The Dasenech,alternatively known as the Galeb or Reshiat, range across a large territory following the western banks of the Omo River to Lake Turkana. Local oral tradition, reinforced by that of the Turkana, recounts that the Dasenech migrated to their current homeland from a region called Nyupe, to the west of Turkana, after being forced out by the expansionist wars of the Turkana in the late 18th century. Like the Turkana, Samburu and Gabbar of northern Kenya, the Dasenech or Geleb was originally pure pastoralists, living an almost totally nomadic lifestyle. The abundant water frontage and fertile soil of their present territory has subsequently pushed them towards a more diverse subsistence economy, based around fishing and agriculture as well as herding livestock.
The Daasanach (also known as the Marille or Geleba) are an ethnic group inhabiting parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan. Their main homeland is in the Debub Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region, adjacent to Lake Turkana. According to the 2007 national census, they number 48,067 people (or 0.07% of the total population of Ethiopia), of whom 1,481 are urban dwellers.
There are a number of variant spellings of Daasanach, including Dasenach and Dassanech (the latter used in an episode about them in the TV series Tribe). Daasanach is the primary name given in the Ethnologue language entry.
The Daasanach are also called Marille especially by their neighbours, the Turkana of Kenya.
The Daasanach are traditionally pastoralists, but in recent years have become primarily agropastoral. Having lost the majority of their lands over the past fifty years or so, primarily as a result from being excluded from their traditional Kenyan lands, including on both sides of Lake Turkana, and the ‘Ilemi Triangle’ of Sudan, they have suffered a massive decrease in the numbers of cattle, goats and sheep. As a result, large numbers of them have moved to areas closer to the Omo River, where they attempt to grow enough crops to survive. There is much disease along the river (including tsetse, which has increased with forest and woodland development there), however, making this solution to their economic plight difficult. Like many pastoral peoples throughout this region of Africa, the Daasanach are a highly egalitarian society, with a social system involving age sets and clan lineages – both of which involve strong reciprocity relations.
The Daasanach today speak the Daasanach language. It belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. The language is notable for its large number of noun classes, irregular verb system, and implosive consonants. For instance, the initial D in Daasanach is implosive, sometimes written as ‘D.
Modern genetic analysis of the Daasanach indicates that they are more closely related to Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo-speaking populations inhabiting Tanzania than they are to the Cushitic and Semitic Afro-Asiatic-speaking populations of Ethiopia. This suggests that the Daasanach were originally Nilo-Saharan speakers, sharing common origins with the Pokot. In the 19th century, the Nilotic ancestors of these two populations are believed to have begun separate migrations, with one group heading southwards into the African Great Lakes region and the other group settling in southern Ethiopia. There, the early Daasanach Nilotes would have come into contact with a Cushitic-speaking population, and eventually adopted this group’s Afro-Asiatic language.