Marsabit lies at the heart of the ancestral lands of the Borana people.
The Borana are linguistically related to the Galla peoples (see the Oromo under Tana River Delta). The Kenyan Borana are in fact descended from an Ethiopian tribe of the same name. The name Borana means 'free', in reference to their nomadic nature, as opposed to the agricultural Galla.
The Borana came to Kenya relatively recently (moving from Ethiopia around 1720) and have since widely ranged throughout this region. The 1960's were a period of major cultural change for the Borana. Repeated conflict with Somali cattle bandits saw them give up their cattle herds (regarded as great sign of wealth and social status among most Northern nomads) and turn to almost exclusive camel herding.
This was a major social upheaval for the Borana, who considered cattle a large part of their cultural identity, and whose Galla relatives considered camels lowly and inferior creatures.
The Borana social order is rather loosely structured around familial clans. The most rigid cultural principle is known as gada, an age-set system which dictates the way in which a Borana man lives his life. The first forty years of every man's life is divided into five consecutive gadas, or eight year periods. There are set beliefs about what a man may or may not do during each gada, in which one he must marry, settle, have children and so forth. This is an important principle to the Borana.
Religiously, the Borana have become frequent converts to Islam and to a lesser degree, Christianity. There still remains some faith in traditional beliefs, based around reverence for both the supernatural and the natural. Water is seen as a blessing from the heavens, and grass a blessing from the earth.
Borana culture is based on a single abiding principle, known as Nagya Borana which essentially means "Peace of the Boran". The Borana believe that all members of their community should at all times be bound by a unifying peace. Regardless of any conflict with another tribe or any social influences the Borana insist that harmony among themselves must prevail.
The Boran are closely related to another tribe commonly found throughout this region, the Gabbra, also camel herding nomads. The Gabbra wear bright silver jewelry, made up of solid beads carved from raw aluminium. This is usually made by melting down cooking pots. Small leather pouches containing charms are often strung onto these necklaces.
Another group of camel nomads, though unrelated to either the Borana or the Gabbra are the Rendille. This tribe is closely related to the Somali population of North East Kenya, from whom they are now separated by the lands of Gabbra speaking tribes.
The Rendille are expert camel herders and handlers, living an intensively nomadic existence. Their camels are fitted with a distinctive saddle designed around a large bow of wood, allowing them to carry the entire possessions of a household on their backs. The same saddle can be converted to carry a rider within a tented enclosure, similar to the saddles of the North African Tuareg.
Rendille women wear striking armlets made of coiled iron and brass. They wear these on the lower arms after marriage, and then the upper arms when their first son is initiated.
Interestingly, the Rendille have formed an unlikely association with the Samburu. Despite being linguistically and genetically disconnected the two tribes have formed a strong bond. This has resulted in much intermarriage, which in some areas, have caused a hybrid culture to emerge.
The lush and fertile oasis of Marsabit has made this small town a major draw for the many and varied peoples of Northern Kenya. The streets are always a lively mix of Boran, as well as Gabbra and Rendille tribespeople, Somalis and Ethiopians. When the passing parade of Tourists, overlanders and backpackers on the road north are added to the mix, the result is a colourful cornucopia of Kenya at its best.