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The Orma People of Kenya

Population:     70,000 (Wikipedia, no source cited)
Religion:        Islam
Registry of Peoples code(s):  Orma:  107680
Registry of Peoples code(s):  Munyoyaya:  106915
Registry of Languages code(s) (Ethnologue):  Orma:  orc


Location and Identity:
The Orma are semi-nomadic herders who live in the semi-arid bushlands of south-eastern Kenya.  They are the southernmost representatives of the once powerful Oromo (Galla) nation of Ethiopia and Northern Kenya.  They are related to the Borana and other Oromo groups.

Some Orma had moved into the Tana area by 1850.  Johan Krapf, the first Protestant missionary to Kenya, came with a desire to visit the "Galla."  This older term, which refers to all the Oromo groups, is seen in some sources for the Orma.

In the late 19th century the Orma were forced by Ogaadeen (Ogaden) Somali to migrate farther south into Kenya.  They are at home now along the river, from the rich delta area of the lower Tana to the drier western Tana area.  They live near the river in the dry season, and move further inland to the west in the rainy season.

A group of about 15,000 called Munyoyaya or Munyo speak the Orma language and are included by some sources in the population for the Orma.  The Munyoyaya are fishers.  Both the Orma proper and the Munyoyaya are Muslims.

Before 1500, the Oromo-speaking peoples began migrating south from the northeastern highlands of Ethiopia, spreading gradually to the area north of Mt. Kenya and down the River Tana to the coast.  These were cattle and camel herders, who raided more settled peoples as they migrated or ranged through various territories.  The Orma were in approximately their current settlement areas by 1900.

They have come into increasing conflict with the neighboring Pokomo people.1  The Pokomo are farmers or fishers who live along the Tana River and depend on the river and its flooding cycles for the irrigation of their crops.  The Orma are herders and need access to the river to water their herds Since 2001, there have been violent clashes and revenge raids between the two ethnic communities.2  Modern weapons have increased the number of fatalities and injuries in recent years over past conflicts.3

Drought conditions are always a threat also.  In 2007, some relief was felt by Kenya from the long drought that had devastated crop production and thinned cattle herds.  Conflicts with the Wardei people also continued after the drought condition had improved in October 2007.

The Wardei are a small ethnic group living in part of the Tana River District where the Orma live.4  The Wardei are also mainly pastoralists and live in the drier scrublands of the region, similar to the Orma.  They, like the Orma and Munyoyaya, are Muslims.  On the other hand, the Pokomo are Christians and more modern and more educated.5

Women traditionally are considered less important, even though they build the houses and take them down for tansportation when the group moves inland in the rainy season.  Reports on the Tana River Water Project plans and goals indicate that the main beneficiaries of the project will be the women's groups and public institutions, like schools, clinics and churches.

A 2006 report on this project by the Kenya Water for Health Organization (KWAHO) stated that a marked change had already occured in the status and attitude toward women, as they have been empowered in various ways by the benefits brought by the water project.  The report indicated that the skills gained from training by KWAHO, giving women a greater say in directing the course of their life.  There is a move towards greater finaincial independence for women.

The 2006 report also indicated that progress in coordiating the water project implementation has been limited by the ethnic conflicts in the region.6

The Orma language is an Eastern Cushite language of the Oromo family.  Orma is similar to Borana-Arsi-Guji (also called Borana), but not mutually intelligible.  Some Western Orma also understand Borana.  Nearer the coast many speak Swahili.

Cattle are central to the Orma culture.  Herding is their only means of survival; they keep goats and sheep alongside their cattle.  Cattle are paid as bride price from the groom's family.  They are also slaughtered at weddings and funerals.  All of life focuses on the welfare of the cattle.

Meat is the main food, supplemented with milk and blood, though now some Orma also eat maize, rice, beans and tea.  The arid climate of the upper Tana region is too dry to support agriculture, so the Orma there have no vegetables in their diet.

The Orma live in round houses which consist of a wooden framework covered with woven mats and grass.  The women build these houses.  When people move with the herds, the house is dismantled and put on a pack animal along with the household goods.  A larger version of the houses are built for people who live in permanent villages.

Special ceremonies surround the birth of children.  After a woman gives birth, the baby is dedicated at 7 days of age.  The woman stays secluded for a total of 40 days.  There is a feast with the other women in the village and the baby is dedicated again.  The ceremony ends with the women dancing.

The expectations and demands of the encroaching technological modern life has led to cultural challenges.  Government leaders foster modern education for the youth.  This conflicts with the pastoral and traditional expectaton of Orma children to tend the herds.  The children's lack of control over the herds in the current situation has led to further clashes with their Pokomo neighbors.  It is proposed that educating Orma and Pokomo children together will build peace and future friendship.

The Orma are 99.9% Muslim.  They converted to Islam starting three or four generations ago.  They observe all the rites and festivals of Islam.

Johan Krapf, the first Christian missionary in Kenya, came to Kenya to reach the Oromo (Galla) peoples.  There has been some effort by Africa Inland Church missionaries off and on since 1960.  Finally concerted efforts by AIC began around 1980.  The missionaries requested help from Bible Translation and Literacy to develop literature for evangelism and discipleship as well as Bible translation.  Translation is under way but no scripture portions have been produced.

Related Profiles on the Site
The Borana People
The Munyoyaya People

For more on the Orma People
Guns in the Borderlands
Orma Language — Ethnologue
Orma Language — Wikipedia
Orma People — Wikipedia
Orma-Pokomo Clashes
Orma-Wardei Clashes and Drought
Pokomo Sue Government over Orma Clashes
Ethnic Groups — Tana River Water Project
Women — Tana River Water Project

Francis Omondi and Orville Boyd Jenkins
Originally written June 1996
Posted on Thoughts and Resources in 2000
Rewritten 25 January 2008

Copyright © 2000, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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