Above: Orma at a wedding ceremony
Published: 23 November 2019
It’s twilight, that magical moment when the sun has travelled the sky to end the day. In that golden moment we’re on the banks of the Tana before it branches out into the famed delta by the same name.
The river is calm. The dugout canoe is tied to a pole on the opposite bank for no one will cross during the night. Tall borassus palms straddle the banks like monoliths, their strong trunks silver in the evening light and the fan-shaped leaves slightly rustling with the breeze.
We’re hoping to catch site of Tana River red colobus (Piliocolobus rufomitratus). The Tana River red colobus is also called the eastern red colobus, a highly endangered species and found only in a narrow zone of gallery forest along the Tana River, where we are now.
Except for the evening bird song, there’s no movement or sound coming from the forest on the opposite bank. Instead we hear soft murmuring behind us. It’s a group of Orma women returning from Manjila near Garsen after having spent the whole day selling milk from their livestock to the town’s folk. They have a few bottles unsold to sell to the group before vanishing into the impenetrable forest of borassus palms.
“These are the pastoral Orma who come to the delta when it’s dry in the hinterland,” explains Hassan Golo, the Orma working with Nature Kenya, the natural history society started in 1909. When the rains come, the pastoral Orma move their vast herds of cattle further inland beyond Garsen.
The rest remain like Hassan’s family settled in villages like Bandi by the Tana.
In the late afternoon we’re in Bandi, the Orma village an hour’s drive from Garsen on the Lamu road.
The livestock is being herded into the bomas for the night. The village is mix of simple single-story houses with at least one traditional Orma hut in each homestead.
Bolo’s sisters are getting ready for the wedding celebrations in the neighbouring homestead, decorating their hands with intricate patterns drawn in black henna called gurach in the Orma language.
Mariam, Golo’s younger sister escorts us to the wedding celebrations. She’s studying community health nursing at Kenya Medical Training College in Kilifi, a woman of two worlds – the traditional and modern.
At the wedding, young women dance the traditional hole, leaping high in full vigour, and singing.
A new tall hut has been built by the women, the ladder still propped against the hay wall. Thatched with doum palm, the ‘door’ made of ‘qaarari’ a specific tree is a narrow, low opening curtained with the fronds of the tree. Its purpose is to keep the mosquitos out and let the breeze in.
Bolo gives a brief about the Orma, a Cushitic people who migrated from Ethiopia several centuries ago to the area around the Tana Delta and are related to the Ethiopian Oroma. Tall and lean, they practice Islam.
“The wedding celebrations last two days,” narrates Bolo. “A cow is slaughtered for the feast and people dance the traditional dances. On the first day, the bride’s hair is shaved off.
Following the Islamic rites, the nikah (kufunga ndoa) is done, a simple ceremony that is a legal contract between the two individuals followed by a celebration.
The newly-weds are then escorted to their new hut where they remain for a week with the bride’s mother-in-law ensuring that they have food and water to bathe. A sapling is planted on the right side of the door as a symbol of blessing.
More on the Orma
Traditionally the Orma are a pastoral people but now also farm and engage in small scale business such as village kiosk.
The estimated population in Tana Delta is 96,664 of which the Orma make 44% according to the 2009 population census. The rest are Pokomo who are the farmers and fishers. There are other communities like the Wardei who are related to the Orma.
Explore the Tana Delta, Stay at Marjan Hotels & Resorts in Garsen. It has modern en suite rooms either air conditioned or not.
An interesting route: Malindi-Garsen (112 m via B8 2 hrs), Garsen-Kipini (75km 2hrs),Kipini – Lamu (50km) and return via Garsen to Garissa (240km via B8) to Nairobi (370).
In Garissa visit the Bour-Algi Giraffe Sanctuary bordering Tana River for the rare Reticulated giraffe.