The Singing Wells of the Borena

The Borena are seminomadic pastoralists who occupy lands that stretch from northern Kenya to the dry, hot plains around Yabelo. Their lives revolve entirely around their cattle and during the dry season it’s a constant struggle to keep their vast herds alive. To combat the problem, the Borena developed a unique system of deep wells. A long channel drops about 10m below the ground and funnels the cattle to troughs dug close to each well’s mouth. When it’s time to water the cattle, the men create a human chain down the well (which can be 30m deep), tossing buckets of water between one another from the bottom up to the top, where the troughs are gradually filled. The men often sing to keep rhythm as they pass up the buckets, hence the name. Several hundred or even thousand cattle come to drink at a time. For travellers, it’s certainly a memorable and unique sight, though new pumps are slowly ending the tradition.

Delve into Borena territory near Dublock, about 70km south of Yabelo, where there’s a big Friday market and some of the famous ‘singing wells’. They’re only genuinely worked during the dry season (December through April), but the men are glad to demonstrate at other times, for a hefty fee: tour companies usually pay Birr150 per person and another Birr150 for the guide to arrange it.