N.B.: This article refers to Watha living associated with the Gabbra and Borana

The predicament of the Waata, former hunter-gatherers of East and Northeast Africa: etic and emic perspectives

Aneesa Kassam and Ali Balla Bashuna

Aneesa Kassam, Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, England and

Ali Balla Bashuna, Marsabit, Kenya

Paper to be presented at the Ninth International Conference on Hunters and Gatherers, Edinburgh, Scotland, 9-13 September, 2002.


This paper tells the story of the Waata, former Oromo hunter-gatherers of East and Northeast Africa, who specialized in elephant hunting. It relates how the Waata way of life was brought to an end in the colonial period due to the enactment of wildlife conservation laws and the creation of national parks. Through this policy and that of the containment of ethnic groups to tribal reserves in Kenya, the Waata lost their place in the regional system of production. As a result, they lost their autonomy and became servile members of the Boorana and Gabra Oromo pastoral groups with whom they had traditionally interacted. They thus suffered both external, state, and internal, cultural, discrimination. The paper describes the Waata struggle for self-determination in postcolonial Kenya and reflects on the problems of advocating their cause, both from an emic and etic point of view. 


In the late 1940s and 1950s, an ideological shift took place in conservation policy in colonial Kenya, from the preservation of wild game for Euro-American ‘trophy’ hunting, to the creation of national parks, where animals could live in their natural habitats as protected species (Steinhart 1989; 1994; forthcoming) (1) . The former policy marked continuity with the colony’s historical past as a place for big game-hunting and trade in wildlife products, particularly ivory, both of which had generated considerable revenues (2) . The latter, anti-hunting, policy reflected changing attitudes towards nature that had begun to emerge in American and European circles before the First World War, which laid the foundations for the environmental movement (Nash 2001). It sought to attract wildlife tourists, who would equally be a source of profit, based on the 1872 American Yellowstone model. This new strategy, which eventually led to the total ban on hunting in Kenya in 1977, contributed to the demise of the hunter-gathering way of life. Both the old and new administrators considered indigenous hunters, who did not possess official hunting licences, to be illegal “poachers” and their activities in and around the parks were criminalized (3)

This paper relates the story of the Waata, a little known hunter-gathering group of East and Northeast Africa, who became the main target of the anti-poaching campaign that was launched to eradicate elephant hunting in the Tsavo National Park created in 1948 (Holman 1967; Parker and Amin 1983; Steinhart forthcoming). It describes the double process of marginalization undergone by the Waata, who not only lost their source of livelihood as a result, but also their crucial place in the regional system of production through which they had maintained symbiotic links for centuries with their agricultural and pastoral neighbours. Consequently, the Waata were deprived of their relative autonomy vis-à-vis the Gabra, Boorana, Orma and Sakuye pastoral groups with whom they had primarily interacted and their right to separate political representation when Kenya became independent in 1964. The paper discusses how a group of Waata are struggling to reassert their cultural identity and political rights half a century later in postcolonial Kenya. 

The story is told emically, from the inside, from the point of view of a Waata social activist from Northern Kenya (Bashuna 1993; forthcoming), and etically, from the outside, from the perspective of a social anthropologist (Kassam 1986; 2000). Both researchers have been analysing the problem of the Waata in different ways. Their present collaboration is the outcome of a dialogue that began in Kenya over a decade ago. The paper also reflects on this dialogical process and on the problems of advocating the Waata cause.

The Waata: People of the Bow

The Waata are not recognized as a separate ethnic group in modern Kenya, hence there do not exist any precise census data on their total population. Bashuna estimates that they may number some 20,000, but this figure may be considerably less. The Waata are not a homogenous community. They live in scattered territorial groups along the Tana and Galana Rivers and in the Taru Desert in Eastern Kenya, on the Kenyan coast, in Marsabit District in Northern Kenya, and in parts of Southern, Central and Western Ethiopia. They may also extend into Tanzania (Holman 1967; Stiles 1981: 850) (4) . These groups are generally named according to their specific localities, such as the Waata Omartu, who live between Hola and Garsen in Kenya, the Waata Wanduu, who live in the Sagan Valley in Southern Ethiopia, or Waata Golboo or Galole, who live in the Chalbi Desert in Northern Kenya (Bassi 1997; Bashuna 1993: 36; Heine 1981: 9) (*map). The Waata did not mark their territories through beehives like former Samburu hunter-gatherer groups (Spencer 1973: 199ff). However, the Waata of Northern Kenya claim Mounts Borrolle and Abbo as sacred sites (Bashuna 1993: 38). In these different localities, the Waata have interacted with neighbouring agricultural and agro-pastoral groups, such as the Kamba, Mijikenda, and Swahili in Kenya, and Amhara in Ethiopia. They are known by different names by these groups. The Kamba and Mijikenda groups call them Waliangulu (‘eaters of meat’), the Swahili Wasanye (‘foragers’), and Amhara know them as Weyto. In the early travel literature, the term Dorobo was often applied to all hunters, regardless of ethnic affiliation. Historically, the Waata have principally interacted with Oromo groups in both Kenya and Ethiopia and generally speak a dialect of Oromo, as well as the languages of their neighbours (Heine 1981). Many groups claim to have previously spoken a language of their own (Cerulli 1922; Heine 1981; Hobley 1911; 1912). The different groups maintain many Oromo customs, and some play a central role in Oromo rituals (Bashuna 1993; forthcoming; Heine 1981; Kassam 1986).

There exists little substantive ethnographic data on the Waata. The data available vary according to the different groups studied and reflect the perspectives of the researchers. Social historians, travel and conservation writers have briefly described the hunting traditions and techniques of some of the Eastern Kenya groups (Holman 1967; Parker and Amin 1983; Steinhart forthcoming). These writers have discussed their specialization in elephant hunting and their use of the long-bow and poisoned arrows. The double-convex bow employed by the Waata, with draw weights of between 120-170 pounds, is said to be similar in shape to the one used by Nubian archers in Southern Egypt four thousand years ago (Parker and Amin 1983: 33*). For this reason, it is thought that the Waata may belong to a very ancient hunting-stock that may have traded ivory with Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman expeditions to the region (Parker and Amin 1983: 110). Waata also used shorter bows. In most of this literature, the Waata are portrayed as “pure” hunters, who maintained trading links with neighbouring groups.

Social anthropologists have mainly focused on the degraded, caste-like, social status occupied by the Waata in Oromo society (Cerulli 1922: 200-1; Huntingford 1931: 262-266); their myths of origin and role in Oromo rituals (Kassam 1986; 2000); and problems of identity and distribution of the different groups (Bassi 1997; Stiles 1981; 1993). Hobley (1911; 1912) provides useful notes on cultural practices. Most of these researchers do not depict the Waata as “pure” hunters, but take a more complex, “revisionist” approach (5) . In this literature, the question of whether the Waata were an aboriginal hunting population who preceded the Oromo pastoralists, were assimilated into these groups through interaction at a later stage, or originated within them is debated. Historians who have worked on the oral traditions of the Northern Kenya groups also adopt this revisionist view (Robinson 1985; Sobania 1979; 1990). Like Von Zwanenberg (1976) and Chang (1982), they stress the fluidity of boundaries between agriculturists, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers in the region, and have shown that in times of ecological stress, farmers and herders turned to hunter-gathering in order to survive catastrophes, but reverted back to their original occupations when the situation improved. Hunters could also acquire stock and become pastoralists.

Bashuna (1993; forthcoming) has also engaged with some of these academic issues, drawing on ‘ethno-anthropological’ or indigenous explanatory models (6) . He indicates the complementarity of the three regional modes of subsistence. He shows that in relation to cattle pastoralists (warra loonii), camel pastoralists (warra gaalaa), and agriculturalists (warra qottuu), the Waata are hunters, ‘people of the bow’ (warra gubbee). The bow represents, therefore, a distinctive economic and culture marker for the Waata themselves. In their myth of origin, their ancestor, Wayyuu Banoo, was a rich stock-owner, who lost all his cattle through a moral transgression, but was blessed with the ability to hunt instead (Bashuna forthcoming; Kassam 2000). From the Waata point of view, hunting is, therefore, a noble pursuit, gifted to them by the Oromo Sky-God (Waaqa). Through this myth, the Waata see themselves as forming an integral part of Oromo society, and as having become economically differentiated from the pastoral groups through misfortune. In their self-image, hunting and the ingestion of wild game meat do not render the Waata “impure” vis-à-vis pastoralists. For Bashuna (forthcoming), on the contrary, the Waata are a ‘sacred caste’, who continue to play a very important role in all the life-cycle and transition ceremonies of the Boorana and Gabra Oromo groups in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia.

As is the case of other hunters and foragers in Eastern Africa (Galaty 1979; Kenny 1981; Woodburn 2001), Waata traditionally performed important ritual labour for the Oromo in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia. It is not known to what extent this was also true of other Waata groups in Kenya and there is scant documentation on this ritual role in other Oromo groups in Ethiopia. Although at one level of Boorana and Gabra Oromo society the Waata are socially despised, at another level they are considered to be senior (hangafa, ‘first-born’) in terms of their ritual status (Bashuna forthcoming; Kassam 1986). According to myth, this is because it was the Waata who ‘discovered’ the first ritual expert or Qaalluu in the wild. It is said that even to this day, the most important Qaalluu lineage in Boorana society is fathered by a Waata (Megerssa 1993). Since it is also the Qaalluu who confirms the Gada political leaders who are elected every eight years, the Waata can be said to be at the very heart of the Boorana political and religious system (7). The Waata also play an important role in all the rites of passage from birth to death in social life generally. In exchange for these ritual services, they are given gifts of livestock, meat and milk offerings. This is still the case in the Boorana and Gabra groups today, despite social change.

The marginalization of the Waata

In the precolonial period, the Waata, like other East African hunter-gatherers, formed part of an interconnected regional system of production (Van Zwanenberg 1976). According to Van Zwanenberg, this system of production was made up of different modes of subsistence: hunting, fishing, and foraging; agriculture; and livestock herding. These producers occupied different ecological niches and obtained the products they were unable to produce themselves through extensive trading networks. The boundaries between these modes of subsistence were fluid, people moved back and forth across them in times of ecological stress and ethnic affiliation was dynamic and changing. In this situation, people were often multilingual and switched easily from one set of cultural practices to another. Among the pastoral groups, conflict took place over pasture and water and through mutual raiding livestock changed hands at frequent intervals. In times of ecological crises, impoverished pastoralists became hunters. Van Zwanenberg’s thesis is supported by the work of a number of researchers working in the region (Lamphear 1986; Robinson 1985; Spear and Waller 1993; Sobania 1979; 1988; 1990). These writers have shown that this dynamic interchange formed an important part of the traditional coping mechanisms and strategies of survival.

The advent of colonialism played a significant role in the break down of this regional system of production. The following section focuses mainly on how colonial rule affected the interrelationships between groups in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia, but is illustrative of the consequences for other groups in the region as a whole. It then goes on to discuss the impact of colonial conservation policies on the Waata of Eastern Kenya.

In 1895, Kenya became part of the British East African Protectorate. In1896, Abyssinian forces occupied Gabra and Boorana territories in Southern Ethiopia and established an administrative post there in 1897. The boundary between Kenya and the entity that was to become Ethiopia was demarcated in 1907, and British administration was instituted in the region later in the same year (Robinson 1985: ). The imposition of colonial rule took place in the wake of a period of dislocations caused by the triple disasters of bovine pleural pneumonia, rinderpest and smallpox, which had struck the region in the 1880s and 1890s. In these disasters, Gabra and Boorana had lost up to ninety-five percent of their herds and had suffered severe human mortalities (Robinson 1985: 329). Rinderpest also affected wildlife (Sobania 1979). Pastoralists were only able to survive these tragedies by providing mutual help to one another, exchanging small-stock for grain with Konso, Arbore and Janjamtu agro-pastoralists in Southern Ethiopia, and by resorting to hunting and the gathering of the edible roots and tubers of wild plants with the help of Waata. Some pastoralists are even said to have gone ‘into the bush and become Waata’ (Robinson 1985: 339). Elephant hunting provided a means of recovering their losses and returning to pastoralism. Waata thus played a vital role in the survival of Gabra and Boorana, by providing or facilitating access to alternative sources of food.

Inter-tribal livestock raiding had also intensified during this period. In order to facilitate the administration of the pastoral groups, collect tax, and impose order, the British created tribal grazing reserves (Sobania 1990:11ff). Each ethnic group was confined to its own territory and herders were fined for trespassing these boundaries and they and their livestock were forcibly relocated. Spencer (1973: 209-213) has described how various hunter-gatherer groups were confined to the reserve delimited for them at Doldol in Samburu District in the 1950s, after they had been prohibited from hunting. In Marsabit District, Waata were not allocated a separate reserve and continued to interact with Gabra, Boorana and Sakuye in their territories. The restrictions imposed by the government had a significant impact on social relationships, affecting the permeable boundaries that had previously existed between different groups in the region, thus creating ethnic divisions and rivalry and laying the seeds of discord for the present day. 

Another issue of concern to administrators was the problem of poaching by armed hunting parties from Abyssinia, the impact of these activities on wildlife populations, and the local trade in wildlife products (Sobania 1979; Robinson 1985) (8). Beachey (1967: 283) states that Northern Kenya was the last region to be exploited for its ivory, and that it remained relatively isolated from the coastal trade until after the 1880s. Robinson (1985: 299ff) and Dalleo (1979), based on both oral and documentary sources, have argued to the contrary. Their evidence demonstrates that in the nineteenth century apart from internal trade of grain, cloth, tobacco, coffee, incense, honey, ironware, livestock and livestock products and wildlife items between agriculturalists, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, there existed an extensive trading network between the Benadir ports of Kismayu and Brava on the Southern Somali coast and Northern Kenya. Somali caravans also regularly traded ivory, rhino horn, aromatic gums, salt, livestock and hides in the region throughout this period (see also Sheriff 1987: 165). Such trade was often based on a network of formalized relationships. Gabra did not generally participate as actively in this trade as the Somali. Robinson’s (1985: 319) interviewees stated that they only entered into such transactions when economic circumstances forced them to do so, primarily as a means to purchase livestock to rebuild their herds. In the early part of the twentieth century, Boorana were reported to be active traders and ivory hunters, sending caravans to Italian Somaliland and trading livestock as far south as Naivasha, especially after Abyssinian occupation. The reference to ivory hunters could be one to the Waata. Prior to the colonial period, before the British confiscated their horses, both Boorana and Gabra hunted elephant for ivory on horseback, using bows and arrows. According to Boorana environmental law, this activity was, however, generally reserved for the Waata, who were considered the rightful ‘owners’ of wild animals (Kassam and Megerssa 1994). It is not known to what extent the Waata of Northern Kenya participated in the external nineteenth century trade, but like their Eastern brethren, it can be assumed, without undue speculation, that they were actively engaged (Robinson 1985: 319).

British posts like the Boma Trading Company and the government station established in Marsabit in 1909 attempted to divert trade being channelled through Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia, to British Somaliland through Kenya (Robinson 1985: 305). British authorities also instituted a number of measures to deal with the problem of cross-border poaching and local hunting (Sobania 1979:212-220). This action was motivated by both economic and moral reasons, and formed part of the agreements signed by the colonial powers at the International Conference for the Preservation of the Wild Animals, Birds and Fishes of the African Continent held in London in 1900; the International Conference for the Protection of Nature in Paris in 1931, and the International Conference on Wildlife held in London in 1933 (Parker and Amin 1983: 122-23; 127; Nash 2001: 342-378). They were also led by British colonial development policies as a whole (Sobania 1979). In Kenya, wildlife laws were enforced by the Game Department, formed at the beginning of the century, through the intermediary of District Commissioners. The latter had wide powers of discrimination in the implementation of the laws, including, in principle, authorizing indigenous subsistence hunting (Parker and Amin 1983: 122-128). In reality, however, such traditional practices were discouraged and treated as “poaching”.

Sobania (1979: 212-220) consulted government reports from 1908 to 1960 to compile a wildlife profile for the region for the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme. Early reports recorded wildlife as generally being plentiful. Later reports recorded fluctuating numbers of game. In 1921, it was reported that hunting parties from Ethiopia had caused ‘tremendous destruction’ among large game between Mount Kulal and North Horr in Northern Kenya: ‘Herds of elephant have been wiped out and places where rhinoceros were in plenty, are now only remarkable for the complete absence of these beasts’. In 1923, a government scheme was put into effect to stop the ‘illegal’ rhino horn trade. 2,932 pounds of ivory was brought in or confiscated in the Mathews Range and 1,196 pounds of rhino horn was purchased to prevent loss of revenue. In 1928, a five-year hunting prohibition on greater kudu was recommended in Marsabit District. Since large amounts of horn continued to be handed in or confiscated in 1929, it was thought that the rhino population was probably larger than originally estimated. In 1942, Marsabit Forest and part of the area to the south and east was declared a game reserve and in September 1948, all game reserves in Marsabit District became national reserves (later to become part of Marsabit National Park). The institution of national reserves in Marsabit and in Samburu Districts appear to have had a positive impact on game numbers, although no precise censuses were kept. In 1951, the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance was issued by the Game Department, which made hunting without the possession of a licence illegal. It also made the ownership of any part of a game animal illegal (Parker and Amin 1983: 11). The problem of “illegal poaching”, however, continued, as in 1952 it was reported that ‘Ethiopia continues as a ready market for rhino horn, ivory and leopard skin’. 

In Eastern Kenya, similarly, the subsistence and commercial poaching of elephants by Waata hunters and Kamba and Giriama hunter-agriculturalists in the Tsavo National Park posed a challenge to the authorities (Parker and Amin 1983; Steinhart 1994). Following the Second World War, the rise in ivory prices had led to an increase in elephant hunting in the region, which formed a major link in the coastal trade (Sheriff 1987: 168-170). Waata, Kamba and Giriama hunters had traditionally served as suppliers to the agents of European, Arab, Swahili and Indian merchants on this trade route. The discovery of widespread elephant poaching in Tsavo by hunters using “primitive” weapons, such as bows and poisoned arrows, by the two new game wardens, David Sheldrick and Bill Woodley, sparked a controversy between the Game Department and the Royal National Parks of Kenya, established in 1944, on the best way to deal with the problem. With the support of the pro-conservationist Governor, the two wardens launched an anti-poaching campaign in 1956. They used similar counter-insurgency methods to those that had been employed to quell the Kikuyu Mau-Mau pro-nationalist uprising between 1940s and 1950s. Both wardens had served as officers in the fight against the Mau-Mau. The campaign used an elaborate informer network to track down and arrest the poachers. In this way, the hunters became the hunted. The operation was completed in 1957 and was deemed to be one of the most successful in Africa. It later served as a model for World Bank funded anti-poaching units in Kenya (Steinhart 1994:70).

In retrospect, this “success” can be questioned in terms of its ecological and human impact (Parker and Amin 1983: 51-53). Paradoxically, the campaign had a number of unintended consequences for the very wildlife and habitat it had sought to protect. By eliminating the hunters from the natural chain, the ecological balance that had been maintained over centuries between people, animals and the environment was destroyed. The elephant population in the Tsavo-Galana area and surrounding ranges, no longer kept in check by hunters, who generally killed for subsistence rather than commerce, expanded and rose to an estimated 40,000 animals (9) . The large herds of elephants destroyed the vegetation cover in the park, bringing about the starvation of rhino and other animals. When drought struck the region in 1960-1961, elephants suffered chronic malnutrition. The Galana Game Management Scheme was established in the 1960s as a means of controlling this growing population of elephants, Ironically, Waata were employed to help cull elephants on the Scheme. In effect, the Scheme was partly created to offer Waata an alternative means of livelihood out of the sympathy and respect for these ‘gentlemen hunters’ that had been generated by Park authorities in the course of their work. However, in the interests of generating profit, this objective was not realized. As Parker ashamedly notes, ‘somewhere along the line we forgot about the Waata’ (Parker and Amin 1983: 56). By the 1970s, when drought struck again, Tsavo Park had been stripped of its vegetation cover. Between 9000-15000 elephants died of malnutrition in the park and surrounding area and the loss of browse also affected other species of animals like rhino and dik-dik. Poaching resumed and without woodland cover the elephants could be easily spotted and shot down by armed Kamba and Somali hunting parties. By 1974, few elephants and rhino remained in the park and its ecology had been seriously impaired (Parker and Amin 1983: 64). 

In this failed experiment, the Waata, had in fact, been sacrificial victims of forces beyond their control. They had served as pawns in the economic move that was taking place in the colony from the once lucrative ivory trade toward the creation of nature reserves for the emerging tourist market. As a result of the colonial game policies in both Northern and Eastern Kenya, the Waata lost their way of life and place in the regional system of production. Traditional hunting ceased to represent an alternative strategy for pastoralists and agriculturalists alike in times of need. Through the creation of tribal reserves, the interdependency between the different producers could no longer exist, for the survival chain linking them had been broken. Due to the stigma of being labelled as hunters, Waata adopted a social disguise or form of administrative ‘passing’, and in population censuses from this time, they identified themselves by the ethnic names of their host populations. They thus ceased to exist as a distinct cultural entity.

Reclaiming the rights of the Waata

As Woodburn (2001) rightly points out, due to their small numbers and low status in society, many hunter-gatherer and former hunter-gatherer groups in Africa lack political representation and are unable to make their grievances known at the local and national levels. They are unable, thus, to exercise their full citizenship rights. This is also true of the Waata. As our discussion indicates, however, the Waata case can be considered an exception to the assertion made by Woodburn (2001:2) that this lack of political representation does not generally stem from assimilation into more dominant ethnic groups.

The first definitive population census did not take place in Kenya until 1962 (Sobania 1979: 147). By this date, Waata had begun to conceal their real identities for fear of being classified as hunters, and had adopted the ethnic identification of the particular pastoral group with which they were interacting. The censuses thus rendered them socially and politically invisible. When Kenya gained independence in 1964, since they did not officially exist as a distinct sub-group of the Oromo, they could not obtain separate ethnic representation at the national level. Waata were either counted as ‘Others’ or forcefully enumerated under the rubric of the dominant Boorana and Gabra communities. Bashuna explains that Waata came to realize that their numbers were being used to “swell” the electoral roll of the Boorana in the acrimonious inter and intra-ethnic political rivalry that had developed among the Oromo groups in the north (Kassam 2000: 201). In order to rectify this problem, Bashuna struggled to have Waata officially registered as a separate ethnic group before the 1999 national census. He was unsuccessful, as government authorities consider such manifestations of ethnicity to be inimical to nation-building. Without political representation, it is extremely difficult for Waata to seek redress for their past and present grievances and to obtain their own ethnic rights to development. 

Today, the majority of the Waata live on the margins of mainstream society. They eke out a meagre existence making charcoal, supplying building poles, serving as watchmen in towns, or merely begging (Bashuna 1993: 38). The few who are better off keep some livestock, farm or trade. They are despised by Boorana and Gabra due to their low economic status, and like other hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers, they are subject to negative stereotyping (cf. Woodburn 2001:10). The Waata are no longer accorded the respect due to them by Oromo customary law, since they no longer play a crucial role in pastoral production and survival. Yet they are still expected to perform their ritual roles in Gabra and Boorana. Due to population growth, their own shrines on Mounts Aabo and Borrolle are being desecrated. The Waata cause has received little substantive support from Gabra and Boorana parliamentarians. 

Nevertheless, as Woodburn (2001: 3) indicates, in many hunter-gatherer groups, ‘dormant identities are being reactivated’. Bashuna has played a catalytic role in the cultural reawakening of the Waata groups in Northern Kenya. Since the late 1980s, he has been documenting the oral traditions of these groups and has been staging cultural performances (see Kassam 2000). He has also established contact with a number of national and international scholars. In 2002, he received sponsorship to spend six months at the Max Planck Institute in Germany to prepare his manuscript on the Waata for publication. This enabled him to feel that he was a member of the international research community in his own right. However, he has limited funding to carry out further research, which would entail doing comparative studies in the Ethiopian, Northern and Eastern Kenya groups and visually documenting their dramatic rituals re-enacting the hunt and myth of origin.

Bashuna believes that unless action is taken on behalf of the Waata, they will face cultural extinction. He thinks that any decisions that are made regarding their future must necessarily be of an external, political nature. Further to his 1993 article, Bashuna is making the following claims for the Waata. He demands that Waata:

be registered as a distinct sub-group of Oromo;

be accorded civil and political representation to protect their interests;

be re-allocated land in Marsabit District and given lands in Eastern Kenya where development resources should be made available;

be accorded positive discrimination in terms of education, allocation of scholarships and opportunities for employment; 

be compensated for loss of life and property suffered during the anti-poaching campaign of the 1950s;

be allowed to practise some acceptable form of hunting under the supervision of the relevant government authorities; part of the revenue generated from parks like Marsabit and Tsavo be allocated to Waata development projects;

support be given for the Waata Indigenous People's Organization to promote the civic education of the Waata and their leaders; create income generation opportunities; establish a centre for the documentation of Waata culture; create a network through which groups can communicate both with each other and with other indigenous hunter-gatherers;

sacred shrines of Borrolle and Abbo be registered in the names of their traditional custodians and the environmental destruction of the surrounding areas be prevented;

musical traditions be recorded and broadcast by the national service;

be accorded UN protection to safeguard their rights.

The problems of advocating the Waata cause

‘An advocate’, Henrikson (1985: 121) states, ‘is one who pleads the cause of another, and the role presupposes active engagement’. Bashuna is not an anthropological ‘Other’, but a social activist who has been pleading the cause of his own people. He has been struggling to obtain ethnic identification and political representation for the Waata for over a decade. He has been documenting the Waata traditions, not for scholarly reasons, but because he is concerned about the cultural survival of his people. For him, the matter is essentially a moral one; it is a question of the fundamental human rights of the Waata. His struggle has often been a lonely one, entailing many personal, family and financial sacrifices, and he has had to contend with both Waata and non-Waata opponents. It has required great will power and determination in face of the obstacles with which he has to contend. It has meant acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge in order to become a spokesman for the Waata community. He has thus sought to engage in dialogue with other scholars and researchers. 

The present collaboration is the outcome of one such dialogue that was established with Kassam in 1991, after reading a paper she had written in 1986 on the symbiotic relations between the Waata and their pastoral neighbours. Initially, Kassam expressed some reservations about Bashuna’s activist work. She felt it was untimely, as it deterred from the larger cause of the Oromo struggle for self-determination (10) . She saw it as forming a cause within a cause. She felt that it could be dealt with internally, by acting through the institutionalised channels for conflict resolution of the Oromo themselves. She suggested that Bashuna take his grievances to the great Gumi Gayoo people’s assembly that is held in Boorana in Southern Ethiopia once every eight years. Bashuna, however, rejected this idea, stating that only an external, political solution could be found to the problem. When Kassam re-established contact with Bashuna again in 1998, she had not radically modified her initial view, but had come to understand Bashuna’s position better, especially in respect to the need to obtain political representation for the Waata. Her second paper, published in 2000, was written in active dialogue with Bashuna. In recognition of her efforts, she was attributed the designation of intala teena (‘our girl’, or ‘our daughter’) by Bashuna and his circle of supporters.

Anthropologists remain divided on the question of advocacy. Hastrup and Elsass (1990) and others, are critical of such active engagement. They consider it a contradiction in terms. They point out that even a minority group is rarely a homogenous one; it rarely speaks with one voice over an issue of common concern, but is made up of several groups, ‘speaking with many voices’ (Hastrup and Elsass 1990: 305). So whose interests are we representing, when we advocate the cause of a particular group within a community? Do we really understand the complexities of the situation, the ‘hidden values’, the different factions and their agendas? These are indeed issues of real concern. They relate to Kassam’s reluctance to focus on the Waata cause at the expense of the problems facing all the Oromo groups in the region. The in-fighting for political leadership between Boorana, Gabra and Waata are part of their struggle over resources following the breakdown of the regional system of production described earlier in this paper. In the Kenyan case, for all three groups, political representation is an important means of gaining access to national subsidies for local development. Hastrup and Elsass (1990: 303) also object to advocacy, on the grounds that it reduces the subjects represented by anthropologists to a passive role. They conclude that ‘advocacy, as such, is incompatible with anthropology as a distinct kind of scholarship’ (Hastrup and Elsass 1990: 301). 

In a comment on Hastrup and Elsass’s article, Singer (1990) takes a different view. He sees the entire anthropological endeavour as being situated on an ‘advocacy continuum’. At one end, this involves the promotion of general human understanding and the promotion of anthropology/ethnograpy as part of the creation of humanistic knowledge about the ‘Other’. At the other end, it involves the promotion of the general interests of subordinate groups and the promotion of specific interests of a subordinate group, as part of action-oriented work. This may include, ‘defending the right to self-determination or promoting access to needed resources’. For Singer, both types of advocacy form an integral part of the discipline. In contrast to Hastrup and Elsass, for Singer such advocacy does not necessarily imply speaking for others, but rather with them. Ultimately, it entails, empowering them to speak for themselves. The anthropological task should therefore be ‘to raise the context awareness of the people themselves so that they may eventually become better equipped to plead their own cause’ (Grillo in Hastrup and Elsass1990: 309). Anthropological analysis can thus make a valuable contribution by helping groups to become conscious of the wider politico-economic structures underlying their collective situation. For Singer, both types of advocacy, representing, and speaking with, are equally political. For, as Foucault (1980) has demonstrated, knowledge and power are inextricably linked.

From a Foucauldian perspective, advocacy involves taking the side of the victim. It entails deconstructing the past. From the literature, it is clear that, whatever the differences between the Waata themselves, as a group they have suffered social injustice. This injustice is of a dual nature, it stems from both internal and external factors. Externally, their current marginal situation can be traced back to the colonial period. Internally, as hunters in a dominantly pastoral society, they have been subjected to unacceptable forms of cultural discrimination akin to those experienced by caste groups on the Indian subcontinent. The solution to the Waata problem thus lies in both internal and external intervention. The question is one of priority. As Bashuna rightly believes, by being recognized as a distinct entity and by attaining political representation, the Waata would be in a stronger position to take up the question of their social status within Oromo society. Furthermore, as Kenrick (2001: 41) notes, the anthropological role must not only be one of enabling former hunting groups like the Waata to reclaim their political space in the modern-day world, but also of encouraging them to restore peaceful communal relations with their pastoral neighbours. Indeed, if these were built on the cultural ideals of equality and respect common to all Oromo, they would be mutually beneficial to both in the longer term. Both groups are indigenous to the region; both groups are marginalized to different degrees; almost all Oromo groups in Kenya and Ethiopia suffer human rights abuses (Baxter 1983; Kenya Human Rights Commission 2000; Kotille 2002). Hence, although the situation of the Waata is exceptional in many respects and deserves special attention, the Oromo as a whole should be represented in the United Nations through the Working Group for Indigenous Populations.


This paper has discussed the predicament of the Waata, former hunter-gatherers of East and Northeast Africa. It has shown that they find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, they have lost their traditional livelihood. This was brought about mainly through the British colonial wildlife conservation policies. Holman (1967) and Parker and Amin (1983) have described the sustained campaign that was carried out by the authorities in the newly created Tsavo East National Park to track down and apprehend this group of specialized elephant hunters. In Northern Kenya, a series of measures were instituted preventing the practice of indigenous hunting, which led eventually to the creation of Marsabit National Reserve in 1948 (Sobania 1979). These interventions successfully eliminated the Waata from the ivory trade in which they had engaged from before the colonial period.

With the emergence of the international conservation movement which gained momentum with a series of conferences from the beginning of the twentieth century, local and metropolitan government authorities now qualified the trade, which had long existed as a major revenue earner and a ‘hidden subsidy of the colonial enterprise’, as an “illicit” one (Steinhart 1989: *page no.). With this change in the Western value system, traditional Africans who had hunted for food, trade and prestige, were now characterised as “poachers”. These sanctions also permanently removed the Waata and other hunting groups from the networks of exchange that had linked the economies of foragers, herders and farmers in the region into one interdependent whole from the precolonial period (Spear and Waller 1993). Hunting had played a crucial role in this precolonial economic system, providing a solution of last resort for other producers in times of environmental crises (Chang 1982; Robinson 1985). These interventions brought to an end the symbiotic relationships between the groups, which had already been considerably impaired by the colonial policies of creating native reserves and restricting interethnic movement (Sobania 1978; 1988). Subsequently, due to the stigma of being viewed as hunters, Waata were forced to hide their true identities in colonial and postcolonial censuses and to pass as members of the more dominant groups with whom they had traditionally interacted. Deprived of their former economic “clout” in the traditional systems of exchange, the Waata were reduced to subordinate appendages of the more dominant agro-pastoral groups.

On the other hand, as the Waata are not recognised as a distinct ethnic group in the postcolonial Kenyan state, they are denied political representation (Bala 1993). Waata of Marsabit District are dominated by pastoral Boorana and Gabra. These two restrictions, one economic and the other political, have deprived the Waata of their social and civil rights. They have had a serious economic, social and cultural impact on the group, who feel that unless action is taken to address their problems, they will face cultural extinction.

The paper has described the struggle of a Waata social activist to obtain ethnic identification and political representation for the group and to document their cultural traditions. The predicament of the Waata described in the paper is common to many other former hunter-gathering groups in Africa (Barnard and Kenrick 2001). The struggle over resources has brought them into conflict with other, more dominant groups, with whom they traditionally interacted. Like other minorities, the Waata are resorting to their ethnicity ‘as a sort of civil rights movement, to achieve the equality of treatment which had previously been denied to them in the name of modernization’ (Maybury-Lewis 1988: 378). As Maybury-Lewis adds:

‘Yet people do not cling to their cultures merely to use them as inter-ethnic strategies. They cling to them because it is through them that they make sense of the world and have a sense of themselves. We know that when people are forced to give up their culture or when they give it up too rapidly, the consequences are normally social breakdown and personal disorientation and despair. The right of people to its own culture is therefore derived from a fundamental human need, yet it receives less protection, even in theory, than other human rights because it concerns groups rather than individuals.’

As anthropologists, we have the ethical and moral duty to assist such groups in their struggle. However, such advocacy is a subject of debate in the discipline. In some circles, it is viewed as departing from the professional rules of neutrality and objectivity (Hastrup and Elsass 1990;). Others, like Maybury-Lewis (1988) and Singer (1990), see it as forming part of the fundamental precepts of anthropology. Such advocacy often involves making difficult moral and political judgements (Bodley 1988: 375). Some of these dilemmas in the Oromo case have been briefly discussed in the paper. 

The political and territorial claims being made by many hunter-gatherer and former hunter-gatherer groups are often based on their rights as indigenous peoples. As a number of anthropologists have shown, the concept of indigeneity, is however a controversial and difficult one to sustain in both epistemological and legal terms (Ingold 2000: 132-151; Saugestad 2001). Should former hunter-gatherer groups like the Waata be treated as an indigenous group, a First People, or as a marginalized minority? In the Waata case, it is the latter categorization that is perhaps the most appropriate, although like the other Oromo groups in the region, they are also an indigenous people who are suffering discrimination. In the case of the Waata, the source of this discrimination is, however, both external and internal.

Despite these problems, and despite the fact that we often lack a clear vision of the types of action we should undertake, as anthropologists we need to continue to engage and dialogue with indigenous hunter-gatherer researchers and leaders, to lend them solidarity and support, and to help them to make their own voices heard.


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1 The national parks movement in Kenya had in fact begun in the late 1930s, but was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Game laws began to be enacted from as early as 1897 (Dalleo 1979: 473).

2 In 1859, for instance, 488,600 pounds of ivory worth £146, 666 were exported from Zanzibar, rising to 950,000 in 1890-91 (Beachey 1967: 287), Parker and Amin (1985: 125) show that by 1899 the fees for hunting licences and duty imposed on trophy ivory exported accounted for 9% of the total annual income of British East Africa. It was estimated that by 1910, between £50,000 to £100,000 was generated annually through game safaris to the Protectorate. Based on the growing world demand, ivory exports and prices continued to rise during the period 1925-1960 (Parker and Amin 1985: 77-78). 

3 Game animals could only be hunted legally with firearms and official licences. Indigenous hunters who used traditional methods were therefore considered poachers, (Parker and Amin 1983: 11) even if they hunted for subsistence. Poaching referred to both illegal hunting and the trading of game products (Dalleo 1979: 472).

4 Waata groups may also exist among the Samburu. Spencer (1973: 203) reports that the core of the Lengiro Samburu hunter-gatherer group were thought to be of Boorana Oromo origin and lived on Mount Ngiro, interspersed among the Masula. Mt. Ngiro is an important Samburu ceremonial site and the Masula are acknowledged as ritual specialists. Sobania (1979: 28-29) suggests, on the basis of oral data, that these were rather Waata groups who had been interacting with the Orma in the region before their dispersal.

5 Stiles (1992) gives an excellent critical overview of this debate.

6 The term is taken from Galaty (1986). See his article on Maasai pastoralist and Iltorrobo perceptions of self and other.

7 For more details on the Boorana Gada and Qaalluu socio-political and religious institutions, see Legesse (1973).

8 Robinson's (1985: ) interviewees reported that thirty head of cattle could be obtained for a pair of tusks.

9 Parker and Amin (1983) show that the commercial activities of traditional hunters like Waata were generally based on ‘found’ ivory, or as part of subsistence hunting, rather than animals deliberated killed for profit .

10 The Oromo of Ethiopia have been fighting a low-key guerrilla war against the Ethiopian regimes since the 1970s. On the Oromo problem in Ethiopia, see Baxter (1983). This conflict also affects the Oromo groups living on the border, although they do not all necessarily identify with the Oromo ethnonational cause. See Kenya Human Rights Commission (2000) and Kotile (2002).