Sociology Mind
2011. Vol.1, No.1, 16-25
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/sm.2011.11002
From Age-Sets to Friendship Networks in Comparative Sociology:
The continuity of soda among the Boorana of East Africa
Mario I. Aguilar
University of St. Andrews, Scotland
Received June 4th, 2010; revised July 9th, 2010; accepted August 12th, 2010.
This paper re-assesses a comparative sociology of kinship and friendship in East Africa with a particular focus
on the Boorana Oromo of Kenya. It argues that the study of kinship dominated the developments of a compara-
tive sociology during colonial times and that the post-colonial influences of war, the market and globalization
have increased the role of the individual. As a result a comparative sociology of African kinship needs to be un-
derstood in relation to comparative sociological studies of friendship in East Africa, particularly associated with
the sociology of education.
Keywords: Develop Sociological Models and Methods, Foster Interdisciplinary, Promote Analytical Research
and Inquiry in Socio-Cultural Aspects, Sociological Inquiry and Research
The field of African social anthropology could be classified
as a comparative sociology and this paper deals precisely with
kinship as a comparative kinship in a sociological manner.
Within the anthropological study of kinship and friendship
there is always the danger of stressing anthropological fashions.
Thus, from the beginnings of social anthropology as a contem-
porary research methodology, kinship was overstressed to the
effect that, by the late 1980s, critics of kinship studies as an
isolated subject associated its study with early approaches to
social anthropology such as functionalism. Within the intellec-
tual parameters posed by the functionalists, societies functioned
as bodies, self-contained with parts that were interrelated.1
However, critiques of such an understanding of society and of
kinship as self-contained studies misunderstood the complex
processes of change within those „self-contained societies‟,
forgetting the importance of the comparative method previously
forgotten also by the functionalists, a point already suggested
by Radcliffe-Brown in his 1951 Huxley Lecture (Radcliffe-
Brown, 1951).2
If later anthropologists expressed their scepticism concerning
the possibilities of a comparative method, they, nevertheless,
used comparison in relation to social metaphors. Thus, anthro-
pologists used social metaphors such as kinship, marriage, relig-
ion, or witchcraft in order to analyse social experiences within
different societies. Most importantly for our current discussion “a
central metaphor in theory articulates a range of related meta-
phors, so that the very way we perceive our subject matter is
subtly shaped by that core metaphor” (Parkin, 1987: 53).
However, if anthropologists can discard dead metaphors as
dead epistemological tools, social actors that we encounter
during fieldwork cannot be discarded. Thus, at times “folk
thinking contradicts professional epistemology” (Parkin, 1987:
55), so that if kinship as a metaphor of social relations within a
group can be considered a dead epistemological tool by con-
temporary anthropologists, it still remains a central social
metaphor of discourse within African societies (Holy, 1996;
Lewis, 1994).3 When Africans prefer to speak about kin rela-
tions rather than friendship, kinship remains the opening meta-
phor for societal discourse and friendship follows as a possible
epistemological tool used by the ethnographer.
Moreover, kinship as a social category4 is the mirror of
friendship, socially constructed, always changing, however,
giving away further characteristics of how human groups inter-
act, and how groups within such larger human configurations
ally themselves in order to experience humanness together.
Therefore, what has been said about the study of kinship is
relevant for the ongoing study of friendship, i.e. such a study
cannot take place in isolation, but through ethnographic com-
parisons and by suggesting an ongoing change in what ethnog-
raphers could perceive as static social structures that - when
fragmented - can never be studied again.5
In such a manner, the contemporary study of friendship can
also become a fashionable subject, without the exclusion of
3 For Europe, see Edwards (2000).
4 Kinship is understood within this paper as “a culturally specific notion
of relatedness deriving from shared bodily and/or spiritual substance
and its transmission” (Holy, 1996: 171).
1 “The functionalists insisted upon the inner understanding that comes
from participant observation because they believed that they were stud-
ying systems of organization which performed a purpose, and that both
the systemic character and the meaning could be comprehended only by
grasping how the system worked, from the point of view of a partici-
pant” (Kuper, 1983: 197).
2 Radcliffe-Brown had previously argued that “applied to human socie-
ties the comparative method used as an instrument for inductive infe-
rence will enable us to discover the universal, essential characters
which belong to all human societies, past, present, and future” (Rad-
cliffe-Brown, 1958: xi). I have returned to the study of Radcliffe-Brown
not because I agree with most of his propositions, but because such
presuppositions have permeated for many years not only the study of
kinship within a social body, but the task of the ethnographer that dur-
ing fieldwork has tried to understand society as a collective body and
social facts as manifestations of such a body.
kinship as a social mirror, but with the inclusion of a rethinking
process asking why such a dyadic process enriches our under-
standing of contemporary society, be it in Africa or elsewhere.
Further, and within such a contemporary anthropological invest-
tigation, it is important to stress the centrality of the compara-
tive method, not in terms of what it was fifty years ago, but in
terms of the relation of structure and agency (Holy, 1987: 18).
If kinship represents a social structure within social anthropo-
logical studies, friendship represents the agency of social actors
that are still socially contained within cultural representations.
Moreover, friendship constitutes a useful tool in order to under-
stand any African social organisation in which localised groups
seem to be more influenced by national and international trends
than in the past.
It can be suggested that friendship as a vehicle of social as-
sociation has been understudied even during periods of intense
external pressure on small societies such as the colonial period
in East Africa.6 In fact, the study by Wilson of Nyakyusa
age-villages stressing the value placed on the “enjoyment of
good company” (ukwangala) and on “mutual aid and sympathy
which spring from personal friendship” (Wilson, 1951: 66), and
Gulliver‟s description of co-operation between cousins among
the Ndendeuli (Tanzania, 1971: 116-117) stand as two isolated
cases among the few case studies of friendship in East Africa.
Further attempts by Gulliver to study friendship in Ndendeuli
were not successful because it was hard for him to isolate
proper distinctions between „friend‟ and „visitor‟ (Gulliver,
1971: 301).
In this paper, which follows my previous study on friendship
among Boorana high school students (Aguilar, 1999) and at-
tempts to expand the ethnographic study of friendship in East
Africa, I propose to locate the study of African and Boorana
friendship within the development of social structures of de-
scent and alliance. In the past, the Boorana had a very strong
system of kinship structured through age-sets and age-grades
within a structural sociability known as the gada system (Prins,
1953: 24-34). Within the gada system, 1) political leadership
was entrusted to a set of men and lasted for eight years; 2) after
such a period another set of men took over the leadership; and
(c) forty years after a set had been in leadership, its sons took
over the political leadership while their fathers retired (Bassi,
1996: 244-255; Baxter, 1978; Bernardi, 1985: 74-93; Legesse,
1973; Van de Loo, 1991: 23-53). While the gada system is no
longer viable within the politics that have been dominated by
the nation-state for over a century, its ideology permeates rela-
tions between male and female, affines (soda) and enemies,
Boorana and non-Boorana, as a social ideal.7
This paper locates the relation between kinship and friend-
ship in a parallel stream of sociability in which the Boorana
perceive the two social categories as identical, while outsiders
perceive them as different. The paper‟s conclusions argue that:
1) if friendship is a culturally constructed category that devel-
ops through social action, any study of its social manifestations
requires the methodological assumption that any research on
social performances of friendship also requires a diachronic
study of kinship; and 2) friendship is part of an extended social
structure that allows social integration for members that have
experienced dissociation.
The Study of Age-Systems and Sociability in
East Africa
One of the most important foundational approaches to the
study of African societies was the unfolding of classificatory
patterns of social relatedness known as kinship. Thus, African
societies (with their „tribes‟ and their villages8) were perceived
by anthropologists as made of different families, lineages, and
kin that operated in a structured manner through different gov-
ernments, and were visibly seen as political systems that, in
turn, were also reinforced and given authority through organ-
ised systems of religion (e.g. Evans-Pritchard, 1940, 1951,
1956; Beattie and Lienhardt, 1975; Fortes and Evans-Pritchard,
1950; Middleton and Tait, 1958). Such ways of analysing Afri-
can societies took metaphors from the biological sciences and
perceived societies as organised and interrelated bodies. Bodies
were communal and kin had clear conceptions of other relations
that were frequently changing and adjusting throughout rites of
passage, birth, marriage, and death (Turner, 1967).
In the case of East Africa, the so-called age-systems domi-
nated the anthropological study of kinship through the produc-
tion of monographs based on the passing of time and the spe-
cific leadership by age-grades within systems of kinship in
societies such as Samburu and Maasai (Spencer, 1965, 1973,
1988, 1993, 1998: 131-203 for Chamus of Lake Baringo).
While fashion trends within anthropological writing deemed
these writings as „functionalist‟, „outdated‟ or „imagined‟, by
the late twentieth century, it is within those orderly systems of
kinship that one can find the social locations of friends among
affines. If writings about classificatory systems of kinship seem
to exclude any social intimacy, the close sociability of moran
villages among the Maasai and the association of brothers and
sisters among Boorana affines (soda) were ignored by anthro-
pologists interested in urban networks and studies of social
change, migration and dispersion.9 While studies of kinship in
7 In relation to this social fact and within the study of pastoralism I have
suggested that the Boorana perceive their identity as pastoralists even
during times in which they do not possess herds due to war or famine.
Pastoralists asserted their social identity in relation to memory, the
imagination, and the past, mechanisms that are used in order to create a
Boorana identity as the people of gada (Aguilar, 1999; Legesse, 2001).
8 See Fardon (1987: 171-177) and Southall (1970, 1976) for an assess-
ment of anthropological discontent with these terms.
9 A review of such anthropological studies related to Africa can be found
in Moore (1994).
5 Such an inherent change remains at the centre of any social structure
of kinship, so that “social structure is not to be thought of as static, but
as a condition of equilibrium that only persists by being continually
renewed, like the chemical-physiological homeostasis of a living or-
ganism” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1958: 22).
6 To this effect it has been a romantic notion that small-scale African
societies were self-contained units of orderly kinship and social organi-
sation during the colonial period. There was enormous pressure on these
societies by outside forces, particularly in fields such as education and
taxation, whereby the colonial system itself questioned the cultural pa-
rameters of societal understanding assumed by East African societies
that were constantly at war with each other, far from a peaceful condition
of non-ethnic interaction (Baxter, 1994; Reyna, 1990). Indeed, the main
threat posed by colonialism was towards cultural institutions that pro-
vided social meaning for African society, so that “although in African
history the colonial experience represents but a brief moment from the
perspective of today, this moment is still charged and controversial,
since, to say the least, it signified a new historical form and the possibil-
ity of radically new types of discourses on African traditions and cul-
tures” (Mudimbe, 1988: 1; Mudimbe,1994: 4).
East Africa were perceived as less central to the study of social
anthropology, studies of identity and ethnicity described inter-
ethnic relations and group associations as central to the under-
standing of contemporary social processes (e.g. Schlee, 1989,
Kinship and Friendship in East Africa
Following the ethnography of age-villages in Nyakyusa
(Wilson, 1951) and Maasai (Spencer, 1988), I suggest that kin-
ship and friendship are not opposed social categories of exclu-
sion, but complementary realms for anthropological research.
Within these ethnographic examples boys that join the same
age-sets leave their fathers‟ households and go and live together,
apart from their relatives, in order to prepare for their ritual path
into adulthood. Thus, in the case of the Maasai moran, and
during their meat feasts in the forest, they behave as a group of
classmates or unmarried friends sharing meals and feasts to-
gether and inviting unmarried girls to their celebrations (Chieni
and Spencer, 1993: 163-164).
In fact, within changing processes of society formation and
its continuity in East Africa, some affines can also be consid-
ered friends because members of a group that live away from a
localised set of social ties and a structured sociability experi-
ence a degree of individual contact that can be compared to
those idealised parameters of free choice encompassed by
Western existentialism and contemporary individualism. Within
European social notions, individualism “pertains to a particular
historico-cultural conceptualisation of the person or self and
might include: notions of the ultimate value and dignity of the
human individual, his or her moral and intellectual autonomy,
rationality and self-knowledge, spirituality, voluntary contract-
ing into a society, market and polity, the right to privacy and
self-development” (Rapport, 1996: 298, 1993, 1997). Moreover,
while any universal human self is socially constituted, the
post-modernist accusation of anthropological cloning, i.e. the
reproduction of social individuals with the same social charac-
teristics is to be disregarded in the African case.
As a result of such an individuality assigned to social actors
one can observe that there is, on the one hand, a direct relation
between proximity to home and strong kinship ties, and dis-
tancing and friendship ties on the other. A working equation
would be as follows, home: kinship - away: friendship. Within
this social opposition a linear progression of kinship intensity
and friendship intimacy can be observed, so that there is no
structural opposition, but a social complementary, whereby
individuals choose the intensity of their social affiliation, al-
ways remembering their social, ritual and economic obligations
towards home. As a result, and within a dispersion of ethnic
groups throughout new locations, be they in Africa or else-
where, kinship ties can carry with them some kind of social
intimacy associated with Western understandings of friendship,
and can be perceived as a distinctive way of socialising with
fewer individuals within societies where social actors are guests
or outsiders.
The case of the Boorana (as part of a larger Oromo-speaking
Diaspora) suggests that social relations of kin and friends ex-
tend throughout East African countries and beyond, including
Europe, North America, and Australia (Bulcha, 2002; Zitel-
mann, 1994). However, these relations cannot be considered
solely the product of a process of post-coloniality and social
fragmentation. They were in existence within a pre-colonial
system of a ritual and a political federal system, in which those
associated by kinship met at ritual public moments, while
groups of friends based on clear divisions of descent became
part of smaller social groups that shared the same activities and
aspirations through lines of generational interests, alliances, and
commitments (Bahrey, 1954; Haberland, 1963). There was
intermarriage as well as conflict and a full economic exchange,
particularly among Boorana pastoralists with other groups such
as Somali in eastern Ethiopia and eastern Kenya (Dalleo, 1975).
Becoming soda in Boorana
The Boorana are part of an extensive federation of Oromo-
speaking peoples that reside within the contemporary political
borders of Ethiopia and Kenya.10 According to their myth of
origin, the Boorana were the first of the Oromo and they en-
countered a messenger from God, their first qallu („king, priest,
leader‟) who was found in southern Ethiopia. Those present on
his arrival gave him coffee beans taken from the coffee trees
and offered him a maid as his spouse (Kidane, 2002: 155).
Later on, the sons of the first qallu became ritual leaders of the
two Boorana moieties Gona and Sabo, so that all Boorana be-
long to either of these moieties that have a separate qallu who
individually look after a localised territory. The qallu do not
leave their ritual location, but Boorana themselves visit them in
order to request blessings for them, their families, and their
cattle (Knutsson, 1967).
Within the history of East Africa, the Boorana acquired
horses and therefore had an advantage over all other fighting
groups in Ethiopia and Kenya (Oba, 1996). Boorana horsemen
helped to conquer southern Ethiopia and led a military expan-
sion that was backed by a myth of origin (the arrival of the
qallu), ritual leaders (qallu) and a social and political organisa-
tion based on an age-system known as the gada system (Lewis,
1966). Within that system, age-sets formed by those initiated
together were constituted every eight years in the context of a
national ritual festival presided by ritual officers empowered by
the qallu. Thus, every eight years, 1) Boorana males were initi-
ated, exactly forty years after their fathers were; and 2) the
age-set that had taken over political leadership ceased to be in
that role and left the leadership to the next age-set that had been
initiated together and had become a particular age-grade.11 As
in the case of the Maasai, the system of age-grades provided at
all times a group of fighting men and a group of praying men
that blessed the warriors and their efforts of military defence
and conquest.
By the late nineteenth century, the Ethiopian Emperor Mene-
lik II suppressed the gada system as a political system of
self-determination and imposed a centralised system of taxation,
education, and political appointments (Abbas, 1994; Hassen,
1990, 1999; Holcomb and Ibssa, 1990; Jalata, 1993). Neverthe-
less, the Boorana continued to celebrate their ritual festivals,
and as recently as 1995 in northern Kenya festivals to create a
grade of older men (gadamoji) were celebrated (Kassam,
10 Scholars have suggested that the Oromo-speaking peoples of Ethiopia
have reached over 20 million, while in north-eastern Kenya one could
suggest around 200,000 people (e.g. Jalata, 1998: 2, 22-23).
11 A helpful diagram can be found in Bassi (1996b: 152).
1995).12 It is within such a context of hundreds of years that the
Boorana continued to work out their social relations, always
referring to their myth of origin and the gada system (Aguilar,
1998b). Thus, Baxter writes:
Booran have a set of rules which regulate the choice of mar-
riage partners and which, like those which regulate the move-
ments of individuals within generation-sets luuba and age-sets
hariiya, are formal, uncompromising, logical and definite. They
seem to bear the impress of philosophical thought and mesh
intellectually with the organizations and rules of the lower level
putative descent groups and the generation-sets system. Mar-
riage is forbidden between girls and men whose fathers are
members of the same generation-set or sequential age-sets
(Baxter, 1996: 184).
It is within that gada system that Boorana identity and kin-
ship starts to unfold, and it is within such organised passing of
time that all soda found their place in relation to each other.13
Even when the gada system was an all male system, women
also found a place in relation to their husbands, fathers, brothers,
and sons.14 However, with the suppression of the political
manifestations of gada its ritual aspects became more important.
Thus, in the case of the Guji Oromo-speaking peoples of Ethio-
pia, as narrated by Hinnant (1978), there was by the late 1960s
a basic preoccupation with the gada system, expressed through
intense periods of ritual practice celebrated in single households,
a social fact supported by other works on Guji and Oromo re-
ligion (Bartels, 1983; Van de Loo, 1991). Moreover, Hinnant
recognises that friendship, as a social relation, existed within
the Guji Oromo, however, perceiving a false dichotomy be-
tween public moments of ritual and the conviviality of the Guji
household, stating that:
By January 1969, when the dry season was reaching its peak,
all gada rituals ceased. People reverted to interacting as
neighbours, kinsfolk, and friends. Nowhere on the local level
could I find evidence of social action or social status based
specifically on gada (Hinnant, 1978: 207).
It is interesting that at the same moment in time Hinnant and
Baxter initiated a debate about the nature of gada that is still
relevant to contemporary discussions on friendship. For Hin-
nant (Hinnant, 1978: 238, 241), gada accomplishes what the
elaborate, and more static, cosmologies of many other societies
do; it makes sense of, and humanises, the universe”, thus mak-
ing gada into a justification for societal unity, both structurally
and cognitively. For Baxter (1978: 179), instead, “gada is a
dramatised philosophy or a way of acting out of a folk faith
rather than an instrumental organisation. When, therefore, men
grumble about its onerous demands they are grumbling, as men
do everywhere, about the demands laid on them by the religious
obligations they delight in honouring”.15
I shall return to such a discussion of kinship, ritual, and
friendship categories later, however, it suffices to say that it is
such a delight in going through ritual moments together that
provides the basis for life-lasting friendships among members
of the same generation-sets, those who pass through the same
emotional fear and delight within communal rituals of initiation
and the passing of generational time. It is within that context of
friends passing through stages in their lives that a highly ritual-
ised societal practice cannot be contrasted only with ordinary
daily activities of social and economic co-operation. It is pre-
cisely through those moments of intense fear and joy in ritual
that kin are socially perceived and friendships are made. Thus,
Hinnant seemed to have missed the point, because ritual mo-
ments among Oromo-speaking peoples are not different active-
ties, but they are central to the social justification for kin,
friends, and generational relations. In that sense, the political
suppression of gada has not meant a severance of social rela-
tions. On the contrary, it has provided a tightening of cultural
identity among the Oromo, and as I will discuss later, it has
provided the reinvention of friendship ties among distinct gen-
erations of Boorana in eastern Kenya.
A Twentieth-Century Generational Problem
While the Oromo-speaking peoples constitute the majority of
the Ethiopian population, groups such as the Boorana and the
Gabra (Tablino, 1999; Torry, 1978; Wood, 1999) reside across
the border in northern Kenya. Other Oromo-speaking groups
live around the rivers of eastern Kenya, namely, the Orma near
the Tana River (Ensminger, 1987, 1992), and the Waso
Boorana, located around the Waso Nyiro River, where I con-
ducted fieldwork.16 It is within this small group of pastoralists
that one can assess the importance of kinship and friendship as
an ideological continuation from the gada system, however,
within contrasting and sometimes contradictory forms of ritual
and political practice.
The Waso Boorana are the descendants of a group of
Boorana that, after ongoing conflicts with the Somali at the
wells in Wajir, were moved by the British colonial administra-
tion to new grazing areas around the Waso Nyiro River in 1932.
They, like the Orma (Kelly ,1990, 1992), quickly converted to
Islam after an intense cultural interaction with the Somali, a
process of „somalisation‟ (Baxter, 1966; for Rendille, see
Schlee, 1982). As a result the Waso Boorana adopted Somali
cloths and considered themselves Muslims (Aguilar, 1995). By
the 1960s, the Waso Boorana supported the Somali claim for
15 In a more recent evaluation of gada as a social system Bassi has in-
sightfully suggested that while gada is a strong symbol of unity and na-
tionalism, “it may have multiple meanings. It manifests itself in a wide
range of social phenomena, including prescriptive rules, ceremonies, rites,
public offences and actual physical villages” (Bassi, 1996: 50).
16 I conducted fieldwork in Garba Tulla town, Eastern Province of
Kenya, from 1987 to 1990, and in 1992 (see Aguilar, 1998).
12 The festivals associated with older men or gadamoji have been called
„culmination ceremonies‟ by Baxter because, indeed, they culminate a
man‟s life. Baxter writes: “A gaadamoji takes down his head, which
includes his male tuft, and lowers his kalaacha, and enters into a condition
of sanctity. Henceforth, his very presence provides a sanctuary. He must
always remain “cool” and so should never show anger or lust. He should
never raise his arm or his voice, and is thus prevented from herding and,
effectively, from public activities” (Baxter, 1978: 175).
13 Megerssa (1996) has provided an insightful and well-informed epis-
temological structure to Oromo thought and values under the term
ayyana. However, he received such instruction from an educated Oro-
mo who passed on the knowledge of ideas and principles to him. For
most Oromo, the celebration of gada as a public festival remained the
place in time where any sense of „Oromoness‟, as Megerssa calls such a
social unity, was indicated and actualised.
14 In the past few years Oromo women have written about the role of
women within gada and have challenged nationalistic organisations
within Oromo that have requested women‟s involvement, but have left
them “unrecognised and devalued” (Kumsa, 1998: 155). For purposes of
kinship and descent within anthropology, all descent within gada passed
through the male, while for Oromo groups associated with the land,
women represented fertility and also represented mothers to all Oromo.
the annexation of the Northern Frontier District (N.F.D.) into a
wider Somalia against the decision by the British government
to keep the N.F.D. as the seventh province of Kenya. The Waso
Boorana suffered during the Somali armed struggle against
Kenya (the so-called shifta war, 1963-1967) as the Somali
guerrilla retreated towards Somalia and while continuing their
incursions into Kenya left the Boorana subjected to the politics
of the Kenyan army (Aguilar, 1996, 1997).
If 1932 marked a change in their self-perceived identity and a
break with their Boorana cultural traditions, during the shifta
war the Waso Boorana lost most of their animals and became
impoverished pastoralists without stock. As the Waso Boorana
were located in camps and their animals were killed, new cul-
tural experiences arose among younger generations, very dif-
ferent experiences than those of their fathers or grandfathers. If
their grandfathers had converted to Islam and saw their new
identity as successful and macrocosmic, children born after
1962 only experienced poverty, dependency, and rejection by
the centralised Kenyan government.
I would suggest that it was the experience of the camps that
brought a change to the emphasis on kinship and cultural
Boorana practices. Children who lined at the camps remem-
bered them as safe places where they played with each other,
while previously children would have been helping their moth-
ers at the manyatta („households‟) and working very hard. It
was a time when they developed deep friendships with children
outside their own families that continued for many years. When
the Kenyan army left in 1969, the Waso Boorana found them-
selves in poverty and with no stock for milk, meat, or cash.
However, with the arrival of non-governmental organisations
and Christian churches children had access to schools and they
started spending large amounts of time away from their mothers
and developing close friendships in the context of local schools
and during activities organised, for example, by the Garba Tulla
Catholic Mission.
The particular history of the Waso Boorana affected their so-
cial life of pastoral specificity. During colonial times, towns
such as Garba Tulla were administrative and commercial cen-
tres where a District Officer resided in order to supervise taxa-
tion and security. At that time and within the N.F.D., Europeans
were not allowed to reside (that rule included missionaries and
spouses of colonial officers). Within such trading centres, mar-
kets for cattle and postal services operated, thus creating ad-
ministrative links within colonial territories. After the shifta
war Garba Tulla grew into a place of residence for Boorana
pastoralists with a constant influx of missionaries and the
opening of two primary schools and one secondary school that,
in the case of secondary school students, followed the national
pattern of school entrance through a centralised system of ad-
missions and school attendance in any part of Kenya and pref-
erably outside their own areas of birth and upbringing.
By the 1990s, Garba Tulla had become a town where up to
5,000 people resided, particularly during the rainy season when
shepherds and their herds remained close to town. Boorana
lived in settlements located around the main streets named after
influential older men (e.g. manyatta Dhemo named after an
older man Dhemo) or after historical events (e.g. manyatta
Prison named after the place where Boorana were kept as pris-
oners during the shifta war). Within such a contemporary exis-
tence, men moved daily from the manyatta to the town (for
business, prayers, and gossip) or they moved with the herds
outside Garba Tulla (for grazing). Women searched for fire-
wood and collected water, cooked, looked after small children
or worked at the schools, the Catholic mission, or the few shops
within the town, cleaning or cooking. Children of school age
attended school and returned to their mothers during the late
afternoon, where they were expected to do small domestic
chores before the evening meal.17
It is within this expanded social order that it is difficult to
speak of a unified concept of friendship among the Boorana.
What is clear though, is that different generations within
Boorana society associated themselves through a common pur-
pose and a common vision of things. They became friends in
the same way that the different age-grades within the gada
system would have been friends in the past. Thus, a common
experience of life and social vision permeated groups that were
not only related by some closeness in age, but that were cross-
ing boundaries of biological age into an experience of sociabil-
ity that made them enjoy each other‟s company and that
brought them together in order to dream of new worlds and a
more prosperous future for the Waso Boorana.
Therefore, if it is not possible to speak of a unified practice
of friendship within Boorana, it is certainly possible to isolate
groups of men into generations that shared a common experi-
ence and became friends as a result, within a cultural model
where friends can quarrel very strongly among themselves, but
who support each other in the context of public meetings and
the ordinary decision-making moments of everyday life (Agui-
lar and Birch de Aguilar, 1993). The Boorana use the words
jaala, hariya and fira to signify friends. In the case of fira,
friendship implies a relationship of mutual assistance, whereby
“you help me … I help you” (Leus, 1995: 298; Aguilar, 1999:
174). However, the term „friend‟ only covers individuals of the
same sex that cannot be covered by language used for kin or
descendants, so that if a male refers to a non-kin female with a
sense of closeness, he refers to her as jaalto, a term used to
signify a „lover‟ or a „mistress‟ (Leus, 1995: 471). Nevertheless,
the words are not widely used by Oromo speakers within prov-
erbs, sayings, and wise utterances (see Kidane, 2002; Leus, n.d.;
Rikitu, 1992a, 1992b).
In order to include all males within social groups that can be
more loosely connected than kinship groups, I have suggested
that, in the context of friendship, the following generations18
can be considered groups of friends within the social and his-
torical realities of locality at Garba Tulla town and the Waso
area of eastern Kenya:
The Older Generation
Within the gada system they would have been considered
holy men (gadamoji) who had the power to bless and who were
on their way to God. They are the sons of those Boorana who
came into the Waso area. They perceived Islam as central to
17 Within traditional Boorana society women are attached to the private
sphere of the home and they build houses, while men are closer to the
private sphere of the herds and they manage grazing and stock.
18 I use the term generations not in the biological sense of people of the
same age, but in the sense used by Mannheim (1952), who unhappy
with the use of biological generations suggested that from their birth
individuals are socially located in a social process and share a particular
mode of thought and experience.
Waso Boorana life and still constitute a group of older men
who control the interpretation of Boorana traditions (ada
Boorana) and procedures within the Boorana settlements
(manyatta). Some of them had gone to the qallu in Ethiopia in
order to learn about their Boorana traditions in the early 1970s
and all of them wear Somali-style clothing.
The Middle Generation
The members of this group correspond to those born before
or during the shifta war, who do not have any experience of life
during colonial times and who were raised within a social
model of survival by acquiring education in order to help the
rest of the Boorana. They wear Western clothing and some of
them studied at Kenyan universities. In recent years, they have
become prominent in community decisions and they have
linked Boorana concerns to governmental politics and the work
by Catholic missionaries in Garba Tulla.
The Younger Generation
This generation is made up of Boraana born within a stable
and independent Kenya, where pastoralism as a way of life has
not been central to the concerns of a modern nation-state. Dur-
ing the past fifteen years Western donors have sponsored them
in order to attend primary school in Garba Tulla and some of
them have gone to boarding schools all over Kenya. In that new
context of education and Western learning they have empha-
sised ideas of friendship within a fragmentised system of
Boorana kinship.
These generations co-operate with each other, men talk and
walk together, and they share more time than would be ex-
pected of kin, who in general meet at ritual moments where
issues of economic exchange and social classification are at
However, within such a male-centred system of kin and
friends a need arises to describe other informal social groups
where friendship occurs, and where there are systems of mutual
economic help and emotional support within a post-colonial
situation of economic survival and diversification (Dahl, 1979),
religious diversification (Aguilar, 1998), dislocation, educa-
tional success, nationalism, and globalisation in general.
Networks of Friendship in Boorana
If within the gada system all links of co-operation came out
of the age-grades and their respective age-sets, within contem-
porary Boorana society such links of friendship have been ex-
tended to several localities and to groups specified by gender
and biological age, i.e. women and children.
Thus, if the spatial differentiation of gender was not previ-
ously mentioned in the literature as central to the gada system,
it certainly became central to Boorana social organisation due
to the conflicts and deaths that arose out of the shifta war. Fol-
lowing traditional patterns of pastoralist warfare, Boorana men
followed their Somali counterparts and attacked government
buildings within the Eastern Province of Kenya in the early
1960s. Army reprisals included the execution of males and the
killing of stock. Later within the conflict, some Boorana males
who had been away or in hiding did not return to the Waso area,
thus creating a vacuum within a social multiplication of widows
and households that were led by women, particularly older
women, and that included their daughters and their grandchild-
dren (Aguilar, 1994b). Within such a new social order, women
established links among themselves and had to go into the pub-
lic sphere in order to beg help from development agencies and
Christian missions.
Therefore, and as a result of historical processes, while gen-
erations of men walk and talk together, generations of women
establish networks of friendship that extend beyond locality.
During an ordinary day, women work and talk outside their
manyatta, while men leave in the morning and usually return
during the late afternoon or early evening when the herds are
brought in. Networks of friendship outside Garba Tulla are
established due to the encounter between women who are not
kin at weddings, and men who are not kin at funerals. In a soci-
ety where literacy rates are poor, women and men wait for the
sound of trucks or buses in order to get letters, parcels, presents,
and news, even when patterns of seasons and grazing create a
separate world between men and women (with their children).
In the case of Boorana children (and Boorana youth) the im-
pact of education within social relations cannot be underesti-
mated. Children spend most of their time during weekdays at
school and some time during weekends at the Catholic mission,
where modern commodities such as videos have become part of
their childhood and their worlds. While all Boorana children
repeat through their play and their creativity the role models of
their parents, fewer than in the past are directly involved in the
herding and grazing of animals outside Garba Tulla (Aguilar,
1994a). Therefore, while there is a pastoral ideology present
within social norms and practices, mothers and children know
that employment and economic success for the future would
come to those who have acquired secondary and college educa-
It is among these educated children at schools and universi-
ties that friendship is spoken about in terms of intimacy and
mutual support through letters, phone calls, and e-mails. As a
result, I have no doubt that there is a direct link of social com-
munication between youth who are shepherds in the Waso area
and those who are residing in far away places such as Europe or
the United States. While in the past few years I have been sur-
prised by a number of electronic communications from some of
those children I encountered during fieldwork, I could not say
that the Internet has become part of ordinary sociability within
Boorana society. Nevertheless, it is possible to suggest that
individual isolated friendships, as known in Europe, are only
part of such a chain of social communication and interaction
among friends. Reasons for such an assumption lie in the per-
ception of selfhood and economic property as communal even
within contemporary schools and development offices within
the Waso area, and as perceived by the Boorana, old and young,
If in Western perceptions of intimacy it is the individual self
that chooses friends, companions and confidants, within Afri-
can society such a choice is made instead within the parameters
of sociability extending from rural to urban areas, but central to
the idea of home, locality, and belonging. The Boorana choose
friends within a clear kinship pattern, i.e. within the moiety of
their own, that group from which they cannot marry. Further,
from within their moiety they can choose to sustain a deeper
relation with those that are not considered close kin, but who
are usually talked about in terms of „brothers‟ and „sisters‟. For
example, during my second period of fieldwork I had a male
and a female field assistant and I asked the former if he would
ever consider marrying the latter, as they seemed to be very
close. He replied that he could not marry her “because she was
his sister”. Another example was of those secondary school
Boorana students from Garba Tulla who were attending school
in different parts of Kenya. They corresponded by letter quite
regularly and while boys addressed girls as „sister‟, boys ad-
dressed other boys as „friends‟, a phenomenon of kin-
ship-friendship relatedness that was also addressed by Boorana
schoolgirls in the same way (Aguilar, 1999a).
If one returns to discussions on the gada system, it is clear
that all those who belonged to another ethnic group („tribe‟)
could not be friends (in most cases they were enemies and pos-
sible trophies for initiation purposes; see Baxter, 1979), while
they became friends by economic co-operation based on
changeable variables related to locality, place, and intermar-
riage. Therefore it is clear that such a sense of friends and
friendship relates to changing patterns of mobility where
Boorana communicate at a distance from their homelands to
other places where other Boorana reside for educational, eco-
nomic, or working reasons. It is in these situations of being far
away from home that friendship among peers is stressed, and
where a rediscovery of cultural friendship and its cultural cen-
trality takes place.
The contemporary phenomenon of a Boorana Diaspora is not
a new one. Boorana pastoralists used to search for water and
grazing outside their home areas during colonial times and later,
when movement was limited by colonial laws, men journeyed
to other kin and friends in time of drought or economic hard-
ship, and during hard times when support from elsewhere was
needed. In the 1970s, for example, a group of Boorana leaders
journeyed to the Boorana homelands in southern Ethiopia in
order to discuss their own practice of Boorana religion with the
qallu in the light of their massive conversion to Islam thirty
years before. During such a journey Boorana spoke of the sup-
port they had received along the way from many kin and
friends, not only for their journey, but in order to replenish the
Boorana stock that had been lost through the war period.
Within such networks of Boorana friendship older men speak
of Bale in southern Ethiopia as „home‟ while younger Boorana
refer to the Waso area as their home. Therefore, rural areas
such as the Waso area and Garba Tulla in particular remain
central to cultural perceptions of kinship and friendship even by
those Boorana currently located as far as Germany, Ireland, or
the United States. If Boorana society has ceased to exist as a
localised and bounded entity, social structures and social insti-
tutions prevail, while social transformation accommodates a
diversification of social interaction. Within such a diversifica-
tion, studies of friendship as well as kinship tend to provide
fruitful avenues for social investigation into patterns of change
and continuity within the Boorana community in Kenya and,
indeed, among the Oromo speaking peoples of East Africa and
the globalised Diaspora.
Conclusion: The importance of friends in Africa
In his insightful discussion of friends, selves, and relationships
Carrier has problematised Western notions of the self and of
friendship by suggesting that:
Friendship is not just a relationship between people, it is a
kind of relationship, one based on spontaneous and uncon-
strained sentiment or affection. After all, if the relationship is
constrained we confront something very different from what we
call „friendship‟, something like bureaucratic relationships,
kinship relationships or patron-client relationships (Carrier, 1999:
My attention to the talk and the thought about friendship
means I set aside the affection that people we call friends feel
towards each other. I ignore it, not because I think it is unreal or
unimportant, but because it is the talk and the thought that con-
structs as friendship the relationship in which the affection
occurs, that makes it different from other relationships in which
people feel affection towards each other. I see no reason to
doubt that all people in all sorts of relationships can feel affect-
tion towards each other. But not everyone talks of the affection
and the relationship as friendship (Carrier, 1999: 22).
It is symptomatic of the problematic contextualisation of the
study of friendship within anthropology that Western selves,
including those of anthropologists, can easily relate to Carrier‟s
definition of friendship. However, not everybody can disentan-
gle the emotional involvement of friends with their actions
within a social system. Indeed, later in his essay Carrier (1999:
36) argues that both “the idea of friendship and of the autono-
mous sentimental self are cultural elements that do not exist on
their own, but exist in a broader social, political and economic
context”. Thus, one can reiterate once again that friendship, like
any other social relation, is culturally constructed. Within such
a particular cultural and social context, “friendship is often
perceived and valued as an affective and voluntary relationship,
in which sociability and equality between friends are stressed”
(Barcellos Rezende, 1996: 246).
Therefore, and in the case of Africa, friendship is not to be
understood as an isolating relation between individuals; instead
it must be situated and therefore studied within the realms of
kinship. If in the case of Latin America friendship is over-
whelmingly understood as a daily and ordinary experience of
sociability, i.e. “the frequency with which the term „friend‟ was
used” (Barcellos Rezende, 1999: 79), in the African experience
of the Boorana such daily and ordinary experience is that of
affine (soda; see Baxter, 1996). In the case of the Brazilian
experience, maids become part of the family and thus are de-
scribed as kin, while in the Boorana experience these outside
kinship systems, such as anthropologists, cannot after intense
social action, be considered „affines‟. Indeed, part of the „going
native‟ side of fieldwork entails a successful acquisition of
friends and companions, while in the case of the „natives‟ it
requires a clear classificatory model that relates to the anthro-
pologist as well as to every affine.19
It is within these two examples that a system of African
19 This is one of the reasons why anthropologists have noticed that their
subjects of study are more relaxed towards them when they have a
spouse (partner) or in the case of female anthropologists when they
have had children of their own and they bring them to periods of field-
work. See, for example, the case of Dahl and her different periods of
fieldwork in Boorana. During her initial fieldwork, even when she had
a husband but no children, she was treated as a „girl‟ (intal). Later,
when she had a child of her own she readdressed her status, while for
the most part she never encountered any problems when talking to
Boorana, particularly women (Dahl, 1979: 267-268; Dahl and Hjort,
1976; Hjort, 1979).
friendship develops, more within a kinship system than without.
Friendship presupposes social affinity and social affinity pre-
supposes social roles within a self-contained locality of ethnic
affinity. Thus, friendship requires equality within a kinship
system in which social difference prevents friendship actions as
social actions. Friendships arise out of kinship ties, complying
with some of the characteristics of north-eastern European ex-
amples of friendship in which friends are described as “partici-
pants in a range of significant, positive, and ideally long-term
personal connections” (Abrahams, 1999: 155).
Within the contemporary climate of globalised communities
it would be easier to locate friendship within discussions on
community and belonging. Within these discussions commu-
nity “has become a way of designating that something is shared
among a group of people at a time when we no longer assume
that anything is necessarily shared” (Cohen, 2002: 169). Further,
the whole concept of cultural belonging has been somehow
challenged by suggesting that “in a post-cultural world, as we
have seen, the focus is firmly upon culture as optional resource,
as a trope of belonging, employed by individual actors on a
global stage” (Rapport, 2002: 162).
It is within those Western critiques of cultural belonging that
one could pose the unresolved problem of Western and
non-Western perceptions of society and, indeed, of friendship.
After all, it seems that „cultural intimacy‟ (Herzfeld, 1997)
requires a contextualised approach rather than a globalised one.
It is within these parameters of the social practice of Boorana
kinship that one encounters individual discourses and social
practices related to friendship, not within outsiders‟ discourses
on globalised individualised identities. If the study of friendship
within rural African communities is taken seriously, it seems
that social anthropological dyadic categories resolved within
power structures of Western literacy come to be problematic
once again and bring the researcher into a full cycle of investi-
gation into friendship-kinship structures and practices, so that
“assumptions about the distinctions between kinship and
friendship in Euro-American contexts require some rethinking”
(Reed-Danahay, 1999: 152).
Social experiences of friendship can be compared. However,
what we compare are necessarily glimpses of sociability that
can be misinterpreted and that do not necessarily fit into an-
thropological monographs by the fact that they are made into a
textual reality (or nowadays a virtual reality). After all, the
literary search for „dialogical‟ or „polyphonic‟ texts (Clifford,
1986; Marcus and Fischer, 1986) has not solved anthropologi-
cal difficulties concerning the representation and production of
texts (for Africa, see van Dijk and Pels, 1996). The same prob-
lem can be perceived in the use of translation, thus the percep-
tion of „friend‟ for an American or a British person is different
than the perception of jaala, hariya, and fira for a Boorana.
In sum, I have suggested in this paper that: 1) friendship is a
social category that can be studied mostly by using the word
„friendship‟ as a metaphor for understanding social action
within a particular society, ethnic group, community, network,
or group; 2) the study of friendship remains closely linked to
that of kinship understood as a set of kin relations that can have
idealised and fragmented practices; and 3) the social study of
friendship practices requires the study of economic and social
networks such as cultural Diasporas, whereby the closer to
home people are, the stronger the kinship ties are, while the
farther from home they are, the stronger the friendship ties are.
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