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Systems of Governance

Bordering on Borana

by Dalle Ebrahim.

It was 2011 and I was seated in a taxi travelling through southern Ethiopia, conjuring shapes and images out of the many anthills we came across on the narrow road into the heartland. I had no identification papers, no phone, and very little cash in my pockets, but I walked around with a careless spring in my step, the bravado of being a university student. I felt a child again, unfettered. The music blaring from the car’s speakers brought a spark of nostalgia for home. Ethiopia had always been present in my everyday Kenyan life and the sweet smells of one thousand spices added to its imagined novelties, absent in the Kenyan version of my Ethiopia. I was cautious and my university mate, visiting his mother in Ethiopia, sat tersely besides me. We were both excited about this adventure, for the Kenyan in us that hadn’t yet been schooled deep enough in our traditional pasts. I had travelled to Ethiopia not in search of fragments of my past, or to retrace my grandparents’ migratory steps into Kenya almost 100 years ago. I was there for the cheap beer and the beautiful women.

The twin border towns of Moyale Kenya and Moyale Ethiopia were a study in contrasts. There were all the excesses of a frontier town on the Ethiopian side. Moyale Kenya was conservative – the town and its people slept earlier, while partygoers crossed over to the Ethiopian twin to revel in the galore of disco lights and streets teeming with skimpily dressed, beautiful Amharic women – their long and flowing hair beguiling lustful men. Other women styled their hair in fashions that suggested Ethiopia was a more developed, more cosmopolitan space. But the border checkpoint was an illusion, a mirage of Ethiopia. The excesses and glamour of Moyale Etiopia nightlife, with Bongo and Swahili music blaring from the speakers, indicated that the partygoers were actually Kenyans. On the Kenyan side a bottle of Tusker cost three times as much as St George’s, the Ethiopian equivalent. That was enough to make Moyale Ethiopia the party district at the border.

The streets of Moyale on the Ethiopian side did not carry the usual signifiers of colonial presence that were ubiquitous on the Kenyan side. There were no jacaranda trees on the streets or semblances of planning. There was no sense of exoticism; the world was as natural as it had been for hundreds of years. Ethiopian children crossed the border every day to attend Kenyan schools. There was no national differentiation; Kenya and Ethiopia seemed to mean the same thing to them. They spoke Amharic and Swahili with equal competence. The border was an arbitrary construct of the white man, incidental to the older and larger ideas of Burji, Gabra, Gharri or Borana time-space and being. The latter geo-spaces dominated the two state constructs known as Kenya and Ethiopia.

Movement, particularly between the Borana motherland in Nagele and Marsabit Kenya, was frequent. Many men on the Ethiopian side hold Kenyan identity cards and those on the Kenyan side travel without any worries. During the day Moyale Ethiopia is twice as busy as its Kenyan counterpart; blue taxis traverse the town, tarmac that extends for about 100 metres into Kenya creates a sense of modernity. In the interior of Ethiopia, 30 minutes beyond Moyale, all pre-conceived notions of the country fall away. The smell of spices, the aroma of coffee, and the rich scent of roasted beans wafting in the Moyale streets disappear. Acacia trees and vast empty spaces stretch in every direction; spatial settlements replace the glamour of the border. With the death of the façade the Amharic vocabulary of nightly life dies and the heat and dust take over.

Anchi jig alle?” the lingo of sexual solicitation flitters away. “Anchi thenanesh? Salamino?” words of greetings remain. The feeling of being watched, and the suspicion of who is a spy, who is part of the police, grows as one goes further into the interior. At the border, encounters with Ethiopian immigration are the only harbingers of what is to come.

In the taxi, my friend Dido and I got on well with the animated passengers as they talked and laughed and exclaimed in Amharic. The taxi hugged the road that snaked through the acacia landscape. Then, abruptly, we were stopped at a police roadblock and everyone was asked to alight so that the vehicle could be searched for smuggled consumer goods. I was gripped with apprehension. A terse woman, who I could tell from appearance was Tigre, approached us. She conducted the inspection and all the passengers, especially the Borana women, regarded her with fear. None of us were questioned. Human beings here move more freely than goods; it is easier to smuggle people than a carton of Vaseline. We were not asked for any form of identification. I’d planned to say that I was a tamari, a high school student and didn’t have any ID. In any case, I could have applied for an Ethiopian ID, matawaqa, at the border and waited for just an hour. In Kenya, an ID is a necessity, a colonial hangover from the Kipande days. In Ethiopia, carrying an ID or a passport with a visa is unheard of inside the country.

So, we passed for school children, harmless. Ethiopians carry their matawaqas as an afterthought. A mataqawa is as rudimentary as a student ID, a passport photo on a piece of paper with one’s basic bona fides – something that could be created in Kenya in minutes. Megga town, our first stop, where we were to stay for a few days, seemed to have been born because of the tarred road, and it had seemingly grown in the best way it saw fit: stretching along the narrow tarmac. And all through the trip I became very aware of how simply the towns seemed to grow – a highway, government-“mengist” presence and a settlement. The towns seemed to lack plans, to not have been thought through. Houses were simple, the roofs were rusty and the compounds were swept. Girls worked and boys, like Asafa, who quickly befriended us, roamed the streets.

Before going for evening strolls, we sat in a circle in different sitting rooms and took coffee in small sinni cups, and between chats, laughs and coffee refills we bonded and became one with Ethiopia. The families here appeared close-knit; Asafa joked and played with his father in ways I could never do with my own. The ease with which one could immerse oneself into the routine of life here was deceptive. After just three days in Megga, I felt at home enough to try to unleash my college boy vibes on a graceful lady I had seen every day. On the fourth day I approached her, but I lost my footing trying to adjust my Kenyan-ness to her Ethiopian gracefulness. My default line of “niaje” hit a snag. She walked away, smiling and confused. I realised then that despite the hospitality of the place, I wasn’t well equipped to become a full part of it. I couldn’t use the Borana language to bridge the intimate space between us, between myself and Ethiopia.

In Megga, Asafa took us around the town; we drank sodas and talked. We played pool and visited various people – we were welcomed in every house. The red soil and landscape could have been Marsabit. This was Ethiopia but the hospitality was so natural that I did not feel anything but at home. There were similarities to Kenya everywhere, in Marsabit, Moyale, Megga, Yabello and Isiolo. Ethiopia was Kenya too, in many ways.

Asafa in turn aligned himself to us, became an admirer. I taught him how to use the English dictionary. He tested my knowledge in biology by showing me his examination paper. It was written in an advanced kind of Oromo, which was incomprehensible to me. If my scant knowledge of Borana had failed miserably in wooing the graceful lady, it now proved totally useless for understanding grade 12 biology: Asafa explained to me that one question was asking what the smallest part of a cell is. I looked at the choices and smiled at Mitokondiria. Nukiliolias.

Asafa was perceptive and bright, but I felt that the Ethiopian education system was not interested in his kind of intelligence; the system forced him to learn Oromo for the first 10 years of his formal schooling and then introduced him to English in the 11th year. He was examined in English for college entry at the end of the 12th year. How, I wondered, would he survive in East Africa, a world dominated by English?

In Megga Asafa told us about the man with a “komputerri” in a tone of amazement. I held back from telling him that in Kenya most kids his age own and can competently use computers. If the Kenyan government had marginalised the Upper Eastern province for decades, southern Ethiopia felt marginalised ten times more so in respect of education and social services.  I noticed queues for relief food in town. On the fifth day we left for Yabello. Asafa was waiting for his 12th year examination results and he was as free as a bird and decided to come with us. His efforts to teach us an Amharic dance had failed so far, but we’d picked up enough of the language. We could say, “I don’t speak Amharic” or “Oromia taqua alle?” – can you speak Oromia?

On the way to Yabello a curious excitement gripped everyone; a kind of wave bearing a euphoric joy crept into us. The driver instinctively slowed down and we all stared out at a village we had arrived at, Gadamoji. There, the Gadamoji, a gathering of traditional elders, had convened and there were solemn, ongoing festivities, many new huts, and a cultural ceremony at the heart of it all. The awe in the tones of the women replaced their loud market chatter; a certain pride crept in and filled our taxi with a hushed profoundness. The Gada elders are a sort of olden day parliament that has managed to retain its presence in modern times. For the past five centuries the Gadamoji villages and the traditional meetings of Gumi Gayo celebrated such large gatherings of the Borana people every eight years.  In Moyale Ethiopia, I had seen a large billboard painting of the outgoing Abba Gada, the traditional king of the Borana (the post is rotational). His role was to watch the land from above in his traditional regalia. Even the Ethiopian federal government recognised him as a traditional leader, and a religious symbol – a regional president of sorts – chosen and accepted by the Borana people.

The first Abba Gada, called Gadayo Galgallo, ruled between 1458 and 1465; the current one, Guyo Goba, is young – he is modern in his own ways.  He is the very embodiment and representation of the Gada setup, the egalitarian socio-cultural, political and economic system. And because of these very old and well structured systems of governance, the Borana in the upper eastern parts of Kenya and southern Ethiopia have for many years found it hard to accept and fully immerse themselves in the institution of the nation-state. There was even a secessionist attempt in Kenya during the Shifta wars that pulled the Borana together in northern Kenya and in southern Ethiopia. The Oromo Liberation Movement is an endeavour to this end. Before this trip I had not been aware of the power and influence the Abba Gada wielded in the life of the Borana. I have heard about how cases that cannot be handled by elders in Kenya are brought to him as the supreme judge of the Borana.

I once asked my grandmother about governance in the more modern postcolonial sense and she said, “The government was once a god… like a god.” I was surprised by her perceptive and intelligent insight; she was not given to superlatives, wordiness or long conversations. When she said this, it conjured for me an understanding of this traditional entity. I started to understand the turmoil, the effort that she, like many of her generation, had made to try to understand and to adjust their past lives, past prides to a modern life restricted within national borders. The Borana everywhere, like my grandmother, have held a low opinion of the formal state government. They have held a parallel allegiance to their traditional system of Gada. My grandmother called the formal government of the modern state a god, above the human, infallible and with powers to do anything. Her statement was an acceptance, but one that didn’t hold the same reverence as if she was to comment on the ancient and traditional system. In her understanding the national government wasn’t a body that could adequately speak for people. It did not reside among the people. Elders, holy places, meeting places, traditional folklore and myths gave the old system a more immediate presence that the formal civic education had not been able to dislodge. A common metaphorical term used by the Borana to refer to the government is “the enemy” – Nyapp. A system that has a force and a prison can only be an enemy.

The Abba Gada on the billboard has a say in who gets elected in Marsabit, Kenya. He shapes the politics of the Borana in ways the formal governments can never do. One cannot go to the government in search of justice. The traditional system of governance and conflict arbitration, adda serra is more accepted, robbing the government and its formal structures of legitimacy. Moreover, the traditional is now morphing into the modern, in ways that appear seamless and complete. Members of parliament still pay allegiance to the traditional system.

In 2012, a year before the 2013 Kenyan elections, a medical doctor of repute and a long-serving colonel in the Kenyan army both wanted to stand for election as the member of parliament for Saku constituency in my home town of Marsabit. Both candidates being Borana, a dilemma arose. If both contested the seat, the position would be lost to other communities. And so as not to divide the Borana votes, the two candidates each sought the endorsement of the elders; there were heated debates, long vetting meetings led by the elders to decide which of the two would remain, the doctor or the army officer. Facing off the community, the two had each demonstrated their “Borantiti” – their Borana-ness – in the unique ways in which they had served the members of the community. Elders in Marsabit, and over the following months those in Kenya, were divided in their choice of the right candidate, giving rise to a crisis. The case was forwarded to Abba Gada in Ethiopia, who looked at all the considerations, summoned the two contestants and decided the colonel should be the nominated candidate. With Abba Gada’s blessings he contested and won the Saku seat in parliament, while the doctor honourably gave up vying for the position. All this seemed so natural and accepted.  After more than 500 years of shaping the direction of the Borana, the Abba Gada’s role has adapted and he now has representatives in modern institutions.

The Borana in Kenya in the late 1960s and part of the 1970s didn’t take political leadership and representation in government seriously. But over the years they realised the importance of political representation and established a hegemonic hold on leadership in the region from Isiolo to Moyale.

Their power over smaller communities draws on the historic might and hegemonic status of the Borana. They occupy the whole stretch from Negele, Liben in Ethiopia to Moyale in Kenya, with larger and ever increasing pockets of Borana in Marsabit, Isiolo, Waso and in coastal Kenya, in Bura, Tana Delta and the Garsen. With a firmly established system of governance in place and a numerical advantage, they were leaned on by the smaller minority groups, and accepted them without any qualms. One should either be strong or lean on the strong. So the weak groups were gladly accepted within the larger Borana community. The Gabra were accepted to the extent of their being almost assimilated. The distinctions between the Gabra people and the Borana are insignificant; from a casual glance at the two communities one would say their continued struggle is a feud between brothers. The Gabra speak the Borana language and share many cultural habits, yet the permanence of their current enmity is unshakeable.

We sat in the modern house of my friend’s stepsister and talked to an elderly man, his head wrapped in traditional headgear like the Abba Gada on the billboard in Moyale. A white calico cloth rested around his shoulders. We ate injera from the same large plate, the four of us – Asafa, the elderly man, my friend and me. After the meal our host allowed us to flip channels on her Eurobox-connected TV. The elderly man sat tersely observing us, and when we flipped to Citizen TV to catch the news from Kenya he became animatedly engaged.

“Do you understand what she is saying?”

“Yes we do.”

“All of it?” he said, making an expansive sweep of his hands as if the language was a physical thing with a wide base.

“All of it,” said Dido, his hand making a similar sweep. We looked at each other and smiled at the dramatic answer.

The old man’s face was suddenly filled with awe. He sat a few moments and said, “You know the Kenyan education is good but their military is nothing.”

He said “their” military as if we were not Kenyans. As if Kenya was something far away. Something we could not represent. In this way he confirmed and further sealed our sense of kinship. Our oneness. He delved into a litany of ways in which fire is power. Said with pride how now in Borana land people had fire power. He narrated his youthful Kenyan exploits. He asked about rhinos and told us how hard and useful a rhino’s skin is, about elephants and their tusks. He was amazed at how in Kenya they could roam around, protected by game rangers. To show us his vast knowledge of the status of the Borana he asked about Saku constituency in Marsabit, hundreds of kilometres away, under a different state, a different system of governance altogether. But from how he asked about JJ Falana, the former MP for Saku, one got the feeling of ownership that the Ethiopian elder placed on that process. There was a certain pride that he exuded about the fact that Saku, part of another place, was ultimately Borana.

It was time to leave though. On my trip back to Kenya, I carried weighty thoughts about my place in all this, in this struggle. I saw myself as part of a larger scheme in a much larger movement. In the taxi I recognised an old man from Marsabit; he was coming back from the Gummi Gayo cultural festival. He shared the experience with everyone with a sense of pride, a heightened sense of accomplishment, of an achievement that one needed to flaunt. We talked about the land of the Borana and the journey ahead. Time as we knew it in modern Kenya stopped when we spoke about ancient rituals. I was leaving Ethiopia’s 2004 and crossing into Kenya’s 2011. This same journey had been made by my grandfather 100 years ago, on the backs of his father and mother. Everything they owned in the world had been strapped on their donkey. I was coming from the past.

Back in Moyale Kenya, I was more conscious, more aware of other battles within the town. The compartmentalised settlements and how villages were smaller representatives of different communal zones: Manyatta Burji – predominantly Burji; Sessi and Somare – a Borana region; and Helu, Kinnissa, Funan Nyatta, Gabra spots. The Gharri also have their places. Tribal differences in Kenya were more pronounced. Yet in Ethiopia, in Megga and Yabello, it was common to see Burjis dressed and living like the Borana. Both in language and in traditional practices some have been assimilated completely.

In Megga one evening I joined other families in the social hall for a concert by a musical star hailing from Yabello, who in his unique cultural ways epitomised this assimilation of some Burji into Borana ways. He sang in fluent Borana and blurred his identity between Burji and Borana. He was a household name in upper eastern parts of Kenya and the entire Ethiopian region. Intermarriages have happened, in-laws and relations been established between Burji and Borana. Peace experienced, differences overcome.

Over time in Kenya lives have been lost and bitter wars fought. Nothing has become a permanent fixture. Power dynamics have slowly changed, balances of power have shifted over time. Economies have changed hands. Guns, money and strategies have made it hard for Borana to survive into the future with the same inflexible hegemonic notions of past glory. They were toppled from the mantle of leadership in 2013. In Kenya the less powerful men and people who had long lived under the Borana formed an alliance, consolidating all their forces, and schemed and strategised to oust and lock out the Borana from the devolved system. The Rendile, Gabra, Burji (REGABU) Turkana, Konso (TUKO), and Sakuye, Watta (SAWA) combined to form an alliance against the Borana. The Borana, basking in their past glories and to their own detriment, never considered the alliance to be a formidable one.

The Borana hegemony is captured by the perceived virility of its nation; the pronoun reference to it is masculine while the other communities are regarded as effeminate, and so the pronoun referring to them is feminine. Patriarchal tendencies imposed on other communities. Dictatorial notions of land ownership. The idea of the world starting with them and ending with what they wish.

One old man in Marsabit tells me, “We have lived side by side for long, we have married your daughters, you have married our daughters… we buy from your shops…  but now you leave us here and form a political alliance with the lizards from Chalbi… that desolateness… you have done wrong.”

I sit silently because I am not of one identity. My father is Burji and my mother is Borana. I have learnt not to take sides. Not to be part of the tribal movement. In Marsabit County, such feelings of betrayal and the denial of the existing power dynamics are part of every conversation, every gathering. Pejorative names are given to each tribe. The Boranas call the Burji “Irgg Dimes” – Red Gums; the Burjis call the Boranas “Abba Sare” – Dog Owners. Rendilles are called “Socks”. Gabras are called “28” – this is a name that came from the Turbi Massacre: reducing a whole community to a simple statistical figure of 28! Implicit in this is also the callous disregard of any human equality; jokes are made about how the number of Gabras has now been reduced to 24 after four more were killed. The Gabras call the Borana “Gadaa” – with emphasis forced on the first and last syllables – smirkful mirth lines the tonal inflections.

Beyond the spiteful monikers there is a heightened awareness, a sense of urgency and confusion. What to do?  What to say? How to act? And endless quests to align with the rapidly changing landscape. As in all places where power has been toppled, there is a need for elaborate strategies to maintain the new status quo. The decline of the Borana is one factor that is shaping all kinds of socio-cultural interactions. Life in Marsabit County seems to revolve around gossip, rumour-mongering and suspicion of motives. Although some people are hoarding county resources to build themselves a pedestal while locking others out, the new environment has created a fertile breeding ground for young men from every community who are always meeting, talking, planning and claiming terrain, revelling in their own shallow and pompous outlook. They speak in terms, such as calibre, elites, professionals, new dawn, revolution, “rain is beating us”, “common good of our people”. Yet, behind the pomposity are schemes of putting down every other community but their own.


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This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?

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