Introduction / History Also called Amara-burji, the ultimate origin of the Burji is traced near a place called Liban in northern Ethiopia around the sixteenth century. It is widely believed that at one time the Burji were part of the Amhara peoples of Ethiopia. This view is borne out by various factors, one of which is similarity between the names; one is known as Amhara and the other as Amara. There is also considerable linguistic affinity between the Burji and the Sidama who are related to the Amhara. With which the Burji language has over 41% lexical similarity.
Ancient Burji were agricultural people who lived around the Gara Burji in Ethiopia. Their territory was to the east of river Galana Amara and south-east of Lake Abaya. To the west, across the Galana Amara was the Konso country, to the north the Darasa and to the south and south-east the Boran.
Where are they located? The Burji are currently scattered across Kenya with a large concentration in Moyale, Marsabit and Part of Nairobi where they have become economic powerhouse of the upper eastern province of Kenya. Compared to the population in Ethiopia, its only a small percentage of the Burji that is found in Kenya with great number remaing in Gara Burji who now have a special Woreda (where they administer themselves) or scattered elsewhere in southern Ethiopia - Moiale, Yaballo, Agar Maram, Mega and Hiddi Lola, Awaasa and Addis Ababa.
What are their lives like? The Amara-Burji are divided into two main groups - The Burji and the Gubba. The Amhara tribe live in the extreme north-western corner of Ethiopia next to them is the Gubba tribe. It is difficult to establish any cultural and linguistic affinity between the Gubba tribe in the north and the Gubba in Gara Burji.
Towards the end of 16th Century, triggered off by a misunderstanding between the Burji and the Boran, from Liban the Burji moved in a westerly direction and settled at a place called Abuno which they have strong sentiments about. From Abuno the Burji moved to Barguda. Just before their final settlement on the mountain, the Burji separated into two groups at a place called Mure. One group composed of the Qarado, Yabbi and Umma clans came in through Wollo, while the Gamayo, Karama, Annabura and Woteish came through Sara.
In 1895, before the abysynian conquest of the burji in 1896 Cardinal Gugliemo Massaja estimated the Burji population at a million and a half whereas another historian Vittorio Bottego estimated the population of the Burji in 1895 at 200,000.
Emperor menelik ruled Ethiopia between 1890 and 1913. At the beginning of his reign, Ethiopia comprised of four provinces of Amhara, Shoa Tigre and Gojjam and by the end fo his reign, the Kingdom had been extended to more than twice its original size. Between 1890 and 1900 the territories of the Oromo including Burji were subdued. When Menelik sent his General Ras Gadi and the souldiers to the Burji country in 1895, Guyo Aba Gada was the ruler of Burji. Firmly convinced that it was pointless to resist, he adviced his people to exercise restrain and they yielded without resistance. The Burji did not suffer destruction, but they gradually lost their freedom. After Menelik's historic victory over the Italians at Adowa and signing of the peace treaty in October 1896, the generals became ruthless in their dealing with the Burji people. And in a very short time the Burji were reduced from proud independent people to the humbled status of Gabbar or Ser (loosely translated as slaves). The entire population was rounded up and counted, dived and allocated amount the generals as forced labour. The Chief of rulers became the agent through whom their authority was exercised. Land was seized and declared crown land and it was on this that the Burji toiled.
According to Mr. K. A. Mude a former Kenyas' Ambassador to Sweden, on top of the services they were rendering, the people were forced to pay tribune (Gibira).
Sadly, Burji were by no means alone in suffering from meneliks aggression. As narrated by Sir Arnold Hodson who was Consul at Gardulla in his work 'Where the Lion Reigns' and 'Seven Years in Southern Abyssinia', London, 1927 explains how the king sent his generals to the south to conquer and subdue the region.
As the Burji could not rise and revolt successfully, many people decided to move away and began to disperse into the territories of neighboring groups. Some migrated to Konsos and Darasa country, while others went to Yabalo and Agar Maram. This is also supported by Sir Arnold Hodson, who was Consul at Gardulla, not far from Burji, in his book 'Seven Years in Southern Abyssinia', page 102 wrote: 'Burji had been sadly devastated quite recently, and very few natives were left there. The responsibility for this rests with a former Governor of Sidamo, named Ato Finkabo, who appears to have carried on a very flourishing business in slaves from these parts. In fact, he became so enterprising that most of the natives who were left fled to Konso and Boran to escape falling into his clutches'. The population dropped to a paltry twenty thousand.
From Gara Burji, Yabalo and other areas of refuge, the Burji began to migrate southwards, settling for a while, but moving gradually onwards until they had passed over into Kenya.
Although the Burji fleeing from Menelik moved into Kenya as early as 1896 the first Burji on record is Hille Ume who was found in Moyale in about 1906 by Philip Zaphiro, the first British frontier agent in Moyale. Hille Ume went back home for a period of time but returned to Kenya during the years of the Great war accompanied by Nawe Gubbe. These two, then, were the first Burji in Kenya according to available records.
According to government Moyale district annual report records Burji came over in small numbers from time to time and were a great asset in the district as they were the main agricultural workers. They also built the houses and the road between Moyale and Wajir and were producing enough food to supply Moyale and other stations. By 1926, they were the sole supply of labour and major food suppliers in the district.
Another historic contribution of the Burji to Kenya is naming of Marsabit town after a Burji farmer named Marsa, who moved to Marsabit after being encouraged by the British administrators. The name is loosely translated as Marsas Home from Amharic (official language spoken in Ethiopia also understood to the Burji then) sentence Marsa bet. To date Burji people pronounce the name as Marsa-bet.
According to Marsabit District Annual report, Burji and the Konso are the first to permanently settle in Marsabit around an area called Karatina & Majengo Mpya after moving from Boma due to the draught of 1928. This is so because the other tribes who were in area at the time were all pastoralists and could not settle permanently.
What are their beliefs? Majority of the Burji are Sunni Muslims while the remaining are either Christians or traditionalist.