Liban was located in what is now southeast Ethiopia, near the meeting of the Ethiopian, Kenyan and Somali borders.
In some tellings, Liban is located further north, in the homeland of the Amhara. If you need to get on the good side of the most privileged ethnic group in the country, it's helpful to have a common origin to point to. The Burji are a very small ethnic group, so they have to be "practical," "flexible," (Kellner) and "versatile" (Amborn) in the details of where they came from.
The Burji became expert farmers, famous for their agricultural skills. This made them different from the majority of the peoples in the region (e.g. the Borana), who were herders.
At the end of the 19th century, the army of the Ethiopian Empire pushed south, subjugating the indigenous people and setting up a system of compulsory labor called gabbar. Huge numbers of people took their animals and fled to British Kenya. For the next thirty-five years, the herders moved back and forth across the border, avoiding now the Ethiopian neftenya, now the British tax collectors. Whole villages would vanish overnight from one country and appear in the other.
But the Burji were farmers, not herders, so they couldn't move around. Being practical people, they accepted Ethiopian rule. Under the gabbar system, they were partitioned out to work for the northern settlers. Their crops were drained by the north.
Then the Burji began to leave. Not back and forth across the border like the herders, but permanently moving southward into Kenya, reaching Marsabet, Nairobi and even Mombassa. Many of the Kenyan Burji became successful traders and businesspeople.
Back in Ethiopia, the Italians invaded from Italian Somaliland in 1935. The Ethiopian army fought the Italians all over the south for the next four years. The Italians were brutal, using poison gas against civilians. For many Burji though, the Italians were actually an improvement, since they abolished the gabbar system.
By 1940, the British had joined the fight against the Italians. In 1941 Emperor Haile Selassie returned to the throne from his exile in England. Now the Burji were punished for supporting the Italians. More fled to Kenya.
We are now within living memory, and I am not comfortable feeling my way through events that I may get wrong. I will fast forward through the overthrow of Haile Selassie, the murderous Derg, famine, and war to the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), currently in power. The current constitution has organized Ethiopia under a model of ethnic federalism. The country is divided into regions, zones, and woredas based on ethnicity. Burji is a special woreda (meaning it is not part of any zone) within the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR). In theory, the model of ethnic federalism means that each ethnic group enjoys a large degree of autonomy. In practice, there are at least two problems. One, there is disagreement about where boundaries were drawn. Many Burji, for example, live in the area around Hagere Mariam, but that area is now part of the Guji zone in the Oromia region.
Two, dividing the country among ethnic groups brings differences to the forefront and exacerbates inter-ethnic conflicts. The Burji have been involved in at least two conflicts in the last decade. One was with the Guji, over shared resources in the Hagere Mariam area. The other is a current conflict with the Borana that began in northern Kenya and has now spilled over into southern Ethiopia (Burji woreda, where we are going, is not involved in the current conflict).
I'm looking forward to going to Burji and learning more about its history.
Resources to read about Burji:
- Amborn, H. (2009). Burji: Versatile by Tradition. In Schlee, G. & Watson, E. (Eds.) Changing identifications and alliances in north-east Africa.
- Boru, A. (2004). Burji recognition in the Kenya constitution. Cultural Survival Quarterly.
- Debelo, A.R. (2012). Emerging ethnic identities and inter-ethnic conflict: The Guji-Burji conflict in south Ethiopia. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism.
- Fresh Clashes Erupt in Moyale between the Borana and the Burji. (2014, February 17). www.standardmedia.co.ke/
- Hundreds Displaced Following Moyale Clashes. (2013, December 6). www.the-star.co.ke/
- Kellner, A. (2006). The Burjis' Liban tradition: An example of a practical interest in the past. Proceedings of the XVth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies.
- Kellner, A. (2006). The significance of the oral traditions of the Burji for perceiving and shaping their inter-ethnic relations. In Schlee, G. & Watson, E. (Eds.) Changing Identifications and Alliances in North-East Africa.
- Mahmoud, H.A. (2009). Breaking barriers: the construction of a new Burji identity through livestock trade in northern Kenya. Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Papers.
- Oba, G. (2013). Nomads in the shadows of empires.
- Wolasa, T. (2010). Introduction. Yaayo Burji Dictionary.