The role of faith and traditional practices in managing COVID-19: Lessons from Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia

Written by PASTRES PhD researcher Tahira Mohamed

Around the world, larger gatherings are banned, and seminars and conferences have been cancelled or have gone virtual as people observe social distancing under the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst all of these restrictions, Gumi Gayo, the largest social-political assembly of the Southern Borana of Ethiopia, is happening not virtually, but face-to-face.

Gumi Gayo takes place once in every 8 years in a place known as Gaayoo in Borena Zone. It is attended by Borana from all the regions, including the neighbouring Kenyan Boranas. Out of curiosity, I travelled to the assembly to understand what COVID-19 means to the Borana pastoralists in Southern Ethiopia and how their views compare with those from Northern Kenya. What do they perceive as valid sources of knowledge about uncertain futures? How do they organise to respond to such events? And what role do religious faith and beliefs play at times of crisis?

Knowledge about the future

Southern Ethiopian and Northern Kenyan Borana pastoralists are from the same tribe and they speak the same language, but they are differentiated by their religious affiliation. The majority of Southern Borana hold to the traditional Borana spiritual practices, whereas Waso Borana in Northern Kenya are mostly Muslims.

Traditional Borana beliefs

In customary (traditional) Borana beliefs, knowledge of the future is based on ‘maar’ (a turn of events). The Borana ‘timeline’ is key in defining what future events are expected. The Gada system, which is anchored on 5 permanents ‘parties’ or ‘grades’ known as ‘googeesaa’, provides the political basis on which timeline events are mapped. Each Gada includes a sequence of events such as drought, disease, flood or conflict. According to elders, the current gooogessa (party) will not experience any disease related calamities, because it is considered ‘gadaa quufaa/bad’aad’aa’ (the Gada of bountifulness)[1].

At the event, I asked elder Borboor Bule why Gumi Gayo was happening despite the fear of COVID-19. He replied:

Corona is not our disease, our ‘himaan’ have predicted that in this Gada we will not face any calamity such as disease outbreak. However, we know that there will be a disease known as ‘asgoorrii’ which will befall the Borana in the near future. Today we are gathering here, and we are not afraid of this disease, although we have made all the precautionary rituals to ask God for protection.’

Islamic beliefs

According to Islamic belief, knowledge about the future (‘ilm gheiyb’) rests with Allah alone, and practising Muslims put their trust in Allah for all the future as it unfolds. Believers act on everyday turns of events through reference to the Quran (scripture) and ‘hadith’ (Prophetic sayings). These books provide guidance on how people should respond to any uncertain occasions such as plague, death or disease. They provide a historical account of past generations and how people engaged with an unknown universe.

Muslim pastoralists in Kenya believe that this pandemic is a call from Allah for people to come back to righteousness and shun all evil practices. For them, it is a sign that humans have gone astray from the prime motive of their creation. An elder noted:

‘We are living in a new generation, many people have left their tradition and fundamentals of life such as truth, love and cohesion. Allah is calling people showing that He is the controller of Universe. Man, however powerful he is, cannot control and predict the future. Covid-19 has exposed the weakness in human knowledge, no matter how much we plan, the future lies in the hands of Supreme God and we cannot know everything.’

Although knowledge about the future is both vivid and limited, learning lessons from previous experience is key to managing the current situation. Both the Muslim Boranas and those with traditional beliefs referred to ‘historic’ events as significant in understanding the present and possibly predicting the future. So how do these pastoralists respond to an uncertain event such as COVID-19?

Responding to COVID-19

As the entire world faces the coronavirus pandemic, customary traditional groups, as well as religious societies, will draw on their own systems of responding to such events. Both Borana Muslims and those with traditional beliefs share some responses in common: firm belief and prayers, communal solidarity, and the use of traditional herbal medicines to prevent or ‘cure’ the disease.

Firm belief and prayers

For the Borana Muslims, the first thing is to trust in Allah that whatever is destined to happen cannot be changed by the Will of Man but only by God’s Will. So here the first thing is to pray sincerely to God for protection. In the event of a pandemic, there is a specific prayer taught to Muslim believers which reads: ‘Allahumma inni a’udhu bika minal-barasi, wal- jununi, wal-judhami, wa sayyi’il-asqaam.’ (O Allah! I seek refuge in you from leukoderma, insanity, leprosy and evil disease). An Imam from Kinna told me:

‘When the first case of the virus was reported in Kenya, I personally recalled the Prophet’s hadith which says, ‘if a plague breaks out in a region do not go there, but if you are already there, do not come out of it’. This disease should have been contained in China where it originated, but uncontrolled movement made the entire world suffer. Now we do not have an option but to be cautious and be prayerful wherever we are. We also prayed special prayers known as ‘qunuut’ to seek protection from Allah.’

Among the traditional Borana, whenever calamity such as human disease befalls them, they do what is called ‘D’iibaayu baaha’. In this case, ‘qaalu’ (spiritual leaders) and the community perform special prayers. They gather under a specific tree near a certain well and seek protection from ‘Waaq’ (God). After these prayers are completed it is believed that this calamity will not overpower them, and people will survive. These leaders pray for the entire community and encourage the members to show kindness and solidarity, and to believe firmly that with virtuousness they will overcome the calamity.

In response to COVID-19, Saaqqa, a Haayuu (Councillor) from Oditu clan, told me that they are not afraid of the disease, but to give them some relief, they have conducted several prayer ceremonies for safety.

Communal solidarity

Both Muslim and traditional-believing Boranas uphold the principle of communal solidarity in engaging with any unfortunate event, as well as during everyday life. This is reinforced by the Quran, in hadiths and in the Borana sayings. Prophet Muhammad PBUH said:

‘The relationship between one believer and another is like a structure, parts of which support other parts,’ and he interlaced his fingers. He added, ‘the likeness of the believers in their mutual love, mercy and compassion is that of the body; if one part of it complains, the rest of the body joins it in staying awake and suffering fever’ (Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih al-Muslim)

The everyday life of customary Borana is mostly guided by the traditional worldview, and regarding social solidarity, they say: ‘Ilkaan waliin jiraannit funn walii kuuta’ (literally: the teeth that bite together are the ones which will chew morsels together). This saying emphasises the principle that if we don’t stand together and associate, then we cannot live a well-balanced life. Every human being needs their fellow humans in order to survive, because no one is complete without support from others.

In responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, social solidarity has been crucial, both in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. In the Gumi Gayo assembly, youths were informing other participants about COVID-19 precautionary measures, providing masks and sanitizer. According to Nura Borbor, a volunteer at the event, they are not employed or paid by anyone for the task, but they do it for their community. Many women at Gumi Gayo had been tirelessly constructing temporary shelters for the guests, taking into account the need for social distancing. In Northern Kenya, there have been several food drives and provision of sanitary essentials to needy people during the pandemic.

Traditional medicines and herbs

In addition to conventional medicine, every tradition and religious group has its own remedies to deal with pandemics. Among the Borana Muslim pastoralists, some traditional medicinal herbs are used. Honey and black seeds dominate the prophetic medicines to cure most diseases, especially colds. Black seed can be consumed whole or with honey. For the Southern Borana of Ethiopia, a herb known as Haarkeen (pictured below) is considered a ‘cure’ for coronavirus.  Haarkeen is used by everyone who has cough-like symptoms. It is boiled in milk and the liquid is drunk twice a day. It causes a burning sensation and is said to remove all the dirt from the throat. Hajj Gurach, (Gumi Gayo attendee) told me that this Haarkeen is used not only for coughs, but also to remove all the swelling lymph from the body. He noted that Borana pastoralists have apparently been sending Haarkeen to their families abroad and in Addis Ababa.

What lessons can we learn from these two traditions?

Whatever religious beliefs (or none) one may hold, it is clear that our knowledge is limited. Many of the traditions and sayings from Borana and Muslim traditions appear to emphasise this insight. Orthodox planning approaches may fail but acting in real time and accordingly might provide some relief.

This does not mean that we should not plan ahead, but rather that we should provide room for manoeuvre to engage with what is always an uncertain future. In managing ambiguous situations, sharing information and understanding history might provide a critical ‘infrastructure’ to deal with the situation. 

Both traditions provide useful responses to the pandemic by recognising the limits of human knowledge, emphasising solidarity and care. However, there is a potential weakness in beliefs about a pre-set cycle of fortune and misfortune which does not take into account the surprises of global events. A certain belief that ‘corona is not our disease’ will sabotage the essential steps that might be taken to control the spread of the disease.

Despite this, the precautionary measures, showing solidarity in combination with flexible responses enshrined in different traditions, have made it possible for Gumi Gayo to take place amidst the Covid-19 restrictions. We can learn some essential lessons such as the importance of solidarity, cooperation and relying on diverse knowledge from different cultures, traditions and science in dealing with crisis.

PASTRES has provided me with an opportunity to learn from pastoralists on how to engage with different shocks and crisis. Through this, I look forward to elaborating how ‘formal’ ways of managing uncertainty could be intertwined with ‘everyday’ based experiences of rural community in managing uncertainties.  

[1] Every Gada which falls within the 5 main ‘party’ (googeesaa) symbolises certain fortunes or misfortunes which are associated with all the Gadas which came under that specific googeesaa.

Photo Credits: 1. Tahira Mohamed, 2. Tahira Mohamed, 3. Nura Borbor, Yavello, 4.  Jeilani Mohamed, (Black seed), 5. Mohamed Wako (wet haarkeen), 6. Aisha Abubakar (dry haarkeen)

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