The Daasanach Tribal Women - Image Dr Prem Photography

Daasanach People

The Daasanach (some authors write ‘Dassanetch’, ‘Dasanech’, ‘Daasanech’, or ‘Daasanetch’) are an ethnic group inhabiting parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan speaking an East Cushitic language and live in the semi-arid area around the Lower Omo Valley and the northern shore of Lake Turkana. The name Dassanech means ‘People of the Delta

They have also been referred to as ‘Geleb’ in Ethiopia and are known as ‘Merile’ and ‘Shangilla’ in Kenya. According to the 2007 Ethiopian census, the Daasanach in Ethiopia then numbered just over 48,000 (or 0.07% of the total population of Ethiopia), of whom 1,481 are urban dwellers. In addition, some thousands of Daasanach live in northwestern Kenya.

The Daasanach today speak the Daasanach language. It belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. The language is notable for its large number of noun classes, irregular verb system, and implosive consonants. For instance, the initial D in Daasanach is implosive, sometimes written as ‘D.

KENYA – APRIL 26: Daasanach girls attend the Bale ceremony, a pairing off ceremony. Ileret, Kenya. (Photo by Randy Olson/National Geographic/Getty Images)

The Daasanach who herd cattle live in dome-shaped houses made from a frame of branches, covered with hides and woven boxes (which are used to carry possessions on donkeys when the Daasanach migrate). The huts have a hearth, with mats covering the floor used for sleeping. The Dies, or lower class, are people who have lost their cattle and their way of living. They live on the shores of Lake Turkana hunting crocodiles and fishing. Although their status is low because of their lack of cattle, the Dies help the herders with crocodile meat and fish in return for meat.

The Daasanach are traditionally pastoralists, but in recent years have become primarily agropastoral. Women are circumcised by removing the clitoris. Women who are not circumcised are called animals or boys and cannot get married or wear clothes. Women wear a pleated cowskin skirt and necklaces and bracelets, they are usually are married off at 17 while men are at 20.

Politically, the Daasanach don’t feel they belong to either country and prefer to send-govern by their own customs and interpretation of land borders. The Daasanach are known for their fighting prowess and are feared by many neighbouring groups, cut as the Babbra and Turkana. Rains to obtain more cattle are celebrated, and Daasanach warriors are proud of the number of enemy they have killed. Their unique culture is valued, and the Daasanach are reluctant to adopt outside technology. Irrigation systems to aid in agriculture were introduced to this area by American missionaries in the 1960’s, but these systems have been disregarded since the end colonialism. 

Young women of Daasanach tribe - photo by Mario Gerth
Young women of Daasanach tribe – photo by Mario Gerth

Their ties to one another have resulted from a  common place of residence rather than from heredity. Exiles rom any groups around the are of north Lake Turkana have united in support of one another in this hostile, arid environment. The have developed a unique tradition and culture, and are open to inclusion of other immigrants who are willing to abide by Daasanach customs and values.

Daasanach Today

Uri Almagor, who conducted anthropological fieldwork amongst the Daasanach in 1968 and 1969, described the Lower Omo Valley as one of the most inaccessible areas in East Africa. This was no longer the case by the turn of the 20th century. The area is now in the front line of investment by international and state corporations. Three large-scale development projects are in progress. First there is the construction of the Gibe III hydroelectric dam in the middle basin of the Omo. This will regulate the flow of the river and reduce the scale and frequency of flooding, which is the lifeblood of the Daasanach economy. Second, the government has leased huge areas of land to foreign and domestic investors who plan to establish large-scale commercial farms, largely for the production of export crops.

Italian (since 2007), Indian (since 2013) and Tigrayan (since 2009) owned farms have started to operate in Daasanach territory and many people have been displaced from their land without compensation, although some elders received a few thousands birr from local administrators and investors as a ‘gift’. Conflicts have arisen between workers on the commercial farms and the Daasanach living around the farm. And third, oil exploration by Tullow Oil PLC began in 2013. In addition, the local government plans to sedentalize about 2,600 Daasanach households.

Sources: 1, 2, 3.

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