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Tribes of Kenya

The Gabbra

Tribes of Kenya

The Gabbra are a nomadic camel rearing group that roam the Chalbi Desert in Northern Kenya. The territory they occupy lies between Lake Turkana, Moyale and Marsabit. However, when the pasture and water is scarce they often cross the border into Ethiopia.

The major misconception about the Eastern Cushitic people of Kenya: the Rendille, Orma, Boran and Gabbra tribes is that they are a single tribe, the Oromo. Whilst they are all Eastern Cushites, their traditions and beliefs are vastly different. However, the Gabbra and the Borana share the same language which is Oromo. Interestingly, the Gabbra however, share the Oromo clan identities with their Borana neighbors, and retain older Somali-Rendille identities.

Through religious and cultural ties, intermarriage and alliances, the Gabbra have become part of the Borana people in the last 200 years but whilst the Borana herd cattle the Gabbra are more attached to camels, although they do also have cattle.

Historical accounts place the Gabbra in Ethiopia before the 1900s. Before settling in Kenya, the Gabbra tended to migrate between Kenya and Ethiopia in search of pastures. They moved into Kenya as refugees having escaped from Ethiopia around 1913-1923 to avoid conscription into Emperor Menelik's army.

On family life: the Gabbra split their camps into two. The settlements are iola with about 3 to 25 houses. The women build makeshift houses on pole frames covered with skins and grass mats. This has earned the Gabbra and the Rendille the name warra dassee "people of the mat" amongst other Cushitic people with non-nomadic sedentary lifestyle. While the women are in charge of the packing, unpacking and building of houses, the men tend to their animals which include camel, cattle, sheep and goats.

The second camp is the satellite camps - fora - these are smaller and far from the settlement. In fora, young men watch over part of the clan's herds to prevent pastures from being consumed too quickly. Splitting the herd also protects it from thieves, disease, or other disasters.

The camel is very important to the Gabbra and is central to the Gabbra way of life, providing security, meat and milk. They are also used to transport goods and water. Selling of the camel and its by-products is taboo. The Gabbra's basic diet is milk and meat though because of decreasing livestock, the people have chosen to include in their diet tea, maize meal, beans and oil. Domestic animals belong to individual families but no individual can claim ownership of land because it belongs to the whole tribe. They all have access to the water wells.

Culturally, many young Gabbra men are separated from the main camp for long periods of time and thus marriages are often postponed. In fact, half of Gabbra women are unmarried until well into their thirties. This, along with the Gabbra's postpartum sex taboo, controls the population.

There is also an Oromo generational system called gada which the Gabbra adhere to. This assimilates all people born in successive 7-year periods into one age set. But all the sons of one man are in one generation set, and it is common for a ruling generation to actually govern - "keep the turban" for more than 7 years.

Men are active in three levels of political and judicial administration. The camp is run by its headman. The district is comprised of a number of camps, whose council of men decides on stock, organization, raids, defense, disputes, and assistance for victims of stock epidemics and raids. Women's political contributions are subtle. Although they refer to themselves as children in regard to the political process, and although men demean the contributions women make, men often defer to women in certain matters.

When it comes to religion, the Gabbra mostly follow their traditional religion and they worship one God whom they believe to be benevolent. They call their God Waaqa, who brings rain as he pleases. The Gabbra religious beliefs are linked to their herds, and animals are needed for sacrifice to ensure fertility, health and co-operation from spirits. Ayana worship, the worship of Satan and his angels—is a practice increasing among the Gabbra, with the center of worship being at Dabel. Islam is increasing by building mosques in each town and promising education and finances. However, the Muslim influence is stronger in some areas than others.

Remarkably, the Gabbra have mastered the land in which they live in and they strive to conserve their environment and their resources which includes the land, animals and water. They move to the highlands during the rainy reason to allow low lying dry lands to replenish. They also have a strict set of taboos surrounding trees and plants which in turn is a conservation mechanism. They revere pregnant animals and women to ensure the survival of their herds and families.

Places that we would recommend to stay in order to see this remarkable tribe are listed on the accomodation section of our website, under Far North.

Or to really spoil yourself we could organise a helicopter safari through the Far North with your own private mobile camp.


"Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water." - W. C. Fields (American Comic and Actor, 1880-1946)