CNN explores the traditions behind Kenyan Gabra weddings

CNN International takes a rare look inside a traditional nomadic wedding and explores why some cultural customs are being kept alive as the Gabra tribe modernizes in an ever-changing world.

In Northern Kenya, nomadic tribes have lived for generations on the move, transporting all of their belongings on a camel’s back. Salo Yattani, a member of the Gabra tribe, explains to the programme why camels have been an essential part of the tribe’s lifestyle for generations: “When we move from one place to another, we use camels. On top will sit a mother who has just given birth, old people and children. We’ll even use camels as an ambulance in an emergency.”

Today, Gabra life still revolves around camels but with dependable sources of water and more children enrolled in schools, families tend to prefer semi-permanent settlements. Some members of the Gabra tribe have gone a step even further; the programme meets Elema Haro Elle, an entrepreneur who has swapped tradition with a modern, city lifestyle in Nairobi: “It’s a world apart, this town and that village. I was brought up in Marsabit County and now the funny thing is my kids will be raised in Nairobi. I’m going to see how I cope, how I am going to [find] balance.”

The programme follows Elle as he returns to his family’s home to celebrate his wedding. Although Elle and his wife Rahma have been married for years by the Kenyan state, without a traditional Gabra ceremony in the village, their marriage is not seen as a valid union and his two daughters will never be officially recognized as his. Elle explains: “We’ve been married six, seven years but we have not done a customary [Gabra] marriage. In our culture for you to purport that you’re married, you must go to the countryside, get married and get cleansed. That way they’ll accept you.”

Diba Abduba, a Gabra expert, explains to the programme the significance of Gabra culture for those in the community: “As a son and daughter of the Gabra community, culture is one thing you must adhere to and you must be ready to follow it. It doesn’t matter [who you are], when it comes to culture, you must do it as they wish and as it’s supposed to be done.”

One important aspect of Gabra culture are camels. A symbol of fidelity, camels are dependable even in the toughest dry seasons and they provide a means of transport, food and income. Herder Huka Guyo explains to the programme why camels are important: “We believe that the camel is the most precious animal that we have. The camel is number one.” Such a special animal makes the perfect dowry for a Gabra wedding; the programme follows Elle and his family as they give three camels to his bride Rahma’s family.

As wedding preparations begin, Elle must shave his body hair so that he is cleansed for the wedding ceremony. His father outlines why this is a special moment: “I prayed to God for my son while I was shaving him. I’m so thankful to have lived to this day to shave my son on his wedding day. When we shave him, he is becoming clean. He is being reborn before he is married.”

However, Elle persuades his father to let him keep his beard: “You can’t expect me to shave all my head and my beard, how am I going to look?” Abduba explains the significance of this break with tradition: “You must shave [for a Gabra wedding ceremony]. No hair will remain whether it is on your head or beard, it is a must. The terms he used to convince them to [keep] his beard I have never seen before, it has never happened in Gabra. I think this is how change comes, this is how modern life changes the [traditional] lifestyle.”

A final ceremony takes place before the wedding party can celebrate; the Gabra tribe builds a house for the couple. Carrying babies as they build to wish fertility on the couple, the house is completed in less than an hour. Elle’s father explains why this tradition is important: “This is our culture – I learned it from my father, my father learned it from his father. I hope my son will share it with his children. We built them a house so that they may start their lives together, to have children and practice their culture.”

Elle, reflecting on his Gabra wedding ceremony, outlines why it was essential he remembered his roots: “Each and every one of us, we originated from somewhere. When we left for towns and cities, we left this tradition behind. So you can go to live in a town but you can also perform your traditions and uphold it when you go back to urban life.”

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