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Aweer in Kenya

  • Aweer people, also known as Boni, are an indigenous ethnic minority residing primarily in the Lamu and Tana River counties of Kenya. Their population in Kenya is 20,103 according to the 2019 Housing Census. They have traditionally been hunter-gatherers, living in the dense forests along the northern coast and adjacent to the border with Somalia. Aweer people’s unique way of life, deep connection to their environment, and the challenges they face today are integral to understanding their role within Kenya’s diverse cultural landscape.

  • Aweer people are believed to have migrated from Somalia to Kenya several centuries ago. Traditionally, they lived a nomadic lifestyle, relying on hunting, gathering and shifting cultivation within the forests of Boni and Dodori. These forests provided them with all the necessities of life, including food, medicinal plants and materials for shelter. Aweer people’s traditional knowledge of their environment enabled them to live sustainably and harmoniously with nature.

    During the colonial period, Aweer territory became increasingly restricted due to the establishment of protected areas and game reserves. These changes, coupled with pressures from neighbouring communities and the encroachment of agriculture, began to erode their traditional way of life. Despite these pressures, Aweer people maintained their cultural practices and continued to live in the forest, albeit under increasingly difficult circumstances.

  • Aweer culture is closely tied to the forest, which they regard as sacred. Their traditional practices include hunting with bows and arrows, gathering wild fruits, roots and honey, and practicing shifting cultivation. Aweer people have a deep knowledge of medicinal plants and use them extensively to treat various ailments.

    Rituals and ceremonies play a significant role in Aweer communities. These include rites of passage, marriage ceremonies and festivals that celebrate their connection to the land and their ancestors. The community is led by elders who are highly respected and are the custodians of traditional knowledge and customs.

    Language is another important aspect of Aweer identity. The members of the community speak Kiboni, a Cushitic language, which is vital for passing down oral history and cultural heritage. However, the use of Kiboni has been declining due to external influences and the integration of younger generations into broader Kenyan society.

    Aweer people face numerous challenges that threaten their way of life. The establishment of the Boni and Dodori National Reserves has severely restricted their access to traditional hunting and gathering areas. These reserves, intended for wildlife conservation, have led to the displacement of the Aweer people.

    Law enacted in 1977 in Kenya criminalized hunting, which was their main source of livelihood. Forced evictions and restrictions on forest access have resulted in loss of livelihoods and loss of cultural identity.

    Insecurity also directly affect Aweer people. The proximity of their lands to the Somali international border has exposed them to risks associated with militant activities and counter-terrorism operations. Aweer people are negatively affected by terror attacks by Al-Shabaab terrorists who mostly use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) targeting the military and killing Aweer in their five villages of Milimani, Mangai, Kiangwe, Basuba and Mararani. Counter-terrorism activities also affect the members of Aweer communities through restricted movements in the form of curfews and denied access to resources, intensifying their vulnerability.

    Furthermore, Aweer people suffer from marginalization and lack of access to basic services such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure. This marginalization has contributed to high levels of poverty and limited opportunities for economic advancement. Efforts to integrate Aweer people into mainstream Kenyan society have often been insensitive to their cultural values and traditions, leading to further isolation.

Updated June 2024

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