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The Borana of Ethiopia and Kenya

Population:     345,000 in Ethiopia, 1993; about 136,936 in Kenya, 2003,
Religion:       Islam and Local Tradition
Registry of Peoples code(s):  Borana:  101615
Registry of Languages code(s) (Ethnologue):  Oromo, Borana-Arsi-Guji:  GAX


The Borana are part of a very much larger group of the Oromo culture group.  They are the southern-most group of a cluster of three closely related Oromo groups including the Arsi and the Guji (or Gujji), which total almost 4 million.  The Borana Oromo live in Ethiopia and Kenya, with a few in Somalia.  Few sources give the separate population of the Borana in Ethiopia.  The 1998 census Kenya reported that 150,000-175,000 Borana lived in Kenya.  A 2003 population of only 136,936 is reported by  They are related to the Oromo in Somalia also.  The Ethnologue Edition 16 (2009) reports the Borana dialect in Somalia but records no population of speakers.

Those on the Kenya side of the border live in a large area of barren northern Kenya.  About 44% of the Kenya Borana live in Marsabit District, into Tana River District, Garissa District and in Moyale District.  The heaviest concentration live in the Sololo area of Marsabit District and in Moyale District.  Those in Isiolo District are concentrated in Merti and Garba Tula.  Since the early 1990s many Borana have lived in Nairobi.  They maintain contacts with their home area.

The Borana are one of the resulting groups of Oromo migrants who left the southern highlands of Ethiopia in the 1500's.  Most of the Borana and related peoples live in Ethiopia.  The Oromo had migrated east but were pushed back by the Somali leading to a greater southern expansion.  There are almost 4 million Borana people, most living in Ethiopia.

The Ethnologue reports that ethnic Oromo in Ethiopia number about 30,000, making the cluster as a whole the largest cultural-ethnic block.  These varous Oromo groups speak several languages that are not mutually-intelligible.  In older literature the Oromo were also referred to by the name Galla.

The word spelled Borana is pronounced with the final vowel silent.  For this reason in many English sources, mostly older sources, the word is spelled Boran.  In Ethiopia, the Borana group are commonly called Oromo, along with the other Oromo groupings in Eastern Africa.  The name Borana refers to the people or their language and also means friend or kind person.  Thus, a bad person may be told he is not Borana.

The parallel "modern" phenomena of rapid population growth and decreasing availability of productive grazing land threaten the Borana people.  Contacts with other nomadic peoples lead to clashes, sometimes bloody, for land.  Also they have been increasingly dependent upon relief agencies for help, which is culturally repugnant to these proud people.

Because there are several peoples who now speak the Borana language, the Borana proper may be further distinguished as the Gutu Borana.  Their language has been adopted by the Gabbra and Sakuye, who originally came from the same roots as the Somali and Rendille peoples.  Linguists sometimes consider the speech of the Sakuye and Gabbra as sub-dialects of the Borana dialect of Borana-Arsi-Guji.  About 8,000 of the Ajuuraan also speak Borana.

The speech of the Borana is an Oromo langauge closely related to the speech of two other Oromo groups, the Arsi and the Guji. These three closely related forms of the Oromo language family are classified together as one language under the name Borana-Arsi-Guji Oromo.  Since the speech of these three peopls is mutually-intelligible, the speech of these three peoples are officially classified as dialects of the one language under their individual names.  In Ethiopia the speech of these peoples, along with the separate languages of other Oromo peoples, are often commonly called simply Oromo.   The Oromo languages are members of the Eastern Cushite family of the Afro-Asiatic languages.  In Kenya the language is usually called Borana.

Customs: The economy and life style are organized around cattle, though the formerly taboo camels are becoming more important, and they now herd sheep and goats.  Young men do the daily herding while the women do all family nurturing.  The homestead groups may be required to move three or four times each year, often as far as 100 km, because of the low rainfall and poor land.

Sturdy modular houses, constructed by the women, consist of interwoven branches thatched with grass all the way to the ground.  This is in contrast with the Gabbra who weave mats to cover the framework.  When movement of the homestead is required, the transportable portions are loaded onto the back of a camel or a woman and carried to the new location.  They settle temporarily in groups of 10 to 30 houses.

Every aspect of their culture is captured in song and handed down from one generation to the next.  Children are educated and enculturated through music.

Their traditional religion is monotheistic with communication through intermediary priests or "Qalla."  The traditional name for God is Waq (or Wak).  Islam has become influential in Borana society in the last 80 years, but about 50% of the Borana have had only superficial contact with Islam and still mostly follow their traditioal practices.  The Borana around Isiolo are radical Muslims.  There has been some response to the gospel by Borana in Nairobi and Marsabit and in trading posts of southern Ethiopia.

This large and ancient people have had only minimal contact with Christianity, due in part to their nomadic life style.  Yet an indigenous church exists.  Some observers have stated that Borana Christians appear placed to evangelize their own people and neighboring groups.  There are about 25 Christian missionaries working with the Borana.

There is one Baptist church of Borana in Marsabit.  Other churches working among the Borana in Kenya are Petecostal, Africa Inland Church and Anglican.  One recent source reports about 300 Borana in Kenya are Christians (Field source, 2002).  Most of these live in Nairobi.  Some sources, on the other hand, have previously reported up to 10% of the Borana in Kenya are Christian.

For more on the Borana People

Borana-Arsi-Guji language – The Ethnologue
Borana Oromo people – Wikipedia
Borana People – The Largest Oromo Pastoralists
      Extensive photographs with cutlural description.
The Generation of Difference – Book Summary
The great ethnic migrations (ca. 1520-1660)
Indigenous knowledge of Borana pastoralists
Info on the Borana Culture –
Livelihood Diversification in Borana
Oromo Language Cluster – Ethnologue
People of the South Borana
      Detailed description and cultural analysis, photos.
Special report on the Borana – IRIN

Baxter, P T W.  Social Organization of The Boran of North Kenya.  Oxford, UK:  Lincoln College, 1954.

Isack, Hussein Adan.  Kenya's People:  Peoples of the North–Boran.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Evans Brothers (Kenya) Ltd, 1986.

Kjaerland, Gunnar.  Culture Change Among the Nomadic Borana of South Ethiopia.  Pasadena, California:  Fuller Theological Seminary, June 1977.

Schlee, Günther.  Identities on the Move:  Clanship and Pastoralism in Northern Kenya.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Gideon S Were Press, 1994.

-----.  "Interethnic Clan Identities Among Cushitic-Speaking Pastoralists,"  Africa, 55(1), 1985.

First written by Francis Omondi and Orville Boyd Jenkins June 1996
Rewritten 12 December 2009
Last edited 13 August 2015

Copyright © 1996, 2005 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
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