Meet the Gabbra People of East Africa Pt 1:

How Traditional Knowledge Saw the Gabbra People Through Colonization and Climate Crisis


Shifting during wet season
Gabbra People. Courtesy of the Wayfinders Circle.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on whatsapp

August 31, 2022

Meet the Gabbra People of East Africa Pt 1: How Traditional Knowledge Saw the Gabbra People Through Colonization and Climate Crisis

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.

This episode is part of a two-part series. Listen to Episode 2 here.


[theme music softly plays in the background]

[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: Welcome to Seedcast. I’m your host, Jessica Ramirez. And today we’re with the Gabbra community in east Africa. On the last episode of Seedcast, we heard how the Gabbra survived colonialism and now face climate change, and how their traditional knowledge is what’s gotten them through. If you haven’t listened to that episode, I recommend you go back into our archive and listen to it first before this one, because today the Gabbra are going to tell us about the sources of their traditional knowledge.

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…

[Voices of Gabbra youth and junior elders singing together]

[00:01:35] Jessica: It’s the new year for the Gabbra. Time to gather together to offer prayers, animal sacrifices, and to reflect on the future. And like in any Gabbra celebration, to sing and dance. 

[Singing voices continue]

[00:01:51] Jessica: This song is called Aar

[00:01:53] Ali Mero: This song—this song is sung in most celebrations.

[00:01:57] Jessica: And this is Ali Mero. He recorded the song at this year’s new year celebration.

[Singing continues]

[00:02:10] Ali: That song is very significant to Gabbra. It’s sung by Gabbra youth and junior elders. 

[00:02:17] Jessica: Gabbra sing this song during weddings, and other celebrations. 

[00:02:21] Ali: And people know that it’s a celebration.

[00:02:26] Jessica: And then they sing it again when youth take livestock away to graze in far off rangelands.

[Singing voices continue in the background]

[00:02:34] Ali: They’re leaving the home, and now they’re going to the grazing and the rangelands and not knowing when they’ll come back, and the whole families are gathering around. So it’s a sign of now detaching from home and being independent to be on their own, to take care of the security of the animals, the people, the rangelands, you see. It’s a very touching song. 

[00:02:59] Jessica: It’s a spiritual song that connects the people, life, and the spirits.

[Singing continues]

[00:03:07] Ali: The language is deep. So it’s kind of hard to translate the wording.

[00:03:13] Jessica: But even if you can’t understand the words, you can feel the repetitive rhythm—people make a beat with sticks, and move their feet.

[Singing voices continue, rising and falling together]

[00:03:30] Ali: You know, and it is done in such a way that when the beats and the rhythm go together in tandem, it means it’s a breakthrough. Yeah, it’s a breakthrough. 

[00:03:43] Jessica: And when that happens, people get the spirit. 

[00:03:46] Ali: You’ll find guys go hysterical, hypnotic, you know; and just, something is connected.

[00:03:53] Jessica: People fall to the ground speaking in tongues, the song continues until they come out of their trance.

[Voices rhythmically singing in Gabbra continues with hands clapping until it stops abruptly]

[A sheep or a goat bleats]

[00:04:31] Jessica: The Gabbra people are pastoralists. That means they live in close relationship with camels, and cattle, and sheep, and goats; animals that eat grasses, can carry heavy loads, and travel long distances. The animals depend on the Gabbra and the Gabbra depend on the animals. They’ve developed an intricate land management system to survive in these lands, tracing knowledge more than 500 years back—knowledge that comes from the environment.

[00:05:05] Ali: It’s only the environment which shapes us to be what we are. 

[00:05:09] Jessica: Ali Mero has devoted his life to preserving and sharing his Gabbra culture.

[00:05:14] Ali: These beautiful systems, which are not documented; we’re working to revitalize the existing knowledge, existing structures, so that with generations to come—even those who are not going back to the nomadic lifestyle—we’ll still get the perspective of how people have been living, because there’s a lot of huge knowledge in terms of, you know, culture, leadership, transition, livestock, and rangeland management. There are songs and dances, and beliefs and spirituals and ceremonies. All these are a perspective of how Gabbras have been doing it. 

[00:05:59] Jessica: Where the Gabbra live, it’s not easy. And the Gabbra’s knowledge has made their beautiful life possible. 

[00:06:06] Ali: We know our area is dry. The rain pattern is erratic. And yet the livelihood has not gone down, but there’s still a lot of energy for people to keep on going with their lifestyle. That energy and that knowledge is what keeps people moving. Even before the colonial system came, people were managing the resources, creating structures, building the culture, and living with their communities harmoniously. 

[00:06:39] Jessica: They are sharing their ways with us today on Seedcast, because they want to make sure those ways are documented. They want people to understand what it means to be a pastoralist. As times have changed, some people have migrated to towns. Few elders are left who know the traditional knowledge, and when they die…

[00:07:00] Ali: It’s like you’re burning down a library.

[00:07:03] Jessica: And so Ali sat down with Molu Kulu Galgalo, a senior elder who is the Head of Program of Tradition at the Gabbra Yaa. The Yaa is a Gabbra institution. It’s where governance and traditional tools are held. It’s a central assembly where elders gather from across Gabbra land. They deliberate and make decisions about governance and culture. It’s also the Gabbra’s library of traditional knowledge. But instead of books, knowledge is held by people, and it’s shared through discussions and meetings and gatherings. The Yaas manage the fundamentals of Gabbra life. There are levels of who holds knowledge: spiritual leaders, political leaders, resource leaders; they delegate roles and responsibilities. They share knowledge that trickles out into the community, and ensure customs and knowledge are passed down from generation to generation. 

The Gabbra have five Yaas, and some time ago they had an assembly all together. The elders in that assembly gave a mandate to Ali and Molu, and others they work with, to tell the world about the Gabbra ways.

[Voices of Gabbra youth and junior elders singing, clapping, and beating sticks]

Molu keeps livestock and lives in a traditional way, but he also advocates for the Gabbra and the outside world. In Marsabit County, Kenya, where Molu and Ali and many other Gabbra live, he’s in conversations with the government to secure their territory from land grabs to protect their livelihood, their land, and their culture. The Gabbra’s right to all of their land isn’t secure, and they want to collectively own the land so that all of the land would belong to the whole community. And so Molu goes into town to advocate, and he joins global conversations on Zoom about Indigenous rights and conservation, including Nia Tero’s Wayfinders Circle. And then he goes home to his family in a traditional village. 

He lives in the Gabbra way of life, but he also knows that this way can be insular and like Ali, he wants Gabbra knowledge to be heard, to be known, wants to preserve it; and to invite those with other perspectives to explore it, like scientists, because we’re facing a moment of so many overlapping crises that affect the whole world. And the Gabbra’s knowledge is deep and powerful and can help us find ways forward. And it’s not widely known.

[00:09:54] Ali: So some of this knowledge, if it’s shared out, people will gather more out of that. What we do is to bring out the resilience, the knowledge, give out that rich culture. So for him, he is part of, one of the key leaders in Gabbra who have been advocating about the culture, tradition, and all this knowledge. So he, by capturing this for posterity, he’s part of what he has been advocating for. 

[Singing voices, clapping, and the sound of sticks beating a rhythm continues]

[00:11:02] Jessica: The Gabbra have specialized roles; people who have different knowledge. They come together to create a consensus about the best way to go forward, especially in hard times. Among the Gabbra are people who carry lineages of knowledge with them. These are the ways that they read their world. If you’re someone who wants to know how and why things work, you’re not gonna get that here today, but we are going to hear about the sources of knowledge that the Gabbra draw on. It has informed their lives and the way they manage livestock and migrate in this difficult terrain where water is scarce. It’s this knowledge that has helped them thrive for many generations, and let the land thrive too.

[Singing voices, rhythm, and clapping continues]

First are the people who know the cycles. Each month in Gabbra land is 28 days long, following the cycle of the moon. And there are 12 months in each year. There are seven years that rotate in a cycle, and there are people amongst the Gabbra who know how these cycles have gone for the last 100 years, and they carry important lessons. This is Molu Kulu Galgalo as translated by Ali.

[00:12:30] Molu Kulu Galgalo: [Speaks in Gabbra]

[00:12:46] Ali: [Translating for Molu] He’s saying there are people who know the cycle of a hundred years, how the years have been behaving. So talking to these people really help us to understand what happened and what were the things that can be done.

[00:13:00] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra]

[00:13:05] Jessica: Next, there are people who study the stars.

[00:13:09] Ali: [Translating for Molu] He says you need to listen to those people who look at the stars, how the stars are behaving within that time because each of these constellations, yes, there are specific ones they look at, and they can interpret how it is to be. 

[00:13:27] Jessica: Then there are the strategists, people called Mantus. 

[00:13:31] Ali: Mantus are guys who have knowledge on making plans. They are intelligent enough to have a lot of knowledge and give out information.

[00:13:45] Jessica: And there are people who study the moon. 

[00:13:47] Ali: It’s very critical. When the moon comes, Gabbras normally converge to see the new moon, then discuss about what the moon has projected or predicted for the month. And, there are three special months which all Gabbras have to come back home. And the day they sight a new moon, there is a very special ceremony that’s done just to celebrate the sighting of the new moon within those three months. But still in the other nine months, there’s always a congregation to discuss about what it predicts.

[00:14:24] Jessica: The interpreters look at how the moon has set—which direction is it showing? Which way is it tilting?

[00:14:30] Ali: And it’s something very important and critical every month. So, the first day, people come together. And then they wait for the 14th day. There’s another time to read and the moon is now getting too dark and they compare it to how it behaved the first day. And this helps us to, to predict the rains, the pattern, whether there are any extra calamities in terms of disease, in terms of conflicts and peace, and even change in terms of leadership. It can predict very bad things like the death of a very big leader.

[00:15:16] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra]

[00:15:16] Jessica: Those who study the moon come together, and if their interpretations are in sync, the prediction is clear. If they have different interpretations, they’ll wait and see what the moon does next. 

[00:15:32] Ali: [Translating for Molu who continues speaking in the background] So he says for us, the moon can have a connection with our life. And as Gabbra, we have that connection and that is some of the knowledge which is very rare, and we have it, and it’ll help us in preparing for the future.

[Molu continues speaking in Gabbra]

[00:15:59] Jessica: Another source of knowledge that the Gabbra draw on is the clouds. 

[00:16:02] Ali: The cloud cover has its own story, and the people who look at the clouds and can say, “These clouds are predicting rain. These clouds are predicting drought. It looks dry for now, but there’s still hope of rain.” And things like that. So, even cloud has its own interpretation from the Gabbra perspective. And there are people who know the clouds, there are special lineage—families—who still exist and pass over that information. And the good thing is, as much as this information is interpreted, it’s passed over to the wider community so that everybody is aware about some of these changes and predictions to fight changing in climate.

[Molu continues speaking in the background]

[00:16:52] Ali: [Continues to translate for Molu] When there’s a sign of rain coming, the clouds are seen from the distance and then eventually as it comes, the air changes. People start feeling that there’s a change in the air and some of them are good. 

[00:17:08] Jessica: But some are bad. Along with the climate changing, the Gabbra have experienced changes in the air. 

[00:17:15] Ali: And that change in terms of how the air smells, you know, when this cloud comes, it’s easy to know whether that cloud has come from far, how strong it is, how fresh it is. He says these changes have its own detrimental effect to livestock, to land, and to people. 

[00:17:37] Jessica: When camels get sick, it’s an especially concerning sign because they are very strong animals, and they are usually resistant to local diseases. 

[00:17:48] Ali: When the camels are affected, you realize that these are diseases which are not from here. It must have been part of that air pollution which came. And we know that it’s not something from within. Changes from away can still affect our area.

[Molu continues speaking]

[00:18:09] Jessica: Another tool the Gabbra used to gain knowledge is the morning star. 

[00:18:13] Ali: [Continues to translate for Molu] The morning star, it’s very special. It gives a lot of information. And he says there are seasons it’s not there; there are seasons it’s there. And the interesting thing is it’s the cow which sees the star earlier than everybody. When that morning star comes, there’s a counting, which is done. So that’s a special star. There’s a time it comes and it goes. So it stays 70 days and appears, there’s a good prediction, but it goes beyond 70 days and appears in the 90 day, we know that there’s going to be calamity. And so in the moments the morning star appears, does it stay short? Does it stay long? When the moment it’s seen, how fast does it disappear? All these things have its own interpretation. So these are things we use as pastoralists, and Gabbra, to help us cope. 

[00:19:11] Jessica: Another tool that Gabbra rely on comes when they slaughter an animal. They cut open the belly of the camel, or the sheep, or the cow, or the goat. And they pull out the intestines and other organs—the entrails.

[00:19:24] Ali: So he says there are people who interpret that spread on a stool, a traditional stool. And it’s sort of like, it has a compass system. They don’t just put it on the stool. There’s a north aspect, there’s an east aspect. And when they do that, there’s a way to read it. And it tells you about which side of your territory the rain is coming. When are the rains coming? How short or how far? When the droughts are coming in terms of how you live, your neighbor? Are there conflicting signals that’s coming? There are people who read and interpret. They have done it for a long time, special people who know how to read. And yet there are others who have learned from them. And this is another tool which helps us to predict how the future behaves.

[Molu continues speaking]

[00:20:27] Jessica: Another source of knowledge for the Gabbra is the sun. 

[00:20:30] Ali: [Continues to translate for Molu] The sun is very important. Understanding the sun when it comes out, is a color which normally people read. When we look at the sun and make interpretation on how it predicts, it has a higher percentage of accuracy. There’s a time the sun has some cloud around it. All these things, he says, there are so many kinds of interpretation he’s making. And he says these are still very critical, and it helps us in guiding on how we move and adapt.

[Molu continues speaking in the background]

[00:21:16] Jessica: The Gabbra even read celestial events like eclipses. 

[00:21:16] Ali: [Continues translating for Molu] So he’s saying when there’s an eclipse, when the eclipse come, it’s going to be a very bad drought. There’s going to be a very big weather change in terms of wind and clouds. And this is God, because we have a connection. All these things are like, they have been displayed for us to interpret, because we believe that God is up. And when you look up, all these stars, moon, wind, whatever is trying to be displayed; this is a knowledge up there and all this have its own reflection of what happens down. We need to look up and see that there’s information up there that can help us solve some of the big problems we have down here.

[00:22:13] Jessica: The Gabbra also looked to the birds for knowledge. 

[00:22:16] Ali: There’s some specific birds, which, when they come around to villages or when they’re migrating, elders have had information. There are sounds, or there are specific birds but which give very specific sound, can predict about the rains, can predict about the disaster in terms of drought, or war, or calamities. So even birds have a connection with our way of life.

[Voices sing in Gabbra with hands clapping]

And then he says, all these things help us. The information and the knowledge and interpretations help us to come up with coping mechanism. We can still get information from the traditional knowledge, which elders have been passing through generations up to now. 

[Molu continues speaking in Gabbra]

[00:23:40] Jessica: Governments throughout Africa are pushing nomadic peoples to stop their ways to stay in one place and to give up their cultures. This is called sedentarization. This is true in Kenya, and in Ethiopia, where Gabbra live. These modern governments don’t support pastoralism the way it needs to be supported. They complain that the grazing animals are degrading the soil when the opposite is actually true. The pastoral life—moving from place to place—is the only way that people can thrive in healthy relationship with these dry lands. Other forms of agriculture are not viable here. Settling down, overusing the water and the grasses and the lands, would destroy this culture and create a desert. That is what the Gabbra have always known, and they want their knowledge to be heard.

[Singing voices, rhythm, and clapping continues]

[00:24:52] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra]

[00:23:40] Ali: [Translates for Molu] He says, all those categories for the clouds, the stars, the moon, the entrails; all these are tools that we use, we learn, and it’s been proven through generations. And he says that these are important things that guide us to understand how we manage, how we move, and what are the effects of some of the external things that come. And this is what generations have been using. It’s been passed. And he says there are elders who know of information that is contained in 500 years. He says him as an elder has had information, which has been passed over for 500 years. Those information and the knowledge and the predictability have already been proven. We have seen it. 

And he says some of Gabbra elders still have knowledge of the 250 years to come. What are the changes that’s going to be? What are the predictable things that elders have said that will happen? So he says there are things which are determinable and there are things which are not determined, but still, what are the coping mechanisms for the future? All these changes will come and they say, when you start seeing changes, there’s always an aspect of you going back. Think about the culture, the way of life, tradition; take care of the land and pasture, and strengthen peace. Peace is very critical in the whole cycle.

[Molu continues speaking in Gabbra]

[Goats and sheep are bleating in the background]

[00:26:45] Jessica: The Gabbra rely on free movement to live in harmony with the land and the animals and other people. It’s hard to get an accurate count of the Gabbra population, but Wayfinders Circle estimates that there are more than 100,000 Gabbra living today, and the vast majority still live in this traditional way. But their land is a target for land grabs. Some want the minerals in the ground. Some want to build wind farms. Others want to create conservation areas. Any of those approaches threatens the Gabbra’s way of life, unless they are fully included. They know how to live here. Their society is based on peaceful dialogue, and it is built on their beautiful system of knowledge that they pass down from generation to generation.

[Molu resumes speaking in Gabbra]

[00:27:36] Ali: These knowledges can be passed over, so that this generation to come can have the knowledge to carry forward with.

[Molu continues speaking]

[00:28:05] Jessica: The Gabbra have lived through the changes that the colonizers brought. But they have not changed who they are. They have always lived in dialogue with each other. They listen, they learn. Each person brings knowledge to share. They pass that knowledge to the next generation. And they come to consensus about important questions. Are the rains coming? Is a drought coming? Is it time to pick up the village and move? Should we go to the wells? Should we slaughter an animal? Everyone has knowledge to share, and everyone listens—and not just with their fellow Gabbra. They listen to the animals, to the moon. They listen to the stars, and the sun, and the clouds, and the birds.

The Gabbra are in respectful dialogue with all of the life around them, and so it is no wonder that they want to be in dialogue with us all. Everyone has knowledge to share, and the Gabbra know they need to be a part of a global conversation because the whole world is facing crisis. 

[00:29:12] Molu: [Speaks in Gabbra but begins and ends with the phrase in English] Climate change… 

[00:29:17] Ali: [Continues translating for Molu] We hear about things called climate change. This is something we hear on radio, we hear people talk about. And he says, these are definite changes which we find in our system that now is being interpreted in the language that I think is a reality. 

[00:29:34] Jessica: Molu says that the Gabbra have seen and understood the climate changes through their own traditional knowledge. And they understand that people with outside educations around the world are seeing the same patterns too.

[00:29:49] Ali: If, then, we hear about this climate change or we compare what we have been told by elders, it looks like this dramatic change of climate is affecting the whole world. Because it’s affecting the whole world, how do we come together? How do we look for each other to see? What are the mechanism and knowledge that we have that can stop and change this thing? And then what are the scientific or meteorological aspect of how to mitigate this climate change? He says, these two knowledge when they come together, there’s a way forward in terms of building a future understanding of engaging each other, comparing notes, and then putting our energies together.

[Molu continues speaking in Gabbra]

[Voices of Gabbra youth and junior elders singing together while clapping hands]

[00:31:03] Jessica: This song is a song of plenty. It’s sung to connect with community; to connect with the spirit before the youth go off to the pasture; to celebrate marriages, and to celebrate the new year. Let’s connect to the music and the spirit, and then go off into these new times, and work together.

[Voices singing in Gabbra with clapping continues and fades out]

[theme music begins and plays in the background]

[00:31:47] Jessica: Thank you so much to Ali Mero, also known as Ali Adan; and Molu Kulu Galgalo for sharing this story, and for working with us on this episode. They say their hope is that you continue to learn about the Gabbra and share this story with your communities. If you want to learn more, or be in dialogue with us, please email us at 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, 

Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Our senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Our producer is Felipe Contreras. Our consulting producer is Julie Keck. Our Artist in Residence is Lofanitani Aisea. Our fact checker is Romin Lee Johnson with social media by Nancy Kelsey, and transcripts by Sharon Arnold. Our theme song is by Mia Kami. I’m your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to sharing more stories with you all 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.