Infos on the Borana culture



The unique Borana breed

Picture 1 shows a pure Borana bull. Its distinct greyish colour, its pronounced hump, its pending dewlap and its short horns can be nicely observed. Furthermore, the bull’s legs are comparatively long.
Borana cattle
Picture 2 also shows a “pure” Borana bull, with ploughing yokes installed. This is the unique and the most preferred coat colour for Borana cattle: light grey for the body and dark grey around the dewlap and on top of the back. The short and straight horns, round in cross section, upright and thick at the base, for which the Borana breed is known, can be well seen again. Many livestockkeepers do not keep bulls by themselves but it is common Oromo-Borana cultural practice to borrow bulls from neighbours. “Rich” livestock-keepers with large herds usually keep a few breeding bulls (the most preferred ratio of cows to bulls was found to be 8-10 to 1) and two castrated bulls for draught power.
traction use
Picture 3 depicts a Borana calf kept within a traditionally equipped Borana house. Particularly during the dry seasons and severe droughts, calves are kept inside in order to increase their survival chances. They would be too weak to accompany the herds to distant pastures (herds are forced to be tracked long distances due to lacking nearby pastures) and they are permitted to suckle only in the mornings and in the evenings when the herds of cows return to the villages. This picture was taken in Didi Hara in Ethiopia.
Borana hut
Picture 4 was taken at the “Did Tuyura” governmental ranch in Southern Ethiopia, near Yabello, showing a “pure” Borana cow. Its body is quite large with long legs and its colour is white and light greyish (only bulls exhibit dark grey patterns). The Did Tuyura Ranch aims to conserve the pure Borana cattle. The ranch was established in 1987 when it received some of the best Borana animals from Borana livestock-keepers and, owing to these animals, initiated a breeding programme. Since then, the ranch has been allotting breeding bulls to the five districts on the Borana plateau in annual regularity. The breeding bulls are then further distributed to some communally selected livestockkeepers within the districts for the purpose of upgrading their herds in terms of productivity and body size of the animals.
Did Tuyura
Picture 5, depicting a herd of Borana calves, was also taken at this ranch.
calves at Did Tuyura ranch
Unlike the previous pictures, the following three pictures will provide examples of Borana animals that are dubbed “Borana” by local livestock-keepers but that are, from a phenotypic point of view, clearly different to the original breed. Picture 6, for instance, shows Eshetu (ILRI staff and an excellent driver) taking measurements from a cow in Finchawa (Ethiopia). I assume this cow to be a crossbred of Borana and Guji or even a pure Guji animal. The brown colour could also be expressed in Borana cows but it is more common for Guji, and the rather stocky body size and shape is also a sign for a crossbred.
Picture 7 illustrates a herd of crosses of Borana*SEAZ in Kenya (near Kijiji). The heterogeneous herd composition is nicely revealed, showing animals of different colours and body sizes. Livestock-keepers made the point during the interviews, that their herds and the appearance of cattle have changes over the last 10 years. The recognition and awareness is there but local livestock-keepers do not relate this change to a change in the genetic make-up of their cattle due to crossbreeding because they do not pursue a breed classification scheme like the one we have in Western countries. For them, the term “breed” does not exist in terms of our definitions but for them breed is mainly simply named after the region and the tribe, i.e. is a cultural rather than a biological or technical term.
cattle herd in Kenya
Picture 8 gives a further example of a falsely labelled “Borana” cow in the Kenyan research area. This cow in the front of the picture rather seems to contain some SEAZ genes but nevertheless would respondents term it falsely “Borana”. The other short-legged animals shown in the background are assumingly of the Orma Borana subtype.

People and their lifestyle

Pictures 9 and 10 show the very meagre environment of my research area. Keeping camels instead of cattle became fashionable lately (as an answer to the changing land cover and more frequently droughts), constituting a threat to the Borana cattle population.
camels in Burbisa
cattle herd
The research was conducted in two countries, Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia. Even though the cultural group occupying both parts is largely the same because Oromo- Borana clans from Southern Ethiopia have migrated to Northern parts of Kenya, there are also cultural differences (as amply illustrated by the following pictures). The Borana are believed to have reached Kenya between 1,400 and 1,500 with the largest expansion in the 16th century (Schlee, 1989). In any case, the larger share of Borana people still remains in Southern Ethiopia embracing a total number of about 4 to 5 million persons (with a share of less than 2 million in Kenya (Fratkin and Roth, 2005, chapter 2)).
Other ethnic groups on the Ethiopian Borana plateau living interspersed with the Borana include the Guji, the Garri, the Konso, the Gabra and the Hamer (Coppock, 1994). In Northern Kenya, I mainly came into contact with Rendille, Samburu, Gabra and Borana people. I interviewed livestock-keepers belonging to different clans because the main selection for interviewees was “keeping Borana cattle” and the breed is popular not only among Borana people.
Picture 11 shows a village chief (aba ola) and his wife in their hut. He is holding a cane and a kind of lash, both as signs of power and wealth. The colours of their clothes are the traditional Borana colours (dark blue or dark green and red) and of their preferred patterns.
aba ola
The Borana culture is also known for its traditional gada system, an indigenous and complex socio/political structure that governs the strategic interests of the Borana society. The gada system is believed to have evolved in the 1600s and it is based on a system that divides the Borana community into a number of general classes (Kamara, 2000). It is responsible for all issues affecting the pastoral life of the communities, including governance of pastures, provision of a framework for socio-political stability and protection from external invasions (Homann et al., 2003). A new gada is elected after every eight years by an assembly of all the Borana people or their representatives (gumi gayu). Since 1992 the two systems, the gada system and the administration system based on the peasant associations, have existed side by side on the Borana plateau (Helland, 2000).
Pictures 12 and 13 were taken in Kenya, in the Kijiji research site, showing children of the Samburu clan (pic 12) and Samburu women performing their traditional dance (pic 13). This dance involves neck bashing. By the way, the amount of necklaces is a sign of wealth and are also given to girls (fiancées) as a kind of dowry (bit the more important part of dowry still constitutes life animals (cattle as the most „valuable“ dowry, followed by camels and goats). The clothes of Samburu people are usually very bright and preferable red and pink (in contrast to rather dark colours of Borana people).
Samburu dance

Housing styles

The different common cultures could also be differentiated not only by means of their clothing but also by means of the different styles of their housing. The subsequent three pictures show huts representative for the Gabra society in Northern Kenya (pic 14), for the Samburu culture in Northern Kenya (pic 15) and for Borana clans in Ethiopia (pic 16). The Borana people in Kenya are closely related to the Gabra group who are mainly camel herding but also cattle nomads and commonly found in Marsabit district. The Gabra houses are made from cloth and trees and are very easy to dismantle and move. Borana houses are made to be temporary (more in the past than now) and made from grass and slits of plants. Nowadays, many Borana build permanent houses made form mud (at least in Kenya), not only because they abandon their nomadic lives but also because these houses did not protect them from heavy rain. The Borana houses (pic 16) are in general very “sophisticated”, providing lots of interior space and also including most commonly three compartments. The bed of the head of the household is generally separated. Samburu houses (pic 15) are also made of sticks and cow dung and the roof differs from the Borana style. Furthermore, Samburu houses usually only accommodates one big room that is very low in heights.
Gari hut
Samburu hut
Borana hut

The deep wells

A particular feature on the plateau is the permanent supply of water by nine deep well complexes and a number of dispersed springs. The deep wells (tula wells) are perhaps the most fundamental feature that has shaped the Borana society (Helland, 1980), constituting a vital source without which keeping cattle in the Borana ranges would be impossible in the dry season (Helland, 2000). Tula wells are old, usually much deeper than normal well complexes and require massive excavation with shafts sunk into rock. The tula wells comprise the most reliable source of water, never drying up even in the course of severe droughts (Coppock, 1994). The traditional hand-dug desert wells (often up to 30 metres deep) are vital to the Borana people, especially during the dry season when they provide water for the animals and people; there are no other substantial water sources in the area.
The wells were built with no scientific equipment and they have been operating for the last 500 years and are. The wells appear in clusters, known locally as “tulas”, and there are, in all, nine of these on the Ethiopian Borana plateau The nine deep wells underlie a strong social organisation controlling construction, access, usage and maintenance of the wells (Helland, 2000). If anyone needs water from a well that does not belong to their clans, they must ask for permission of the owners of the well, who then decide of the water extraction. If water is low, the owner will deny unlimited access but only the owner will allow watering the animals that they have enough for that day.
Picture 17 shows men working in a tula well. Witnessing this was one of the most astonishing things that I have experienced during my stay in East Africa. Men stand on top of each other, forming a human chain down the well; they toss buckets between each other on a precarious ladder, gathering one of the world’s most precious resources – water. There is a loud chorus of singing, which keeps the rhythm going; the buckets are lowered and raised at a mesmerising pace and the troughs are gradually filled at the mouth of the well. Back at ground level, other groups of animals are gathering, waiting for their turn to come down and drink (as seen in picture 18). Not only the animals are waiting but also women filling buckets to bring them home on donkeys.
tula well
tula well
In picture 19 it is me in front of the huge catacomb-like passage marking the entrance of a tula well near Web. The dust will soon kick up as a long line of cattle will wander down this path leading to a deep well. Astonishing is also the appearance of cattle before and after they have drunk. Before they are permitted entrance they look very skinny (often having lived without water for three days) but after they refresh, they look literally bloated.
tula well entrance


Coppock, D.L. 1994. The Borana Plateau of Southern Ethiopia: Synthesis of Pastoral Research, Development and Change, 1980-91. Addis Ababa: International Livestock Center for Africa.

Helland, J. 1980. Social organization and water control among the Borana of southern Ethiopia. Working document 16. ILCA (International Livestock Centre for Africa), Nairobi. Kenya.

Helland, J. 2000. Institutional erosion in the drylands: The case study of the Borana pastoralists. In: Manger, L. and Ahmed, A.G. (Eds.), Pastoralists and environment. Addis Ababa, OSSREA.

Kamara, A. B. 2000. Ethiopian case study. In: Mc Carthy, N., Swallow, B., Kirk, M., Hazell, P. (Eds.), Property rights, risk, and livestock development in Africa. Washington and Nairobi, IFPRI, 396-426.

Schlee, G. 1989. Identities on the Move: Clanship and Pastoralism in Northern Kenya. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK.