Identities in the northeast can be confusing to foreigners. The largest group are the Boran, part of the Oromo peoples (formerly called Galla, an Amhara term of abuse), whose homeland was near the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia, from where they suddenly exploded out, in all directions, in the sixteenth century. The pastoral Boran developed and flourished in what is now southern Ethiopia, but Menelik’s conquest of the area and the oppressive Amhara regime caused some of them to move down to the lowlands of northern Kenya, a much less suitable region for their cattle. The first Boran arrived in Marsabit only in 1921.
Similarly, the Burji are recent Ethiopian immigrants to the region between Marsabit and Moyale – an agricultural people who were encouraged to move south by colonial administrators in the 1930s who wanted more crops grown in the district. The Burji took quickly to Western education and trade, and as a result dominated Marsabit politically in the first decade after independence. There’s traditionally little love lost between the nomadic Boran and the settled Burji.
At around the time of the Oromo expansion, another group of people – the forefathers of the Gabbra – arrived in northern Kenya, causing havoc in the region, only to be themselves pressured by the ensuing expansion of Muslim Somalis from the east. The ancestors of the Gabbra became “Boranized” to the extent that they changed their language and adopted Boran customs. Although most Boran and Gabbra, especially those who adopted a more sedentary life, have adopted Somali styles in dress and culture, they eschew Islam, preferring their own religions.
The Rendille, whose homeland is to the northwest of Marsabit, look and act like Samburu, with whom they are frequently allied; they speak a language close to Somali but have non-Muslim religious beliefs. They normally herd camels rather than cattle and, to a great extent, continue to roam the deserts, facing the prospect of settling down without any enthusiasm at all and visiting Marsabit only for vital needs or a brief holiday.
In Marsabit itself, distinctions other than superficial ones were becoming increasingly hard to apply by the 1990s, as people intermarried, sent more children to school and absorbed new ideas from Nairobi – and from Christian missionaries. Still, language and religious beliefs remain significant in deciding who does what and with whom. Outside the town individual tribal identities are as strong – and potentially bloody – as ever. Since the massacre in 2005 at Turbi (a remote village 150km north of Marsabit), when Boran warriors attacked Gabbra villagers during a flare-up of customary inter-tribal cattle rustling, and killed sixty people, Marsabit has seen a deep chill in relations between the different peoples.