Pastoralists under Pressure: For Hundreds of Years, the Borana People of Southern Ethiopia Have Reared Cattle on the Arid Plains Close to the Kenyan Border According to a Traditional Form of Land Management. Now, However, External Pressures Are Threatening to Destroy Their Way of Life

Article excerpt

Dust fills the air, kicked up by the long line of camels and cattle trudging towards a deep well from which drifts the sound of men singing. Rising from the well's depths is a human chain, whose links pass buckets up and down in time with the singing. The livestock drinks deeply from the troughs that surround the well's mouth, draining them as quickly as they're filled.

This is Borana, a region the size of Hungary in southern Ethiopia near the border with Kenya where rain is erratic and droughts are frequent. Its people, who share the region's name, are semi-nomadic pastoralists, depending on their livestock for their livelihoods. Part of the Oromo tribe, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Borana number around 500,000. For centuries, they have eked out a living in this harsh land, but now their way of life is threatened.

Borana society is highly organised and democratic. Every aspect of their lives is governed by a political, religious, judicial and social institution known as ga'ada. The tribe is divided into two groups--the Sabo and the Gona. The Sabo are further divided into three clans, while 15 clans make up the Gona. At an open meeting every eight years, each clan votes in a new leader, the aba ga'ada, who administers the ga'ada system with advice from his elders. The rules of the system are also re-evaluated at this meeting.

Goya Goba, a Borana man in his 40s, explains that all disputes are resolved through the ga'ada system. "If there is a problem, we investigate it with the help of the traditional judges, the elders," he says. "We all come to the shade of the tree to discuss the problem. Anyone in the community can voice their opinions and problems are discussed until we resolve them." Ga'ada also functions as a form of social welfare, helping the Borana cope with the effects of the region's fluctuating climate. Members of the same clan are expected to help each other in times of hardship. For example, if someone loses their cattle to disease, other clan members will club together to provide them with replacements.

One of the most important aspects of the ga'ada system, however, is the management of the Borana's natural resources. It dictates that after an area has been grazed, it should be left fallow to allow the grass to regenerate, and that certain areas of land are reserved for the sole use of calves.

In an area prone to drought, water is the Borana's most important resource, and the ga'ada system sets out clear rules for its use. Each clan has its own hand-dug well, and designates one man, known as the aba harega, to manage it. He draws up rotas that allocate a time for each person to bring their cattle to the well. If a member of another clan wishes to use the well, he must appeal to the aba harega. If the water is low, he will order the man to move on, but because land and water are considered a common resource, his animals will be allowed to drink and graze enough for that day.

Borana society is now entering a critical period. Increasing populations, both of the Borana and of neighbouring tribes, is putting pressure on their resources. Worse still, the Ethiopian government is pursuing a policy of rural development that eschews the pastoralist way of life in favour of one of settled agriculture. As a consequence, it's encouraging farmers to fence off areas of the Borana's land to cultivate crops such as maize. This is most obvious around the urban settlements of Dire, Yabello, Teltele, Arero and Moyale, as well as in moist regions around river beds.

As a result, the Borana are suffering. "During the dry season," says Shona, who has 20 cows, "I used to take my cattle to the river valley because I knew that there would be water there. Now, I only find fences. Because access to this land is now restricted, I fear that my cattle won't be able to survive the next drought." The increased restrictions also mean that the Borana have access to less land in total. …