British Empire Article

Contributed by Mervyn Maciel

by Mervyn Maciel
With The Pastoralists Of Kenya's Northern Desert Once More
On Safari
(After my Wanderings among the Nomads article, I had planned to write further of my time in the Northern Frontier, and this article is about the time I spent among the pastoralists of Marsabit District in Northern Kenya.)

Much though I wanted to remain in the inferno of Turkana (Lodwar), my superiors decided otherwise and I soon found myself in much cooler climes at Marsabit, the home of the Gabbra, Rendille and Boran tribes.

Marsabit is a vast district covering some 28,000 square miles, a lacustrine section in the north being the only ameliorating factor. Because of its pleasant climate, it had once been proposed as the Provincial Headquarters for the Northern Province, an idea that never took off though. While the township area was always green and lush because of the mists from the mountain, a few miles out and you could be in the middle of lava deserts and empty wastelands. The boma (Government offices) itself was situated on Marsabit mountain - an oasis of sorts surrounded by a thick forest where elephant, buffalo and fairly large buck roamed freely. I had elephants for my nightly visitors, and an encounter with a lone buffalo in the middle of the night was not an uncommon sight (I once had such a hairy experience when visiting the outside loo in the middle of the night!).That was when indoor sanitation had not yet 'arrived' in our part of the world.

In the office, I had a true 'mixture' of individuals; my immediate assistant was a Gabbra (David Dabasso Wabera), later to become the first African District Commissioner from the Northern Frontier. (Sadly, Wabera , who was D.C. Isiolo (Provincial headquarters for the Northern Frontier Province) at the time, was gunned down by Somali bandits shortly after Kenya's independence in 1963. To honour his memory, Wabera Street in Nairobi was named after him). The D.C.'s interpreter was a Rendille (Sangarta) while the office boy (Shalle), a Burji from Ethiopia. We also had an Assistant Office boy, a Boran (Galma).

In addition to the office staff, we had an elite force of Frontier Tribal Policemen, popularly known as Dubas. These men were drawn from among the best of the tribes and looked very smart in their snow-white uniforms and brilliant red turbans.

With The Pastoralists Of Kenya's Northern Desert Once More
Gabbra Chief
The Gabbra, often referred to as the 'Camel nomads of Northern Kenya', are pastoralists who live in the dry areas of northern Kenya.There is a section of this tribe who also live in Ethiopia. The camels, which always carry heavy water containers, fibre mats and wooden poles (which are used to build a Gabbra house), provide the transport that is so vital to the nomadic life that these people lead. The Gabbra themselves say, "Camels are our lorries", and I can still recall scenes of camel caravans moving in areas where no vehicle could possibly move with such high-humped loads.

One thing I remember so well about the Gabbra is their greeting, 'waare nagayati, waari nagayati' (Peace in the morning, peace in the evening). Another, commonly heard greeting around Marsabit was, 'naga naga, nageni badada' again, all invoking peace. The Gabbra have any number of rituals and colourful ceremonies and also religious songs (hymns) known as dikira. They have songs about their Elders, children, the rain and even their camels. One particular line from their hymn to the camels, when translated, reads, "O camels, give us milk, fill the vessels, stay in the enclosure and give us milk, O camels."

Like the Turkana I'd left behind in Lodwar, I got to like the Gabbra too; in their tribal dress they looked like Prophets right out of the Old Testament!

Another tribe I got to meet at Marsabit were the Rendille who are closely related to their neighbours, the Samburu. They inhabit a most inhospitable area along the Kaisut desert - a desert I often had to cross during my travels.

Whereas a stranger to the N.F.D. could not readily differentiate between a Rendille and a Turkana, those of us who lived in the frontier had no difficulty in telling one from the other. Their speech and mode of dress would give them away!

Like the Gabbra I've described earlier, the Rendille prefer camels to cattle. These 'ships of the desert' are ideal for moving across vast arid areas.

With The Pastoralists Of Kenya's Northern Desert Once More
Boran Tribesman
Women's lib was unheard of during my time in this region, so women coped with most of the chores like tending the children, cooking, etc while the men took their responsibility of looking after their livestock very seriously.

Like the age-old custom of 'dowry' among us, Goans, (now happily dying out), the Rendille pay a bride price in the form of livestock, and again, like their Masai cousins, Rendille men cannot marry until they've proved themselves as warriors (a Masai moran had to kill a lion before he could marry a young girl - lucky man!)

The Boran (or Borana) who live on Marsabit Mountain can trace their origins to Southern Ethiopia. Like the other tribes I've described here, the Boran are also nomads who regard their livestock as their prize possession. To me, the Boran always appeared outwardly "proud"; perhaps they felt they were a cut above the other nomadic tribes? As livestock is so important to most nomadic tribes, the only time they really have to move is when grazing is scarce.

With The Pastoralists Of Kenya's Northern Desert Once More
Boran Headman
I can fondly remember the Boran Chief (Galgallo Duba) and his Assistant (Jilo Tukena) of Marsabit, as it was to these two men that we went whenever the cows they had 'hired' out to us went dry!

An important ceremony among the Boran is the 'GADAMOJI' - which is celebrated every eight years according to the lunar calendar. I remember attending one of these ceremonies in the company of my good friend, the late Dr. Paul Baxter (the first English anthropologist who arrived in Marsabit in the early 1950's to study this tribe). Paul Baxter and I kept in touch over the years. (Sadly, Paul is no longer with us as he passed away in 2014).

The small contingent of Burji who live in Marsabit can trace their origins to Northern Ethiopia. The Burji who lived around Marsabit during my time were mainly agriculturalists; today, they can be found in the capital Nairobi, and elsewhere. A Burji friend (Elisha Godana), who was a tax clerk in Marsabit during my time did so well later and ended up as a Minister in the Kenyatta government. I still get news of him through another good Burji friend of mine, the journalist and author (Woche Guyo).

From this article, which sadly is going to be the last in this series, you will see how much I got to love the peoples of the Northern Frontier of Kenya. Some may be a warlike tribe, but on the whole, they turned out to be great friends.

map of British Empire
1956 Map of Marsabit Region
Colony Profile
Books by the Author
Bwana Karani
From Mtoto to Mzee
Additional Articles
Wanderings Among Nomads
Memoirs of a Frontier Man
To Lodwar I'm posted
Escape from Zanzibar
The Life And Times Of An Indomitable Goan Lady Mrs. Mascarenhas Of Kisii
"Uncle" Gerald Reece of Kenya's N.F.D.
The Unforgettable Dubas of Kenya's Northern Frontier


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe