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Insights On Acrimonious Rules in Marsabit From Colonial Times To Date

By Gufu Jattani

One may vehemently deny that the Borana and colonial government dwelt in a somewhat passive sour relationship for years, but the mere fact that the Borana outstandingly resisted colonial rule, downplayed its ideologies and made in vain do-or-die attempt to flash them out, makes the denial hollow. The Borana had on many occasions boycotted administering the colonial administrative authorities. Though towards the end of its rule, the colonial administration managed to convince all tribes that it loved them, the colonial ethnic preference cannot be dismissed outrightly.


Sir Gerald Reece was the colonial administrator known to have ruled the colonial Marsabit district from as early as 1932. Mervyn Maciel, a Goan born in colonial Nairobi, author of many books and articles including Bwana Karani, Wanderings among the Nomads and From Mtoto to Mzee affirms the parameters they used to engage colonial ‘Dubas’:-

“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 all due impartiality, I would say, the colonial administration seemed to have preference for the Gabbra, Rendille and Burji tribes over the Borana. Where did the rain start beating us? From the word go, the Borana out rightly resisted colonial rule as opposed to other resident tribes who collaborated. Psychologically, two things stand out as a concrete basis for men respecting each other; either on grounds of fear or on prevalent interest. Probably, the British East African protectorate was somewhat susceptible to both circumstances.

Also read:  Kenya. The Borana People: The Naming Ceremony.

Despite the confidence in military strength and recognition of superpower in the region, the Borana appreciated the fact that fighting the British East African Army was truly a formidable force they couldn’t withstand. That notwithstanding, the Borana sustained indirect opposition stance against the white rule. The colonial administration apparently resorted to more amicable administrative tactic to bring the Borana closer, failure to which would have otherwise rendered the region ungovernable for them.

“……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.” – Mervyn Maciel.

Borana elders testify having decisively fought “Ferenji” three times using their horses, which was then the equivalent of modern jet fighters or even space rocket. The “Ferenji” they fought were not French but the British “Engerez” (English people) on the Kenyan side and the Italians “Bandaa” on the Ethiopian side. The Borana probably referred to all Europeans as “Ferenji” because French nationals were most likely their first encounter with the whites, who were presumably the earliest explorers to the continent before the “scramble for Africa”.

Nevertheless, the Boran honestly admit to have surrendered the war on grounds of sophistication of weapons applied by whites, the “Qawwe”, meaning gun. It implied that Borana wouldn’t have surrendered the war, were it not for the magnitude of casualties inflicted by the Whiteman’s “T’iyyiti” (bullet) at unimaginably long range, which was then two worlds apart with the spears they used.

The prime positions in colonial administrative offices were seemingly held by Gabbra, Rendille and Burji, which clearly depict their preference over the Boran. Indeed, the case was not any different within the missionary sector.

“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).” – Mervyn Maciel.

According to the narratives of those who were part of colonial administration in the former Marsabit district like Mervyn Maciel and Francis Da Lima, the colonial administration seemingly had more affection for Gabbra, Rendille and Burji than the Borana. For example, Mervyn Maciel in expressing his feelings about the resident tribes, had this to say about them: –

“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.”

“The small contingent of Burjii 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).”

Current Photo of Marsabit town

However, it suffices to note that, the British recognized the Borana for ingrained wisdom exhibited in its renowned works of literature, the “Gaadhis” dispute resolution conducts and accessories (also “Gaas” in the case of Saku Boran and Gabbra), the “Gadha System” administrative structures and the daring brevity.


“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?” – Mervyn Maciel

“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!” – Mervyn Maciel

The imperialist discriminatory rule is noticeable in the manner in which execution of policy and regulatory frameworks were discriminative in imposing specific policy restrictions on one tribe and not the other. Many at times, this selective maltreatment and inequality in exercise of freedoms make one to logically conclude that, most of the marginalization aspects that still exist are stemmed from the deep-seated colonial administrative perceptions.

Traditionally, men are not supposed to walk without a spear and knife. It was made a restriction for Borana to walk with weapons like knives, spears or even clubs in shopping centres and crowded places, whereas for Rendille and Samburu it was ordinary and could even walk with it into police stations, administration offices and even courtyards. This scenario is quite evident within Marsabit town and its environs till today.

Similarly, the colonial government perceived the Borana to be exceedingly hostile to wildlife and therefore hardly entrusted them in wildlife protection sectors. To date, this is what ostensibly made even private conservancies around Isiolo, Laikipia and Meru to hardly hire Borana as “game rangers” as opposed to Samburu, Rendille, Gabbra and other tribes who currently dominate the wildlife sector workforce.

On safety and security fronts, it is perhaps such historical misconceptions that still suffice in modern administrative decisions in independent Kenya. For instance, there prevails intensive scrutiny on Borana in the acquisition of weapons even for legal KPR arms and ammunitions leave alone illicit ones that easily proliferate through porous borders. Across the region, security agencies could discriminately disarm one side and leave the other, a situation that never sounds anything abnormal. To Kenyan government security agencies, arms acquisition by others justly denotes efficacy of human and property protections, whilst the case of Borana principally signify criminality intent that inevitably encounters unforgiving punitive measures.

Be that as it may, those days, there was exceptional social cohesion between what is presently viewed as two distinct tribes, the Gabbra and the Boran. They used to live together as one tribe with immeasurable compassion for each other. There were minimal accounts of active conflicts between them during the pre-colonial times. Till very recently, the Borana claim leaders like Dabasso Wabera as one of his own.

Bad governance is currently the underlying causality factor of the long-standing animosity between Borana and Gabra within Saku constituency today. The adverse effects of rogue leaders brought to power on basis of the warlord is yet another ‘New Normal’ we are learning to live with just like Corona Virus.

Political conflict entrepreneurs who traded with lives and livelihoods of resource-poor pastoralists have inflicted unbearable devastation and mass burials witnessed within Saku, leaving us with uncountable desperate orphans and widows than ever before.

A Borana proverb goes “Nammi deegii gargalchu, gurr looni gargalch”. Bulchoot qabbaanit tanaaffi, guyuu maqaa d’omnaa. Otherwise, we’ve got all reasons to believe that this is a land with no leadership and we are just living at the mercy of God.


What truthful peace-builders still yearn to see one day in our lifetime, is the oneness of Borana and Gabbra again. This could be possible if we emerge rightful leaders from among civil societies who capably employ people-centred, conflict-sensitive and right-based development approaches. We’ve got sons and daughters with distinct abilities to lead us the righteous way, but sadly, when shall our electorates change their mindset to exercise their civic duty of voting devoid of tokenism?.

In conclusion, I wish to leave you with an insightful Borana proverb that goes: –

Wa affur d’ippu, wa affurillen d’ippu d’ippu irra, Horiin d’eedh inqamne d’ippu, gaaf d’eedhii sun madh inqamne d’ippu d’ippu irra, Bulchaan jech inqamne dippu, yo ammo jechum issaatu d’ugaan kees injiree d’ippu d’ippu irra, Ilmii qoffa d’alate d’ippu, yo ammo fuud’e ilm inargattin d’ippu d’ippu irra, Gochitii beekh inqamne d’ippu, yo ammo beekhan tokochii kessat d’alatt jechii issa fulla inqamne d’ippu d’ippu irra.

Gufu Jattani is a Human Rights Defender and Accredited Civic Education Provider

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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