Gabra people

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Total population
Kenya: 43,000 in 1994, Ethiopia.[1][1]
Regions with significant populations
northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia
Islam, traditional
Related ethnic groups
Garre, Rendille, Sakuye[2], and Somalis

The Gabra (also written Gabbra or Gebra) are an ethnic group mainly inhabiting the Chalbi Desert in northern Kenya and the highlands of southern Ethiopia. Camel-herding nomads, Gabra are part of the Oromo; and are closely associated with Borana.


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


The Gabra escaped from Ethiopia around 1900 to avoid conscription into Menlik's army. A population believed to be less than 10% settled in some part of Moyale while the remaining the population occupied the chalbi desert.


Traditional camel bell used by the Gabra.

The name "Gabra" may have roots in the Oromo word gabaro, meaning "nomads" or "herders" and possibly indicating an association within the Promoters 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 warra 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). The gabra migo are Somali clans 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" gabra: 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 Somali religion, centering on worship islam, syncretized with Islamic elements. The Gabra make pilgrimages to sacred sites, most of which are located in the mountainous such as Hesi-Nabo and Agal. Today, both of these Holy sites are located within Gabra's traditional neighbouring territories. The former is located within Borana territory and the latter is located in Garri's present territory.The religious activities include animal sacrifices and ritual prayers and were presided over by Dabela, the religious leaders.


According to Y-DNA analysis by Hirbo (2011), around 82.6% of Gabra in Kenya carry the paternal E1b1b haplogroup, with most belonging to the V12 or E3b1a subclade (58.6%). This lineage is most common among local Afroasiatic-speaking populations. The remaining Gabra individuals bear the T/K2 (3.4%) and J haplogroups (3.4%), which are both also associated with Afroasiatic speakers, as well as the E3*/E-P2 clade (3.4%) and the Bantu-linked E2a lineage (3.4%).[3]

Maternally, Hirbo (2011) observed that approximately 58% of the Gabra samples carried derivatives of the Eurasian macrohaplogroups M and N. Of these mtDNA lineages, the M1 subclade was most common, with around 22.58% of the Gabra individuals belonging to it. The remaining ~42% of the analysed Gabbra bore various subclades of the Africa-centered macrohaplogroup L. Of these mtDNA lineages, the most frequently borne clade was L3 (19.36%), followed by the L0a (9.68%), L4 (9.68%), and L2 (6.45%) haplogroups.[3]

The Gabbra's autosomal DNA has been examined in a comprehensive study by Tishkoff et al. (2009) on the genetic affiliations of various populations in Africa. According to Bayesian clustering analysis, the Gabbra generally grouped with other Afroasiatic-speaking populations inhabiting the Great Lakes region, with these lacustrine groups forming a cluster distinct from that of the Afroasiatic-speaking populations in the Horn of Africa, North Africa and the Sahara. This difference was attributed to marked genetic exchanges between the Gabbra and neighboring Nilo-Saharan and Bantu communities over the past 5,000 or so years.[2]


  1. ^ a b Gordon, Jr., Raymond G. (editor) (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas, Texas, USA: SIL International. ISBN 978-1-55671-159-6.
  2. ^ a b Sarah Tishkoff et al. (2009). "The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans" (PDF). Science. 324 (5930): 1035–44. doi:10.1126/science.1172257. PMC 2947357. PMID 19407144. We incorporated geographic data into a Bayesian clustering analysis, assuming no admixture (TESS software) (25) and distinguished six clusters within continental Africa (Fig. 5A).[...] Another geographically contiguous cluster extends across northern Africa (blue) into Mali (the Dogon), Ethiopia, and northern Kenya. With the exception of the Dogon, these populations speak an Afroasiaticlanguage[...] Nilo-Saharan and Cushitic speakers from the Sudan, Kenya, and Tanzania, as well as some of the Bantu speakers from Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda (Hutu/Tutsi), constitute another cluster (purple), reflecting linguistic evidence for gene flow among these populations over the past ~5000 years (28, 29). Also see Supplementary Data.
  3. ^ a b Hirbo, Jibril B. "Complex Genetic History of East African Human Populations" (PDF). University of Maryland. pp. 195, 199, 215, 220. Retrieved 5 December 2017.

Further reading[edit]

  • Günther 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[1][2]
  1. ^ [3], Ethiopian Government Portal