The Dassanech tribe is not strictly defined by ethnicity. Over the centuries, the tribe has absorbed a wide range of different people. Anyone – man or woman – will be admitted, as long as they agree to be circumcised.
The Dassanech tribe today, are referred to as ‘Geleb’ in Ethiopia and are known as ‘Merile’ and ‘Shangilla’ in Kenya. Dassanach in Ethiopia numbers just over 60,000. There is also a large population of Dassanech in Northwestern Kenya.
Roles within the Dassenech society:
Within the Dassenech village, it’s the women who build and take down the huts during migrations. They are semi-circular constructions with no interior divisions, made up of sticks and branches called “Miede”. These huts are well ventilated, as it is important to have airflow through in such a hot environment. There is only one entrance, a small opening that is closed by animal skin – that way it is extremely difficult for an enemy to go through the opening unnoticed. Women also claim the right-hand side of the hut (and of the porch outside) as their own.
Among the Dassanech tribe each clan has its own identity and customs, its own responsibilities towards the rest of the tribe, and is linked to a particular territory.
The largest clan is the Galbur, or Water and Crocodile clan. The Dassanech believe its members have the power over both water and crocodiles and are responsible for dealing with diseases of the glands across the tribe. The Turat clan is responsible for dealing with burns from the fire. They have powers to keep away snakes and to cure many diseases, and also have the ability to keep away enemies from their animals. Another important clan is Turnyerim, which has power over drought. They pray for rains during dry periods and they can also cure snakebites by spitting on the wound.
Other clans claim to have healing powers over eye infections, scorpion bites, muscular problems, and so on. Members of the same clan are forbidden from marrying or indeed dancing with each other.
The biggest ceremony in a man’s life in Dassenech tribe is called Dimi. Its purpose is to celebrate and bless his daughter for fertility and future marriage. When he has gone through Dimi, a man becomes an elder. About 10 cattle and 30 smaller animals are slaughtered and other stock is traded for coffee. Dimi ceremonies, with their need to slaughter cattle, take place in the dry season – when cattle aren’t producing much milk, and grazing has limited value. Slaughtering cattle at this time of year provides meat when other food sources are low.
The present and Future of the Dassanech tribe:
The lands of the Dassanech have seen severe and sustained droughts for many years. In August 2006, in the harshest of ironies, their lands were struck by severe flooding.
Reports have estimated over 100 Dassanech lives have been lost. The Dassanech are a people living on the margins, having to constantly adapt to their changing environment.
Due to climate change and urbanisation activities, Lake Turkana shrinks and the flow of the Omo River delta, where most of the Dassanech live, declines.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government and the African Parks Foundation threaten to take over and fence game parks in Southern Ethiopia. This could seriously restrict the access of local tribes, if not chase them out. The Dassanech fear that they will be denied grazing rights if a park is established in the delta area.
Though the Dassanech tribe have begun to get help from the Ethiopian Government and outside agencies such as the United Nations, life remains tough. For longer-term help, the people need practical solutions to relieve their ongoing problems of healthcare, water scarcity and a precarious way of life.
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