade.

The sixth grade (gada) is the stage of ritual political leadership and it is the most important grade of all. The leader of this grade is given the title Abba-gada, literally ‘father of the era’, and this makes him the leader of the Boran-gutu as a whole. The years during which he rules are named after him. He can act as a consultant and a mediator in disputes, and he takes part in many of the rituals of the people. It is during this grade that the group undergoes circumcision. The candidates take a cold bath, pierce their ear-lobes with thorns, and are then operated upon by a skilled man. The Abba-gada can only be circumcised by a Waat because it is taboo for a Boran-gutu to spill his blood.

Yuba, the grade that follows, is in fact four grades put together, and the period covers 32 years. During this stage the men become the advisers and judges of the Borana, and prepare for the next and final grade.

The Final Grade

Grade 11 is called gadamojji. During this eight year period, the elders wear their hair in long twisted style similar to that of the boys in the first grade. On the day that they are going to complete the grade, the gadamojji tie large gourds of sour milk in the rear parts of their huts, using as many knots as their past achievements. Then as each knot is slowly united, the gadamojji recites all his military successes.

A head ornament (kallaca) made from aluminum and leather

Borana chief with his kallaca

The gadamojji have their hair shaved by their elder wives. The hair is then buried outside the entrance of the cattle boma. This final ceremony is a very significant event in the Borana calendar because the year will be referred to as ‘the time when the gadamojji removed their hair’. During these ceremonies the gadamojji wear an ornament called (kallaca) on their foreheads, attached with a leather strap. It is a pointed piece of metal and when not being worn it is kept in a special container of milk. Until the gadamojji dies his kallaca protects anybody who touches it. He himself becomes sacred. He avoids any form of anger. He speaks softly, and does so in ritual language. He is in turn addressed politely and highly respected. He leads people in the drinking of the sacrificial coffee berries and in prayers.

So far we have described what happens when a child joins the daballe grade at birth. If he marries at 32, and his first son is born soon after he is 40 (when he is in the raba grade), that son will be placed in grade 1 and be a daballe as his father was. But a later son, born when his father is in grade 6 (gada) will start in gamme didiqqo, where he will be 8 years younger than many other gamme didiqqo. If he has a son when he is 40 (in the 6th grade), that son will also be gamme didiqqo, but later sons may be gamma gugurdo or even higher up the ladder. They will miss some of the activities that children in the lower grades enjoyed. Their sons will start in the same or higher grades than their fathers, and so on.


When a man has completed the final grade (gadamojji) he is addressed as jars (‘elder’). Those who were born daballe are 88 years old when they reach this stage, but a boy who started the gada system high up the ladder will be called an elder when he is in fact quite young. If a son is born to a jars his life will follow a different pattern. Children of jars are called ilmaan jarsa (children of the aged) and have no chance of remaining in the gada system.

Borana Elders


Members of an age-set (hariyya) are all born within the period of one gada rule of eight years, so the eldest member of any age-set is no more than eight years older than the youngest member. Members of an age-set work together in hunting wild animals and raiding enemies. They share everything and are expected to help each other whenever the need arises. They have a leader called hayyu hariyya who sees to it that the other members’ co-operate and work together as brothers.

Borana Family

3 Domestic Life

A Borana Family

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.

Behaviour towards One Another

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.

A plan showing the different names for family relationships

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.

A Picture of a Borana Hut

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).

The Village

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.

Khadija Duba and her Grandson

The Hut

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.

Traditional song

Dress and Ornaments

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.

4 From Birth to Marriage – an Ilmaan Jarsa

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.

An arbor is an elephant tusk armlet worn by brave men who have killed enemies or elephants. A kome is an aluminum anklet worn by wives of distinguished heroes. A mirg is a wristlet worn by women.

The 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.

A Man at the Peak of his Youth

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.


Then at some stage, usually about the age of twenty-five, an ilmaan jarsa marries. If a young man sees an attractive girl, he may request his parents to ask for her hand in marriage. If the parents approve, the father, accompanied by another man, approaches the girl’s parents and asks if his son may marry their daughter. More often than not the father chooses a girl for his son without necessarily informing him about it. The choice of a girl does not depend on her physical appearance. The father must take into consideration the history of the girl’s parents and the experience of the boys family through previous marriages.
If the boy’s family has been unlucky in a previous marriage into the same clan, they may avoid that clan from then on.

The boy’s father takes to the girl’s home some coffee berries, tobacco, tea and sugar on the first visit. The girl’s parents must accept this gift and consider the request. They tell the boy’s father their decision when he next visits them. If they do not agree, he takes back the gifts he brought and goes home. If the offer is accepted, the father begins to make a series of visits, each time bringing more presents with him, including livestock. The normal bride price is five heads of cattle. The first heifer is paid as a present during the visits and is named dubar. Three others are paid in order that the boy may have the full right to own his wife and children. The fifth animal is a bull that is given, after the marriage, to the girl’s mother by her new son-in-law. The Gabbra pay a gift of three camels known as Qarat.


The Wedding

The wedding ceremony takes place in the bride’s home. During the first night the bridegroom sacrifices a ram or a bull, and together with the bride and the best man, sleeps in the forepart of a hut. Members of the girl’s clan are forbidden to eat the meat of the sacrificed animal. The next day they set off for the home of the bridegroom, and are now husband and wife. The girl’s parents may give their daughter wedding presents in the form of cattle. From henceforth the boy and his mother-in-law refer to one another as Aay’. Neither mentions the other’s name nor do they see one another. The girl’s father and the son-in-law can see one another, but must address each other with the term of respect, ‘Aab’.


Looking After the Family.

After marriage a man becomes an ‘owner of a household’ and has certain rights and duties. For instance, if he commits offences he can only be fined, whereas when he was unmarried, the same offence would mean he was caned. He is also entitled to receive his own herd from his father and look after his own welfare.

Over many years a man may gather enough wealth in the form of livestock to keep his herd separate from others. He may give a few animals to his sons as presents on various occasions, but the major portion of the herd remains his property. He has the right to decide which animal should be sold, slaughtered or given to friends.

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