The Borana are part of a larger group of the Oromo who first entered Kenya from southern Ethiopia during a major migratory expansion in the late 10th century. They are differentiated into the cattle-keeping Borana and the camel-keeping Gabbra and Sakuye. The Gabbra (or Gabra) call them warrra buyyoo or the ‘people of the grass’ because of their grass huts.
They are the southernmost group of 3 closely related Oromo groups, including the Arsi and the Guji (or Gujji), who total almost 4 million. The Borana Oromo live in Ethiopia and Kenya, with a few in Somalia.
Originally from Southern Ethiopia, they shifted to the Northern areas of Kenya in the early years of the 16th century and currently reside in and around the counties of Isiolo, Tana River, Garissa, and Marsabit. The heaviest concentration lives in the Sololo area of Marsabit and in Moyale. Those in Isiolo are concentrated in Merti and Garba Tula.
The decreasing availability of productive grazing land threatens the Borana people and contact with other nomadic peoples often leads to bloody clashes as they fight for the right to grazing lands. They have been increasingly dependent on relief agencies for help in recent years. For a people as proud as the Borana, they find their current donor-dependency culturally repugnant.
Two or 3 centuries ago, the Borana converted to Islam, so a majority are nominally Muslims who practice Folk Islam. A few are still traditionalists, practising Ayana, a very powerful and much-feared form of Satan worship.
They believe their god, Wak, sends all good things, especially rain when well appeased. In ancient times they gave Wak gifts – the highest being the sacrifice of the firstborn. A shaman, who lived in the forest, would kill and offer the newborn as a sacrifice to Wak.
This traditional religion is monotheistic with communication done through intermediary priests or Qalla. These large and ancient people have had only minimal contact with Christianity, due in part to their nomadic lifestyle.
The language they speak is also called Borana which is a form of the broader Oromo grouping. This language was originally of an eastern Cushite family of the Afro-Asiatic language.
Marriage among the Borana is viewed as a contract between the 2 families involved. The male relatives of both families negotiate an acceptable bride price. Therefore, there is huge pressure on the individuals to stay together, even if they are having problems.
If a Borana man wants to marry a woman, but her family objects, he can persuade her to agree to elope with him. The day after the elopement, the man and his male family members go with an apology gift and a portion of the bride price. Usually, the woman’s family accepts the gift because they see that the woman has run away of her own free will.
This form of marriage has become increasingly popular with the younger generation of Kenyan Borana adults. This is probably due to the growing difficulties of finding the bride price in a changing economy, and the Western influence of ‘marrying for love.’ There are clear gender lines in the way boys and girls are raised.
Boys are rarely disciplined (especially not by their mothers) and are encouraged to be strong and authoritative over those under them, including all women. Girls are usually disciplined and are raised to be quiet, submissive and hard working.
Boys are circumcised, but individually, at the time the father chooses, unlike the Bantu practice of group induction. Female circumcision is still practised among the Borana, although a few Christians have taken a stand and refused to circumcise their daughters.