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Music and Dance in Eastern Africa

Kahithe Kiiru
Maina wa Mũtonya

Part II: The Performance of Local Politics and National Identities

The Symbolism of Gada in Local Political Campaign Songs among the Boran of Marsabit County in Northern Kenya

Hassan H. Kochore


This chapter looks at how the Boran of northern Kenya use their traditional institution of gada1 to make dialogue with and make sense of the Kenyan political system. Despite its historical ubiquity and importance in the socio-political life of the Boran of Marsabit, the system has however been on the decline in recent decades; however, here I argue that gada has come to be memorialized in popular culture like songs and continues to influence the way in which the Boran navigate new social and political realities. Drawing on earlier ethnographies on the Boran and colonial archives reports, the first part of the chapter discusses the ethnographic background of the Marsabit Boran and locating the historical centrality of gada and its associated rituals and ceremonies in their socio-political life. The second part looks at how this system is remembered in contemporary Boran political campaign songs by analyzing the lyrics of the music and teasing out the imagery of gada contained therein. This part also puts the songs in their longue durée and expounds on their contemporary usefulness for the Boran in making sense of the Kenyan political system. The analysis reveals that despite having ‘practically’ declined,2 the Boran socio-political institution of gada and its associated ritual site of ardha gadamojji3 in Marsabit are symbolically useful resources for imagining and making sense of the Kenyan political system. Finally the chapter argues that despite having been presented as existing on the periphery of the Kenyan nation and at times portrayed as anti-national, – the Boran have in their own ways syncretized the Kenyan experience as can be discerned from their popular culture.

Texte intégral

Introduction: Music, Identity and Politics

1Music and society, as Martin Stokes (1994) argues, are intricately interwoven in a way that one could arguably study important socio-political aspects of a society through its music. Aidan Russell echoes this proposition by introducing the concept of ‘communities in music’ (Russell 2011: 303). He contends that “music can provide the framework and expression in which social organisation, beliefs, group identity and historical memory can be formalised or confirmed” (ibid.) In this chapter, I look at the ways in which people use music to constitute and express their identity, especially when they emphasize and reproduce a ‘traditional’ past in musical performance. In this respect, I explore the role of music in “continuity maintenance”, that is, when music is used as a mnemonic tool to recount a past that is deemed useful for a society through emphasizing their tradition as well as adapting to new socio-political conditions.

2In Marsabit County of northern Kenya, composition and performance of political songs have become an important part of the periodic election campaigns. The songs contain, among other themes, praise of preferred local candidates (and in some cases national party leaders), mock rivals, and contest communal boundaries with other communities. More generally, they record and comment on the political context since the previous elections. These commentaries on social, political and economic conditions range from the state of education, drought and instances of conflict to any other issues deemed significant for the community. In a way, as Nyairo and Ogude posit, this type of “music documents the people’s history” (Nyairo and Ogude 2005: 226) by identifying, recording and memorializing certain social and political events. In Kenya, while the politics of such music has been explored at the national level, for example, through the analysis of artists, Gigigidi Majimaji’s song, unbwogable by Nyairo and Ogude (2005), more localized political campaign songs have not been given much attention even in the context of a devolved political structure. Basically, this chapter therefore seeks to move the analyses of such music to the county level in a bid to explore the interplay between local and national politics, production of citizenship and belonging.

3In the case of Marsabit, the music is laden with strong symbolism of gada - a traditional socio-political system whose practice and influence has hitherto been eroded by the coming of nation-states, namely, Kenya and Ethiopia. Gunther Schlee, writing in a context in which he argues that gada has lost its historical potency, asserts that in some places, ‘gada’ has become part of folklore or historical romanticism’ (Schlee 1998: 145). Following up on Schlee’s statement, I would like to explore, through the example of Marsabit Boran, the first part of this statement where gada is argued to have been relegated to ‘folklore’. At this level therefore this chapter seeks to understand the contemporary relevance of the almost structurally defunct Boran gada system among the Boran of Marsabit. It especially focuses on how gada is appropriated as a language in music to syncretize the hitherto ‘external’ ideas and experiences of the post-colonial Kenyan nation-state. More specifically, it explores how a marginal group constitutes and expresses its identity by invoking a revered traditional system in popular discourse in the context of socio-political change. Drawing on Kelly Askew (2002)’s insight into Tanzanian taarab music and nation building, I demonstrate and argue that in (northern) Kenya music is a particularly salient form of social and political discourse that provides an important window into understanding ethnic, regional and national identity politics which are actualized through ‘performing the nation’. Askew essentially argues that musical performance is fundamental to understanding nation-building. He demonstrates how the genre of ngoma (traditional dance), dansi (urban jazz), and taarab (sung Swahili poetry) influenced the official presentations of “Tanzanian National Culture” over the years. Following this line of inquiry, in this chapter, I look at how the Boran articulate their own ideas and conception of Kenyan political culture through ‘local-national’ lens as manifested their political campaign songs that draw on traditional ideas of political representation.

4The chapter is structured as follows: Firstly, I start by giving a short ethnographic background of the Marsabit Boran and their historical relationship to the gada system. I then delve into the composition and lyrics of the songs which I discuss. The final part then explores the symbolic meaning and resonance that gada has for the Marsabit Boran as can be gathered from political campaign songs.

Marsabit Boran: The Ethnographic Setting

5The Marsabit Boran are a branch of the larger Oromo - the majority ethnic group in Ethiopia. They however have largely been disconnected from their kin in Southern Ethiopia due to not only geographic barriers but also the colonial and post-colonial process of state building where the Boran were divided into ‘Kenyan Boran’ and ‘Ethiopian Boran’. The Kenyan Boran are further divided into Marsabit Boran who reside in Marsabit County and Waso Boran who live in Isiolo.

6Due to the ‘Somalisation’ of the Waso Boran (Aguilar 1998) - mainly conversion to Islam and becoming (like) Somalis –, the Marsabit Boran may be considered the cultural core of Kenyan Boran. The Marsabit Boran were formerly pastoralists who moved long distances (as far as southern Ethiopia) with their herd in search of water and pasture; but in the last few decades they have mainly settled on Marsabit mountain and engage in farming alongside keeping livestock (mainly cattle). Despite having been disconnected from their homeland and ritual and pilgrimage sites in southern Ethiopia, they have, to a certain degree, maintained most of their rituals and reproduced the associated ritual sites in Marsabit. Indeed, the slopes of Marsabit mountain aredotted with ritual sites such as Kubi Dibayyu, Qilta Korma, Sagante wells, gadamojji and so on.

7Despite some of these rituals disappearing and sites following into disuse, I argue that these physical sites and the (memory of the) rituals held at the sites have a powerful symbolism for the Boran in the contemporary times. To illustrate this argument, I will use the example of how gada and its associated ritual of gadamojji is appropriated in music to construct a strong narrative of Boran identity in the context of electoral politics.

8There is no space here to get into the detail of the structure and inner workings of the gada system (for this refer to Asmarom Legesse 1973). Suffice it to say, it is, according to Megerssa & Kassam (2004: 53), “a complex system of temporal differentiation through which all the male members of a society undergo a series of initiations and are socialized into the social, legal and religious roles that they will fulfill in the course of the life cycle.”

9The Boran pride themselves as the ‘people of rabba-gada’- as a demonstration to their strong commitment to their customs and institutions- and participation in the generation-set ceremony associated with the gada system which is held every eight years to cement a common identity and entrench beliefs about how to ensure the continuity and the proper leadership for the community.

10The gadamojji ceremony was always held in Southern Ethiopia- considered as the homeland and ritual headquarters. However, after settling on Marsabit Mountain, and due to colonial restriction of their movement between Marsabit and Southern Ethiopia, the Marsabit Boran founded a gadamojji site on the slopes of the mountain where the ceremony was held.

11In 1939, a famous colonial administrator in Marsabit, Gerald Reece noted that:

“The holding of these ceremonies is all too good since it encourages the cohesion of the local Boran and strengthens tribal authority.”

12Gada was so salient and central to the lives of Marsabit Boran that another colonial administrator concluded in 1951 that:

“The whole social framework of the people appears to depend on the eight years cycle associated with the name of gadamojji.”

13Despite such usefulness and ubiquity in the lives of Boran, the gada system has been on the decline not only in northern Kenya but even in its ‘home’ in southern Ethiopia. The weakening of the system in Ethiopia has inevitably been felt in Marsabit as people there draw inspiration from the gada rituals and leadership in Ethiopia. For example, Paul Baxter notes that:

“In 1951, it was assured by elders in northern Kenya that the times, even then, were so out of joint that it was unlikely that the gada would ever be performed again in Kenya, and that, even in traditional homelands of the Kallu in Ethiopia, it was likely they would soon be given up.”

14Despite this pessimism, gadamojji continued to be held in Marsabit until late 90s as Baxter himself quoting a letter from a ‘friend’ in Marsabit notes:

“TheBoranaGadamoji [i.ethoseeldersabouttoassumeritualresponsibilityfortheBoranpeople] aregettingready for buffat [i.e to perform the essential rituals]… Marsabit Boran are participating too… maybe for the last time!”

15Indeed in the last about 60 years, the decline of the traditional gada system has been accompanied by conversion to either Christianity or Islam. A decline in the practice of gada and the conversion to a world religion might be considered as a weakening of ethnic identity or cultural loss as often cited in the example of Waso Boran (Aguilar). However, as various researches have shown, Marsabit ethnic identities and particularly the ‘brand Boran’ continue to flourish despite the rapid socio-political changes. Elisabeth Watson (2010), for example, notes that there has been ‘a hardening of lines’ where competition over resources and boundaries have led to intense ethno-nationalist sentiments and, in some cases, violent conflict. Gunther Schlee explains this as a process of ‘territorialising ethnicity’ (2013). Drawing on Watson (2010) and Schlee (2013), Carrier and Kochore (2014) also advance a similar argument where they observe that electoral politics have led to a consolidation of various ethnic identities in Marsabit. Drawing on and extending my research on ‘ethnicity and electoral politics, ’ in this chapter I look at how the Boran identity is forged, articulated and emphasized through skilful appropriation of the hitherto ‘disappeared’ gada system in music. For this I draw inspiration from Andrea Nicolas (2007) who, in the case of the Oromo in Ethiopia, argues that nostalgia for gada has been productive for the (re-) invention of social institutions, namely clan assembly, in Hiddi, Eastern Shewa Ethiopia. I argue that the nostalgia and at times the ‘romanticism of gada’ as it manifests itself in popular culture can provide a useful window into understanding socio-political change among the Boran.

Composition, Dissemination and Provenance of the Music

  • 4 These are tin and timber kiosks where Miraa (a stimulant plant mainly grown in the Nyambene area of (...)

16The music I discuss here is recorded and produced locally in Marsabit at a low cost. Essentially it takes a basic guitar and drum performance of about 5-10 people with the composer being the lead singer. An audio recording of the performance was previously done with a radio cassette player and more recently, a digital voice recorder. The music is then disseminated on cassettes (previously) but recently on flash drives at the local music ‘studios’ and cyber cafes. The music is then played at rallies from Land Rover stereos amplified through public address system fitted on the back on the vehicles. It is also played on bodabodas (motorbike taxis) to the preference of the operator. The whole town is abuzz with these sounds for about two to three months during the Kenyan election campaign period. After that the music is usually relegated to individual households, shops or miraa chewing ‘bases’4 as the owners or operators desire. I collected these songs in two ways. The songs between 1997 and 2002 elections was obtained from ‘Gen electronics’, operated by Genno Jarra, since closed down but Genno has been generous enough to allow me to access his ‘studio’ at home even many years after he closed his shop. Originally recorded on cassettes, Genno has digitized the songs from 1997 and 2002 election campaigns and sold them on CDs as part of his business. Due to the original tape recording or due to the conversion (or both), the quality is not good but is still audible. The 2013 songs were obtained from a local cyber café on a CD and the recording is fairly good.

17The songs I analyse here are composed and recorded by a local artist Aga Galgallo during election campaigns. I especially concentrate on the songs composed and sang for Abdi Tari Sasura, a candidate for the position of MP in the 1997, 2002; but I also occasionally draw on his songs for other candidates in 2007 and 2013 general elections. Mr. Sasura went on to become MP for Saku Constituency of what was then Marsabit district (now Marsabit County) between 1997 and 2005 (when he died in a plane crash in Marsabit while still in office). Sasura (and by extension his supporters) identified as LATTU. In normal usage, the name means, ‘young shoots’, but in this context, it represents Sasura as a new entrant into competitive politics and a ‘game-changer’ and also has connotations of him breathing new life and bringing fresh ideas to (re) invigorate the politics of Saku constituency which had previously been dominated by MP Jarso Jillo (1988 -1997) who was considered by the LATTU supporters as an ‘old guard’ and non-performer at the time of going to the polls in 1997.

The Elements and Vocabulary of Gada in Election Campaign Songs

18Coincidentally, both writing in 1998, Gunther Schlee and Mario Aguilar have shown the significance of gada in the politics of identification (in northern Kenyan-Southern borderlands in the case of the former and among the Waso Boran in the case of the latter). Aguilar posits that gada is used “by the Boran of Eastern Kenya so as to provide a continuation with their own sense of tradition and genesis, but with the aim of self-generating identity and ethnicity for the following generations to come” (Aguilar 1998: 27). As for Schlee, he observes that, “Beyond their actual workings in age-grading people, living gada systems, and even the memory of defunct ones, are important elements of identity discourses, and these discourses become increasingly important with the ethnicization of politics” (Schlee 1998: 145).

19Following these two scholars, I explore in this section the importance of gada by looking at popular songs during Kenyan election campaigns. I particularly concentrate on outlining the use of the names of positions of leadership in the traditional gada system as applied and used in interpreting and ‘localizing’ Kenya’s current political structure.

20In the songs the Kenyan parliamentary term of five years is referred to as ‘gada’ and it is named after the Member of Parliament from Saku constituency who was in office during that period. This is in line with the naming of the eight-year periods after the name of its leader in the gada system (eight years being equated with two four-year MP mandates). For example, the current gada is called ‘the gada of Kura Jarso’ – named such after the office holder, Kura Jarso (2017-2025). Here I will give an example of a song in which the gada, or the terms in office, of two former Saku Members of Kenyan Parliament are compared using the idiom of the gada terms. This association is usually emphasized in order to show that the preferred candidate’s term in office was more peaceful, prosperous and propitious (having kayo- the good omen and quality of auspiciousness) for the community. Voters are then urged to vote for the candidate praised in the song as s/he attracted good fortunes.

“Gada J.J qabannaa ta Abditin wolt lalanna,
We remember the gada J.J’s Gada, and compare it with Abdi’s
Wor Saku chubu laganna tamit gom isan gafanna?
The people of Sakhu let’s shun sin (by saying the truth), we ask you which one is better?
Wolt in d’uf tan it kakanna Kitaballe itqabanna
They (the two gadas) can’t even come close to each other, we can swear by the book (the Koran)
gada Lattu Kayo Tamanafu Abdi jaranna
In the gada of Abdi we were more prosperous
Gan kud’an ka Jarso Jillo Jarsi nanno finna d’abe,
Ten years of Jarso Jillo (‘s rule), the elders were denied the nanno finna (elders planning meeting) tisse tisan ule d’abe, some soman uji d’abe
times were hard for the herder, the educated couldn’t find jobs
Gan shanaan ka Abdi Tari, Abdin kor d’etha nubasse,
(in) the five years of Abdi Tari, Abdi organized the meeting of d’etha
Tisitu Aburun d’aqe, ijolle college it naqe
He took the herders in search of pasture, and took children to colleges.”

21In another song, a two-term parliamentary MP, Jarso Jillo, is criticized for seeking a third time even though he had already surpassed the maximum eight years of being a leader according to the gada system.

Gadan abba toko gan sathetin chitte bekhi,
The gada of one abba gada ends at eight years
Gadan Jarso Jillo gaan lamman thabarte bekhi..
The gada of Jarso Jillo has already surpassed that.”

22Two other key concepts associated with gada are ubiquitous in the songs: kayo and nagaa. At face value nagaa means peace but it has other philosophical underpinning. Mario Aguilar (1996: 63) notes that: There is ‘the union and communion of all Boorana through the keeping of the Nagaa Boorana (the Peace of the Boorana), an ethno-philosophy that permeates the actions and beliefs of every Boorana’.

23Kayo on the other hand describes the quality of propitiousness of a particular time or period. Leus and Salvadori (2006) define kayo as: “good fortune: warri kayo qabu, homaa indhibani: those who have good fortune nothing troubles them. Oba arra kaayo dhabe: the watering of the catlle (today) lacked grace/was unfortunate (i.e. everything went wrong).”

24In the case of the songs that I discuss here, a particular gada is expressed has having both nagaa and kayo:

gada Lattu Kayo tanafu Abdi jaranna
In the gada of Lattu—we had kayo6 so we will continue choosing Abdi (as M.P)
Thao nagaa nubulchinna Sasura kura kennani
And make us live in a peaceful shelter, (Marsabit), and give the elections (victory) to Sasura
Nagaa wol afat kalala, d’iro naga manit challa
Look at this peace that has spread all over (the land), people, what surpasses peace? (It is important than everything else)
Kaayo gabo tan nusatha, wor Saku me Abdi jarra
Praise this good fortune (during his gada), the people of Saku build Abdi (vote for him)
Thuri gosan gargar banna nyanyoomne nunchuf wolhanna
In the past we used to separate into tribes, become hostile and fight one another.”

25The above examples illustrate how the terminologies and concepts of the gada system have been deployed to understand the Kenyan parliamentary system. The use of the gada terminology is also meant to appeal to the ethnic sentiments of the Boran by demonstrating how the preferred candidate had supported the Boran cultural system and livelihood during his term in office. The words and adjectives that are associated with describing gada, namely nagaa and kayo which represent the abundance of peace, rain, the growing of grass and livestock udders full of milk and so on and so forth. Here then I show how the different parliamentary terms (which is equated to gada) are remembered and memorialized in the same way gada is in the Boran folklore.

The Gadamojji Site and its Significance

26Apart from a general appeal to the gada system and its leadership, the gadamojji site in Marsabit where the gada rituals used to be held also features in the songs. While the site has largely fallen into disuse, it is still passionately preserved in Marsabit. The site is considered a ‘physical’ link to Southern Ethiopia ‘homelands’ which host the most important ritual sites. As such even though for most Marsabit Boran gadamoji has become an imaginary pilgrimage, the site on the slope of Marsabit mountain is symbolically a strong expression of a link to a wider ‘imagined Boran community’ in Southern Ethiopia. While gadamojji has not been held for about two decades now, the memory of previous ceremonies continues to influence the way the Boran make sense of their contemporary social and political predicaments. Nowhere is this more evident than in the campaign songs I discuss here. In the songs, this status of Marsabit as a ritual site is emphasized and recounted strongly.

27For example, a line from a song composed by a local artiste Bonaya Doti goes:

Sakhuun ardha jilati d’uguma, gadhamojjin bufaat matuma; korma korbess qalum aadhuma Chama KANU jaran nu kura… .
Sakhu (a Boran name for Marsabit mountain) is indeed as ritual center (where) gadamojji initiates shave their hair and other ritual activities is performed.”

28While I argue here that these gada symbols and the gadamojji site have a meaning that appeals to a majority of the Boran, I am aware and acknowledge Schlee and Shongolo’s (1995) argument that in fact for other non-Boran Oromo, the use of these symbols have been unattractive. However, as I have shown here, for intra-group Boran identity, the past glories of Boran and the symbols associated with the gada system have been to an extent useful in expressing a strong Boran ethno-national sentiment. Therefore, while the invocation of gada might be ‘unproductive’ “in areas/counties populated by populations of diverse origin who are not all Boran” as Schlee and Shongolo argue, it does actually provide a strong narrative on ‘boran-ness’ as expressed in this particular type of music. Indeed, this attraction to gada is not only limited to an abstract appeal; rather blessings and endorsement of the Boran aba gada in Ethiopia is key and is actively sought by candidates even in the present times. For example, in 2013 the current Aba gada of Boran, Guyo Gobba was practically involved in the campaigns in Marsabit in which he arbitrated between two Boran candidates and later endorsed one of them (Carrier and Kochore 2014).

29In the next section, in order to demonstrate the ‘Kenyan side of the story’, I show how the gada of different candidates are evaluated in terms of the Kenyan values that are deemed Kenyan. I especially focus on education and maendeleo (development).

Embracing Kenya (N)?: Education and Development

30Since the colonial times, the north has been administratively treated as a thing apart. In the words of Charles Chevenix Trench, “the north was another world,” and it was perceived as “the silent north” by Glanday, both administrators during the British Colonial period in northern Kenya (Chevenix Trench 1993: 48, 122 quoted in Aguilar 1998: 261). The Boran and other groups in the north have indeed felt disconnected from a state they are, geographically and administratively, be supposed to be a part of. Colonialism and independence have therefore brought little in the way of development in northern Kenya (Arero 2007; Kochore and Carrier 2014). To date when heading down country, people would say, ‘we’re heading to Kenya’. Indeed, campaign songs as recent as the 2013 elections in Marsabit county reveal that people still regard Kenya (ns) as ‘other’. For example, a line from one of Aga’s song goes:

Wor Kenyalle nugafannan inwakatan thaimtu tessan’
when we asked the people of Kenya about the whereabouts of our MP, they too didn’t have an answer for us.”

31This is a song in which the incumbent MP was being accused of running away from the people, being inaccessible and ‘hiding’ in ‘Kenya’, the land of the other.

32While the Boran (and other peoples of northern Kenya) have continued to feel alienated, however, a closer look at these campaign songs reveals that people emphasize the role various politicians have played in integrating them with the Kenyan nation. They particularly cited the support toward maendeleo (development) and Kenyan education as tools through which they continue to get integrated and emphasize their quest for a Kenyan identity.

33Indeed, “Education (together with the fight against diseases and poverty, was identified, after Kenya’s independence, as one of the three instruments for creating a progressive nation” (Arero 2005). The transformation in social and political perception that took place among Boran, and indeed in the whole of Kenya after independence is also significant as to understand processes of identity formation. Formal education became fundamental and the means of accessing the ‘national cake’ (read resources) and economic opportunities in the post-colonial nation-state. The education system entrenched a sense of nationalism whose ideals was ‘new and educated citizens’ of the Kenyan nation (Aguilar 1998: 261).

34As such Boran children managed, through the involvement in formal schooling, to access the national resources through representation and employment in the national government (Aguilar 1998). Therefore socialization through formal education and subsequent integration into the government system has become, quite literally, a path to national belonging. This fact is well articulated in the songs I discuss as various candidates for political positions are praised for their role in supporting the education of Boran children.

35This verse from one of Aga’s 2002 campaign songs comparing Abdi Tari’s first five-year term with Jarso Jillo’s previous ten-year term is illustrative here:

“Gan shanaan ka Abdi Tari, Abdin kor dheetha nubasse,
(in) the five years of Abdi Tari, Abdi organized the meeting of dheetha (to discuss pasture and water issues)
Tisitu Aburun d’aqe, ijolle college it naqe
He took the herders in search of greener pastures, and took children to colleges
Gan kud’an Jarso Jillo kasom maqa lagatani
Ten years of Jarso Jillo, he fell out with those who were well educated (because of ideological differences)?
Ka infen transfer d’awani, kiwanjat nam arabsani
Those whom he didn’t like he transferred them to other places (often hardship areas), and insulted others in public
Shanaan gada Abdi Tari, mchango nama changanni
The five years of Abdi Tari’s gada, funds were raised (through harambees)7
University d’aqani akanan ejat tharatani
And people went to the university.”

36Various development projects especially those supporting livestock production are also appreciated and applauded. In the Kenyan context, James Howard Smith (2008) has pointed to the ubiquity of the concept of development in official discourse, national politics and in popular discourse. It is a concept that is also deployed and reproduced in the songs at the local level in Marsabit showing how they plug into a Kenyan discourse as they simultaneous draw on their hitherto ‘non-Kenyan’ Boran identity.

“Urji wor Sakut angae, gof chobat eli nubae,
It’s the star of the people that shone (since Abdi became M.P), we got a well at Gof Chopa (A crater on the Marsabit-Moyale road)
Biliqit Haron nubae, dhalach kenat d’ebu bae,
We got a pond/ a dam at Biliq (name of a dam), and the thirst of our livestock was quenched
Wor Saku Waqat nunae Jaldessi gaf colony bathe
The people of Saku, it’s God’s mercy (that he gave us Abdi for M.P), the Jaldessa borehole become dry during the colonial period
Gada issa bisan nubae Abdi wan gutho nubae
But it is during his gada that water was found there again (through Abdi’s efforts to revive the wells).”

But Still not Quite Kenyan

37While the above discussion paints a picture of how the Boran, drawing on the gada vocabulary and symbolism, have domesticated Kenya’s post-colonial political system and its imaginaries, it should not be interpreted to mean that they have fully embraced the Kenyan identity. On the contrary, their ambivalence to national identity indeed persists. Hassan Arero discusses this perception of Boran considering themselves as outsiders in his chapter aptly named, ‘coming to Kenya’. This is a sentiment that is expressed in the songs I discuss here as well. As Carrier & Kochore (2014) note:

Indeed, campaign songs for the 2013 elections in Marsabit county reveal that people still regard Kenya (ns) as ‘other’. For example, a line from one song states, ‘when we asked the people of Kenya about the whereabouts of our MP, they too didn’t have an answer for us’. This is a song in which the incumbent MP was being accused of running away from the people, being inaccessible and ‘hiding’ in ‘Kenya’, the land of the other.

38Marsabit may be removed from Nairobi and the residents joke that it is not Kenya at all but an analysis of how they have domesticated Kenya’s political system by interpreting it through a vernacular lens reveals that they are more ‘Kenyan’ than they might appreciate. This is despite the continued sense that they were neglected by the Kenyan government, a trend which is slowly being reversed through improvement of infrastructure like roads and appointment of educated community members to top government jobs.


39This chapter has argued that despite its influence having generally been on the decline, the nostalgia for and attraction to the gada system continues to influence the perception of governance and the state by the Marsabit Boran. Gada’s terminology and symbolism comes in handy in imagining and understanding the Kenyan political system. While the Boran do not entirely consider themselves as ‘Kenyan’, an inquiry into their music reveals the ambiguities of their association with the Kenyan nation and political system.

40As Nyairo argues, there are different ways of becoming Kenyan; not just one monolithic identity. Being Kenyan is in fact being able to be versatile and drawing on multiple lines of identities and citizenship.

41Lastly, the chapter demonstrates that the often overlooked elements of popular discourse such as music can provide a fertile ground for analyzing some of the socio-political changes happening across Kenya particularly issues surrounding ethnic, regional and national identities.



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Schlee, G. 1998. Gada systems on the meta-ethnic level: Gabbra/Boran/Garre interactions in the Kenyan/Ethiopian borderland in, Conflict, age & power in North East Africa: age systems in transition). Oxford, James Currey: 121-146

Schlee, G. 2013. Territorializing ethnicity: the imposition of a model of statehood on pastoralists in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36 (5): 857-874.

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Archival Documents

Gerald Reece, Handing Over Report Marsabit District, 1939, Kenya National Archives, PCNFD 2/2/2

G.M. Bebb, Handing Over Report Marsabit District, 1951, Kenya National Archives, PCNFD 2/2/3


Aga Galgallo, ‘Lat ken Waaqi biqilichinna’ 2007

Aga Galgallo, ‘Gada Jey Jey qabanna’ 2007

Bonaya Doti, ‘Aban Finna Jabaan Waqum’ 2007

Aga Galgallo, ‘Kupi Qalloti qabe isan bae Jaldessat’ 2013.


1 For the definition of the gada system, I find Megersa & Kassam (2004: 253) explanation quite apt: “Gada is a complex system of temporal differentiation through which all the male members of a society undergo a series of initiations and are socialized into the social, legal and religious roles that they will fulfill in the course of the life cycle”.

2 The eight-year age-grade transition ceremony of gadamojji has not taken place in Marsabit since 1995 meaning the

3 The site on the slopes of Marsabit Mountain where the ceremony and rituals associated with the age-grade transitions (gadamojji) are conducted.

4 These are tin and timber kiosks where Miraa (a stimulant plant mainly grown in the Nyambene area of Meru and also on a small scale on the slopes of Mt. Marsabit) widely chewed in northern Kenya and other parts of the country.


Is a PhD candidate at Max Plank Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. His research interests include: pastoralist identities, ethnic and national identity politics, socio-economic and religious change. His PhD project draws on the disciplines of Anthropology, Demography and African Studies to critically explore the impacts of socio-economic change on traditional age/generation structuring system in an East African Age-set Society – the Boran of Northern Kenya.

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