Gabbra people

The Gabra (also written Gabbra or Gebra) live as camel-herding nomads, mainly in the Chalbi Desert of northern Kenya and the highlands of southern Ethiopia. They are closely associated with other Oromo, especially their non-nomadic neighbors, the Borana.


The Gabra speak the Borana dialect of Oromo, which belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family.


The name "Gabra" may have roots in the Oromo word gabaro, meaning "vassal" and possibly indicating an association within the Borana federation. They appear to have been a conglomerate of peoples living north of the Tana river in Kenya, the area around Lake Turkana and the highlands of southern Ethiopia, but the details of Gabra ethnogenesis are subject to debate within academia.

The Gabra's ornamentation and physical culture is similar to many other Cushitic-speaking camel herders. The latter include the Rendille and Somali, all of whom the Gabra describe as warra dassee ("people of the mat"), in reference to the mat-covered, portable tents, which accompany their nomadic lifestyle. The Borana, on the other hand, are described by the Gabbra as warrra buyyoo ("people of the grass"), in reference to the grass huts that characterize their sedentary lifestyle.

Gabra homes, called mandasse, are light, dome-shaped tents made of acacia roots, and covered with sisal grass mats, textiles, and camel hides. Each mandasse is divided into four quarters; a public quadrant each for male visitors, female visitors, and a private quadrant each for parents and children. A mandasse can be completely disassembled and converted into a camel-carried palanquin in which children and the elderly travel.

Gabra live in small villages, or ola made up of several mandasse. Ola move short distances as many as twelve times per year, in search of better grazing for the camels and other animals the Gabra rely on.


Gabra society is broadly divided into the lowland Gabra (Gabra Malbe) on the Kenyan side of the border, and the highland Gabra (Gabra Miigo) on the Ethiopian side of the border. The Gabra Malbe have been the subject of some missionary activity and anthropological research while little has been published on the Gabra Miigo. Gabra society is further divided into several semi-exogamous groups called the "five drums" (Oromo: dibbee shanaan). In Kenya, each of the "drums" generally resides in a particular grazing area which is historically tied to the region assigned them by the British colonial government in the early 1900s, though their previous territory appears to have been larger. The territory of the Ethiopian Gabra, is said to comprise a "sixth drum".


The Gabra practice a monotheistic religion based on the traditional Oromo religion, centering on worship of the god Waaqa, syncretized with Islamic elements. The Gabra make pilgrimages to sacred sites, most of which are located in the mountainous terrain of what is today Borana territory.


  • Tablino, Paul (1999): The Gabra: Camel Nomads of Northern Kenya. ISBN 9966-21-438-0
  • Kassam, Aneesa (2006): "10.1215/00141801-53-1-173 (PDF)
  • Wood, John (1999): When Men Are Women: Manhood Among Gabra Nomads of East Africa. University of Wisconsin Press.

Further reading

  • G√ľnther Schlee: Interethnic Clan Identities among Cushitic-Speaking Pastoralists, in: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 55, No. 1 (1985), Edinburgh University Press
  • Muchemi Wachira: Neither Ethiopian Nor Kenyan, Just Gabra, Garre Or Borana, in: The East African, 31. August 2009[2]
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