Where Democracy Was Born

The Borana herders who live in the Great Rift Valley have created a democratic system long before the Greeks

The Borana, known as the “morning people”, are the largest tribe of the Oromo people and they live in the Great Rift Valley on the eastern banks of the Omo river, between Ethiopia and Kenya. The Borana, nomadic zebu breeders who live in mud huts made of animal dung, are known for their particularly democratic political system. All decisions are made together with the approval of the whole community.
Although they are divided into clans and the principle of private property is well known in their society, Borana have decided to regulate potential conflicts through a system based on assemblies and common consent. Borana do not elect representatives. People decide directly through assemblies and since the majority is not enough for them, they try to reach unanimous consensus. This is why discussions can go on for days. The head of a clan is a representative figure whose role is to make members follow the rules of the game, but he does not make important decisions. Raising one’s voice and expressing oneself in an aggressive manner is against the laws of community living. And if it happens, the oldest member of the assembly starts crying in a melodramatic fashion, preventing any possible argument.
Such an apparently perfect society, however, has its own contradictions. Like in the Athenian direct democratic system, women are excluded from any form of power and, although they can participate in assemblies, they do so as mere spectators with no right to express their opinion nor to vote. Their male relatives do it in their place, often without fully expressing the point of their wives or sisters.