One hundred years ago, Gabbra elders in the dry lands of eastern Africa told their nomadic people that a big change was coming. To get through it, they would need to hold their traditions close. In this episode of Seedcast - the first of two parts – hear from a Gabbra senior elder as he shares a story with a member of his community. He speaks about how Gabbra traditional knowledge has allowed their ecosystem to support human, animal, and plant life through generations, while also helping them navigate colonization and climate crisis.
For this special Seedcast collaboration, the Gabbra community, a member of the Wayfinders Circle, shared recordings of their songs and celebrations along with the lands and animals they shepherd. We also thank Ali Mero and Gabbra elder Molu Kulu Galgalo, who were our collaborators for this series.
We thank the Wayfinders Circle for their support on these episodes. The Wayfinders Circle was launched as a network dedicated to unleashing the transformative potential of Indigenous lifeways, inspiring all people to reimagine development, conservation, and the way they relate to each other and to Mother Earth. The conveners of the Wayfinders Circle are the Pawanka Fund, the World Union of Indigenous Spiritual Practitioners, and Nia Tero.
Host: Jessica Ramirez. Producer: Jenny Asarnow. Story Consultant: Kamna Shastri.
Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.
Seedcast Season 2 Episode 8
August 31, 2022
[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: Hey, this is Jessica Ramirez. I want to introduce you to the Gabbra people. They're traditionally nomadic, and they live in close relationship with camels and other grazing animals…
[ambient sound of animals]
…and they travel over vast distances in the grasslands and deserts of northeast Kenya and southern Ethiopia, moving from place to place to find food and water for their herds. They've lived in these lands for generations, and they have been keeping knowledge about this place—the clouds, the stars, the moon, the sun, and the slaughtered animals—all have stories to share about how to survive here. And the Gabbra have listened. A hundred years ago, the elders said that a big change was coming; something they'd never seen before, and that would be hard to survive. And to get through it, the elders said they would need to hold their traditions close.
[Voices singing in Gabbra]
[00:01:19] Molu Kulu Galgalo: [Speaks in Gabbra]
[00:01:47] Ali Mero: [Translating for Molu] We pray to God. We preserve and strengthen the culture. If we protect this culture very well, it's good. We pray to God. We pray to God. We do our sacrifice on the land. The land will listen to you. The spirit will listen to you. God will listen to you. If you do it in the process, all these things will be accepted by God.
[00:02:32] Jessica: This is the story the Gabbra would like to share about how they have always lived, about how the colonizers came and the lands changed, and the climate changed. And the Gabbra are still there surviving, caring for their place and relying on their traditional knowledge.
Welcome to Seedcast.
Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…
[00:03:32] Ali: My name is Ali Mero. I'm a Gabbra. I'm in Marsabit, northern Kenya.
[00:03:39] Jessica: Ali is our guide for today. He grew up in the traditional Gabbra ways, but got a Western education and worked for international organizations in Kenya, and then he came home.
[00:03:52] Ali: Now, [I] came back to, to see how I can give back to community.
[00:03:58] Jessica: Ali came home to help preserve Gabbra culture and traditional knowledge.
[00:04:02] Ali: And I work with the Gabbra, a traditional institution known as the YAA Assembly, and building to preserve the culture of the Gabbra people.
[00:04:17] Jessica: The YAA Assembly supports the Gabbra governance system, too.
[00:04:20] Ali: In our language you say, “If you know where you're coming from, you know where you're going, and you cannot get lost.”
[00:04:27] Jessica: Ali works closely with Gabbra elders.
[00:04:30] Ali: Now in my story, we are going to introduce Molu Kulu, a very senior elder; a Gabbra senior respected elder who has attained the optimal level of leadership in [the] Gabbra system who has seen and heard about five generations. And he can narrate very good stories based on the knowledge he has, how he understands, and what he has heard.
[00:04:56] Jessica: Ali travels often with Molu, as they work together to share Gabbra teachings. On one of their recent trips, they stopped at a tea house by the side of the road and Ali asked Molu what he wanted the world to know about who the Gabbra are and how the climate has changed. Here's what Molu said:
[00:05:18] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra]
[00:05:22] Ali: [Translating for Molu] Yeah. He says, “My name is Molu Kulu Galgalo. He says, “Today, I want to share my experience on the way of life, and how people have been living in the past.”
[00:05:18] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra]
[00:05:43] Ali: [Translating for Molu who continues speaking in the background] When you talk about historical perspective there are good things you hear, there are bad things you hear, and these are things which strengthen us and help us to learn and go ahead.
[00:05:54] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra]
[00:05:57] Ali: [Translating for Molu who continues speaking in the background] He says there are times of rain. There are times of dry spell, there’s times of drought; and these are all seasons which come and go. And as a Gabbra elder, we get information. We gather information from people who have lived ahead of us, and that information helps to build our knowledge for us to guide [the] future and pass it over as we go.
[00:06:24] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra]
[00:06:34] Ali: [Translating for Molu who continues speaking in the background] He says, there are people who get information from their grandfathers and from their fathers. There are people who have information because they have been born in the family lineage which interpret the stars. There are people who have been born into families which they look at the stomach of the animals and read. And others can recall and give you a narration of what happens in a hundred years, the last hundred years. So he says those who give information on a hundred years, that information is very critical for us to understand where we come from and where we are going.
[00:07:19] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra]
[00:07:26] Ali: [Translating for Molu who continues speaking in the background] He says, there are times it doesn't have to rain, but the environment and the weather and everything just is dry, but there's no calamity. And all this, he says, depends; because of how we connect with our God and our Creator. For us to connect to our Creator, we need to have a culture; a tradition which bonds us. And that tradition is the one which helps us to live together peacefully. It's the one which helps us to protect the environment. It’s the one which protects the land. And as long as you have a good connection with God and protect the culture, God will always reward and sustain the living.
[00:08:09] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra]
[00:08:29] Jessica: The Gabbra culture is protected by the people, and each generation of Gabbra passes along their knowledge to the next.
[00:08:39] Molu: [Continues speaking in Gabbra]
[00:08:42] Ali: [Continuing to translate] So he says we get information from great grandfathers. They pass it over and it teaches us. And each generation talks about a hundred years, a hundred years before that; and some people can still recall how was life for the last 500 years!
[00:08:58] Molu: [Continues speaking in Gabbra]
[00:09:08] Ali: [Continues translating while Molu speaks in the background] There are years which passed which never had drought; there are years which passed which had plenty of rain. And each year has its own predictable and unique year. Now, he says, Gabbras have seven names for the years.
[00:09:27] Molu: [Continues speaking in Gabbra, listing the names] Alsinin, Talasa, Arbaa, Khamis, Gumaat, Sabdio, Ahad…
[00:09:42] Ali: [Continuing to translate] So those seven years, three of them have predictable drought: Khamis, Arbaa, Gumaat, they have drought. And four of them don't have [drought]. So people will reflect back and say, what was the last year which had the same name? What were the circle of events the whole year in terms of rain and all those factors? And then when we come back to that year, the people who understand the circles talk, and so that information is shared out to community and that's how we predict.
[00:10:16] Molu: [Continues to narrate in Gabbra]
[there is a pause, and then we hear a goat bleating]
[00:10:49] Jessica: It's so important for the Gabbra to make predictions about the rains and the droughts, because they live on lands where the water is scarce and irregular. Their lives and the lives of the animals they care for, they depend on their knowledge of the seasons. There's a dry season that lasts for five months, and then it rains for two months. Then there's a few months of dry season again. And then it rains again.
[00:11:17] Molu: [Continues speaking in Gabbra, and we hear other ambient voices in the background]
[00:11:27] Ali: [Continuing to translate] He says when the rain comes, the livestock goes for grazing. It doesn't have to go very far, there's plenty of pasture. And the water is just all over, you know, in the field.
[00:11:39] Jessica: When the rains are abundant, the water is in the fields and the grasses grow. The animals eat, and fatten up on the abundant food.
[00:11:50] Ali: [Translating] So he says that management helps to strengthen the animals. They don't get weak, they get strong and they can sustain themselves to go ahead, even if the rains fail for a while.
[00:12:02] Molu: [Continues speaking in Gabbra]
[00:12:06] Jessica: After two months of rain, the animals are strong; and when the rains stop, they're ready to make a long journey. Walking across lands, sometimes hundreds of miles, to go to one of the wells the Gabbra have saved for this very season. They set aside lands for the dry times—lands where the water is underground, where they have dug wells to sustain them in these dry months. Their system comes down to this:
[00:12:35] Ali: During the rain, the animals go far away from the wells and during dry season, they come back near to the wells.
[00:12:43] Jessica: Traditionally, the Gabbra only used the lands by the wells during the dry months. In the months of rain, they travel away so the wells will be there when they need them. It's an ingenious system that lets land lay fallow; so the grass can grow to build up its nutrients and to be able to withstand grazing. Also, each of the grasslands has somewhat different nutritional value. And so in all of these ways, this intricate ecological management system moving from place to place keeps the cows, the camels, the sheep, and the people healthy.
[00:13:27] Ali: That's how we used to utilize pasture, water, grassland, and livestock. And as long as they're good management, the rate at which livestock die is reduced. So it all depends on how we are managing. And as a good manager, find that the livestock now will still progress well in the next season.
[00:13:50] Molu: [Continues to narrate in Gabbra]
[00:13:51] Jessica: And this is how it was for generations.
[00:13:55] Ali: The information we get from our elders is for us to be strong and sustain our livelihood. We need to have the culture, tradition, and have a connection with our Creator.
[people singing and clapping their hands in praise of camels]
[00:15:24] Molu: [Resumes speaking in Gabbra]
[00:15:36] Ali: [Resumes translating for Molu] Elders had predicted and said—and he says this is information which was passed a hundred years ago—and they said in the coming near future, there's going to be a lot of changes in the lifestyle of Gabbra And he says it started with the coming of the colonial administrators who came. They came and colonized. And so that is the turning point of events on how they saw changes in the lifestyle of Gabbra.
He says, people used to have a management system. They had a lifestyle, they had [a] governance system. Land was available. Everybody could move around. There's an area which has been reserved during wet season. There's an area which has been reserved during dry season. And so, there's a setup of management in terms of how land use was done, and how people are protecting the land, and sharing resources.
So when the colonials came, they never used force. They just came and talked to people. They now came with an idea of making demarcations, making boundaries. You know, countries like Ethiopia and Kenya and Somalia. And within the countries now, there are demarcations in terms of tribal boundaries. And so when they are talking slowly and softly and communicating with the elders and pastoralists at that time, little did the people know that there's something they did not explain in terms of how land use is going to be done. So people blindly said, fine, this is good. And I mean, accept it.
[Molu continues speaking in the background]
[00:17:26] Ali: But now, because there are borders, these borders have become restriction in terms of movement on how they plan and manage their livestock. So these borders now become a barrier in terms of how animals are managed. He said you cannot move to another administrative area because each of these administrative area have now created their own bylaws in how they'll have to interact with others. So he says this itself becomes a challenge, and now animals cannot move to look for pasture pure enough to sustain them. So they become weak and not strong as they used to.
[00:18:09] Jessica: The Gabbra have always lived in relationship with animals that graze grasses and other vegetation on the rangelands. And they've always moved from place to place over vast distances to get the best food at any given time of the year for their animals. The animals are their companions, their transportation, and their sustenance. Gabbra depend on the milk and the meat, the bone marrow and the fat and the hides; and all the other parts of the animals to live in their customary way.
But the borders and the laws that the colonists created made it hard for the Gabbra to move across vast distances as they have always done. So they had to stick to smaller areas and it led to unattended consequences, like staying in one place and overgrazing the grasslands.
[00:19:07] Ali: You realize that there's an area which used to be left for a fallback during the dry season. Animals now tend to just be in the same pasture. By the time the next dry season comes there, they've already utilized it. And at some point before the pasture gets strong enough to have enough nutrients, it’s eaten up. And you realize that eventually, there's going to be now degenerating of the vegetation, and the soil and all this.
[00:19:39] Jessica: Administrative policies affected the cycle of how the Gabbra managed their range lands and their livestock in so many ways. With the new borders and laws, the Gabbra had to keep the animals in contained areas. So they also started building fencing out of wood.
[00:19:58] Ali: People now start cutting trees because you have to protect your animals at night. And so, creating settlement affects the environment and trees and all this.
[00:20:10] Jessica: Since the Gabbra roam into their ancestral lands far and wide, it was traditionally their way to share resources and knowledge with their neighbors. So when the colonists came, the Gabbra tried to adapt to these new ways that were imposed on them.
[00:20:27] Ali: [Translating for Molu] Elders already predicted changes that would come, and these are changes that we have seen. And now, because it's a government system, he says as people, we don't want to challenge or to fight back with the authorities. So at some point you need to give in and this giving in tend to affect how we are doing things.
[00:20:51] Jessica: And how the Gabbra do things directly affects the plants and the animals they care for. For example, when grass is left to grow, eventually it will go to seed. And then when the rains come, the seeds will root and grow into new grasses. But if all the grass is eaten before it can produce seeds, that cycle is disrupted.
[00:21:14] Ali: Still the rains keep coming at the right time. But now, because of overgrazing and concentration of animals, even if the rain comes there's not enough seed—grass seed—to let it grow as it used to be. So, because the grass not growing to be that strong, the animals will not have enough as it used to be.
[00:21:37] Jessica: The Gabbra’s management system depends on the animals getting strong during the rainy season in order to survive the dry season, but colonial practices disrupted that.
[00:21:49] Ali: And when the dry spell come, now they become weak.
[00:21:56] Jessica: Slaughtering one healthy camel could give the Gabbra a lot of fat…
[00:22:01] Ali: …and enough meat to keep people for six months. And that was part of the coping mechanism of drought. When the dry come, they prepare early enough and they slaughter one of those animals and they keep the meat and the fat. But now because of how the pasture has been affected in the rangelands, the livestock lose potency.
[00:22:24] Jessica: The weaker animals can't provide as much food to the humans. And that in turn has led people to grow food in new ways.
[00:22:33] Ali: And nowadays land has been demarcated, areas which had potential that you're using during dry season. People have now settled down and some of them are now farmlands.
[00:22:51] Jessica: The colonial and post-colonial governments encourage this. And one of the things they do to encourage a settlement is to dig new wells deep into the ground, and pump up groundwater to the surface with machines. These bow holes are much closer to one another than the traditional Gabbra wells. And they suck up groundwater, taking it from the grasslands, and from the camels, and the cows, and the sheep, and other creatures. And around each well grows a town.
[00:23:27] Ali: People settle down. Small centers, town come up, and this creates more shrinking of the land. And you realize that the dry spell increase.
[Sound of men singing and clapping]
[00:24:04] Ali: [Translating while Molu is talking in the background]I So, this confirms part of the prediction elders have given us who said, “There are going to be changes. We have seen these changes.” The elders said in the future, so many changes is going to happen. It will come in from two angles. One is said from man, the people who will change their lifestyle; and the other comes from what God gives. The rain is going to reduce. The time when we're waiting for the rain is going to be shifting. So there's going to be a longer period of dry, the rains are going to fail. And all these things were predicted.
[Molu continues narrating in Gabbra]
[00:24:42] Ali: [Continues translating for Molu] Elders were telling us that don't throw away your culture, the tradition, and how you link yourself with God. He says, these traditions are going to erode. People will come with changes, but you don't change with them, but you just make sure that you carry with yourself the knowledge and the culture and traditions that were sustaining us. He says we were told that we need to take care of environment. We need to take care of the trees. We need to take care of land. We need to care of camels and sheep and goats and do your sacrifices and keep your culture going. Don't encourage settlement, keep moving. Because settlement will destroy the land, and these are very important things. And the elders said a time will come: people will now start talking in language which will be disrespectful, which does not conform with values that has been built in from generations. That time will come. And when that time come, there's going to be disconnection with the Creator, there is going to be reduced societal values. We'll find very negative and detrimental changes in people's lifestyle.
[Molu says more in Gabbra]
[00:26:04] Ali: [Continues translating for Molu] He said we need rain and we need peace. We need land. And all these things helps us to build the culture to bond us together, so that these changes that come along is not going to wipe you out.
[Molu continues in Gabbra, and singing continues in the background]
[00:26:27] Ali: [Continues translating] There are people behind you, there are people who are your age range; and there are people who are ahead of you, who are older than you. What brought us together is respect—language which is respectful. These are things we need for us to be together.
[The voices of men singing continues]
[00:27:08] Jessica: Things changed for the Gabbra in the early 1900s when the British created a colonial government in Kenya. And it was the British, those soft spoken invaders, who brought thoughtless and cruel borders all over the world. They delineated the borders between the countries we now know as Kenya, and Ethiopia, and Somalia. They closed off some areas from grazing and gave fertile land to white settlers. They pushed their ways on the peoples here and kept them out of political leadership. And for more than a hundred years during that period of colonization, and even after Kenyan independence in 1963, the Gabbra experienced these changes—increased settlement, reduced pasture, animals not as strong, culture under threat, rains becoming more unpredictable, dry spells lasting longer, and it started getting hotter.
[Molu continues narrating in Gabbra]
[00:28:19] Ali: [Translating for Molu] There's a huge heat wave, which used not to be there. The intensity of heat from the sun is increased.
[00:28:28] Jessica: It used to be that when the rain started, it was steady rain. And the Gabbra could count on rain continuing the next day; and when it rained, the weather would be cloudy and mild. But that's not true anymore. Now sometimes it just rains once in a huge downpour, creating a flood and then it stops. And the heat has increased. Molu says, people ask the elders why.
[00:28:54] Ali: He says this is because the rain pattern, the season of rain, has reduced. It’s going to be shorter rains, it’s going to be no rains, and most of the time the sun is there and the heat is there and it's like elders had predicted. And it's something which is now with us and it's affecting us. These changes are predetermined, so elders were telling us how those changes are coming.
[Molu continues speaking]
[00:29:35] Ali: He says, we were told, we were told by the senior elders that when you find this rain pattern changing you need to be prepared in terms of how you manage your rangeland, how you manage your pasture. He says, we were told that you need to know when the rain reduces or the pattern changes, and the dry spell increases. You need to now plan very well about how you're going to utilize the pasture and your livestock management because unless you have that plan way ahead, when you see these signs life is going to be hard.
[Molu continues speaking]
[00:30:16] Ali: So he says there as pastoralists, we keep different types of animals, camels, sheep, and goats, and cattle, and each of these category of animals; they endure, they endure the drought and this hardship.
[00:30:33] Jessica: Camels in particular can travel for very long distances. The Gabbra load up their homes and belongings on camels when they go to new pasture across the land. And even in the worst times, the camels survived.
[00:30:48] Ali: So he says in very rare cases, they have seen situations where the rains have failed, there is calamity and drought. And this happened, he says, a hundred years ago. And according to the elders who know the circle, the last time it happened after a hundred years was the year 2000, yeah? And he says, personally, Molu has seen it. And what they learned from a hundred years ago is, the calamity was not extreme. And at least the animals still survived. When the drought comes, and the rain fails, still animals can be managed.
[Molu narrates in Gabbra]
[00:31:30] Jessica: The Gabbra's way of governing themselves has always been to make decisions by consensus. It's a collective governance system with multiple levels of leadership. The youth are mentored to become junior elders, and the junior elders become senior elders. And there's a place for everyone. Assemblies are run by men, but women are consulted, and these ways saw the Gabbra through these hundred year droughts, but that is no longer the case. Now, when a severe drought hits, some of the animals don't survive.
[Molu continues speaking]
[00:32:23] Ali: We used to move. But nowadays, because of this contemporary life and government system, the lifestyle have now changed. The government system tends to have a policy whereby people are now encouraged to settle down, and as we settle down, you know, that develops into a town. By settling down, the food pattern has changed. There is water, you don't have to go [a] far distance. Land has been taken over. And this has affected traditions and mechanisms of how we are coping with drought.
[00:33:14] Ali: So he says we used to have a consensus, dialogue meetings to plan ahead. But now we have stopped creating dialogue and the best thing to do is how do we get back to help us in our management system? How do we get back to planning? And make sure that there is sustainability in how we do things
[Molu continues speaking in Gabbra]
[00:33:53] Ali: Because people settle down, they need to build. Building goes from normal thatched house to now, bigger houses which need a lot of logs and trees. So all this, when it's cut down, the land cover is going to be empty. And when this is done, when the wind come—when the rain come, the wind come—the wind pattern, the wind speed, and all this changes. And we used [to] not see these things.
[00:34:27] Ali: There are areas which are sacred land, but because people are migrated away, the sacred land—some areas have been taken over and people are settled on it. That has a bad effect because the sacred sites and land is inclined towards culture and connectivity with the Creator. And so he says we need to now come back and see what the traditional knowledge we have. How can we go back, sit down, try to compare notes with even the government system so that we can rescue back part of the land. So that we can be able to manage and face the future.
[People singing and clapping hands]
[00:35:36] Jessica: The Gabbra are not alone in what they are facing. Their practices have protected this place for many generations, but like many other Indigenous groups in the world, their rights to all of their lands isn't secure yet. The Gabbra are advocating for collective tenure of their lands. That would mean that no one individual would have rights to any specific piece of land, but that the Gabbra community would have communal rights to all of their land. The Gabbra have a wealth of traditional knowledge to draw on for these times of climate crisis, pandemic and strife.
[Molu speaks in Gabbra]
[00:36:42] Ali: We were told when situations like that will reach you, as we were told by elders, it’s always good to get back; to get back. And the best way to go back, is to go back to the norms—norms in terms of culture, norms, in terms of tradition, norms in terms of a sacrifice, spiritual guide in how things were done.
[Molu speaks in Gabbra while people continue singing in the background]
[00:37:17] Jessica: And the Gabbra want to share their norms and their knowledge with us.
[Molu and singing continues]
[00:37:25] Jessica: They want to bring the knowledge of the world together, in peace and dialogue, so we can all find a way forward on this earth.
[The sound of people singing continues]
[00:37:39] Jessica: On the next episode of Seedcast, Molu and Ali will share about the sources of Gabbra knowledge. Tune in, in two weeks.
[The sound of people singing continues and fades out]
[Seedcast theme music begins]
[00:38:24] Jessica: So much gratitude to Ali Mero, also known as Ali Adan; and Molu Kulu Galgalo for sharing this story, and for working with us on this episode. Thank you to Edna Kaptoyo from Pawanka Fund for additional research, and Joel Cerda from Nia Tero. The Gabbra community is part of the Wayfinders Circle. It's a joint effort funded by the Pawanka Fund, The Council of Spiritual Elders, and Nia Tero. It brings together Indigenous communities from around the world with the goal of inspiring all people to reimagine development, conservation, and the way we relate to each other and Mother Earth. This episode was produced by Jenny Asarnow with story consulting from Kamna Shastri.
Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making Earth livable for generations to come.
Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves, they don't necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. You can learn more about Seedcast and about our work at Nia Tero on our website, niatero.org.
Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Our producer is Felipe Contreras. Our consulting producer is Julie Keck. Our Artist in Residence is Lofanitani Aisea. Our fact checker, Romin Lee Johnson with social media by Nancy Kelsey, and transcripts by Sharon Arnold. The Seedcast theme song is by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to meeting you again with part two very soon.
Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die.
No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground can’t tear us down, we’re here to stay…