Kenya's Ethno-Linguistic Groups

The Cushites


Cushitic-speaking peoples that are or will be included in this website: Borana, Burji, El Molo, Gabbra, Merille, Orma, Rendille, Somali.
In this page:
Origins
The various Cushitic groups
Kenya's Southern Cushites
Kenya's Eastern Cushites


Origins

Of Kenya's three major migrant ethno-linguistic groups, the first to arrive were the Cushites, the earliest of which are believed to have entered north and northeastern Kenya from southern Ethiopia sometime between the second and first millennium BC. However, there's a lot of academic dispute about this, with some 'experts' claiming a Cushitic presence in northeastern Kenya as long ago as 7000 BC (ie. 9000 years ago). Unfortunately, there's little or no material proof of this, nor much likelihood of finding any: the material culture of nomadic peoples is generally perishable, as items such as pots, ropes, sandals and so on are made of natural materials such as fibres, wood, gourds and animal products. In any case, the harsh climate - which alternates between extremes of drought (with plenty of abrasive sand and dust) and floods - quickly destroys any material remains.
   In any case, many more migrations occurred subsequent to the first arrivals, the latest in the mid-1900s (the Burji from Ethiopia), which makes tracing the exact ancestry of any of these peoples a confusing and probably pointless exercise.

The various Cushitic groups

Undaunted, linguists have made several distinctions among Cushitic-speaking peoples based on perceived language roots, although as usual nothing has yet been proved beyond doubt. These are: Northern Cushites (mainly in Sudan and Eritrea, which may or may not have elements of North African Berber), Central Cushites (also called the Agau group; mainly in Ethiopia, including the Jewish Falashim, and bearing strong Ethiopic and Amharic influence), the Western Cushites (or Omotic; spoken along the western border of Ethiopia near Kenya), the Southern Cushites (mainly in Tanzania, including the Iraqw, Asa and Ngomwia) and the Eastern Cushites.

Until the arrival of the Nilotes some five hundred years ago, the ancestors of both the Eastern and Southern Cushites occupied a much larger part of East Africa than they do today, extending into the inter-lakes region as well as central and southern Kenya. However, the arrival of both the Bantu and especially the Nilotic-speaking peoples scattered the Cushitic populations.
   Some groups headed south into Tanzania, whilst others headed west into the Rift Valley, where they were eventually assimilated by the ancestors of the Maasai and other Nilotic tribes. But the majority simply retreated northwards into the more marginal lands they occupy today. These were nonetheless exposed to a prolonged and profound interaction with their new Nilotic neighbours, including cultural exchange and intermarriage, to the extent that there is nowadays very little to distinguish the supposedly Cushitic Rendille with their Nilotic Samburu neighbours.

More recently, perhaps some three hundred years ago, the 'Oromo Expansion', which originated in southern Ethiopia, reclaimed some of the land that had been lost, mainly at the expense of the Bantu who were forced south into the much more fertile highland areas of Kenya, where they remain today.

Nowadays, Cushitic-speaking peoples are dispersed over a large portion of the arid north and northeast of Kenya, and also comprise the majority in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Despite covering about 25% of Kenya land surface, Cushites presently account for only 3-4% of the total population. They live almost exclusively by herding camels, although cattle are sometimes also kept where climatic conditions allow. Drought, famine and desertification are recurrent features of their lives, and excludes any possibility of agriculture.


Kenya's Southern Cushites

The vast majority of Kenyan Cushites are from the Eastern branch, with only a few pockets of numerically tiny Southern Cushites surviving, mainly near the coast. Also called Dahaloan-speakers, the continued existence of the Southern Cushites as separate and independent Kenya peoples is highly unlikely, as the eastern border of Kenya with Somalia has become little more than a reflection of Somalia's internal conflicts, with heavily-armed raiders, bandits and massacres prevalent throughout the 1990s. The Kenyan Government, incidentally, is either unable or unwilling to pay anything more than lip-service to the problem. Christianity is another threat to these peoples' cultural integrity, as is the gradual process of modernization which increasingly makes their traditional way of life - which includes hunting - less viable.


Kenya's Eastern Cushites

Within Kenya's population of Eastern Cushites, two main distinctions are made: to the east, bordering Somalia, are the Somali-speaking people (also called Somaloid, or Garre), whilst to the north, bordering Ethiopia and indeed occupying a good part of southern Ethiopia, are the Oromo-speakers (formerly and pejoratively called Galla), who migrated into Kenya from the lowland areas south of the Ethiopian highlands. This latter group includes the Borana (by far the largest group numerically), the Gabbra, and the ancestors of the Rendille. The Orma, who occupy a small enclave around Garsen and the Tana River near the Kenyan coast, are also Oromo-speaking.


 
 
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