Within the Dassenech village, it’s the women who build and take down the huts during migrations. They are semi-circular constructions with no interior divisions, made up of sticks and branches called “Miede”. The first part of the hut to be constructed is the ‘store’ – actually a small box-like structure made from reeds and rope from cow skin. This also the box used for moving items on the donkey back. It is set by one side of the hut and used for storing tobacco, coffee and other important items.
These huts are well ventilated, as it is important to have airflow through in such a hot environment. There is only one entrance, a small opening that is closed by animal skin – that way it is extremely difficult for an enemy to go through the opening unnoticed. Inside the huts are a hearth, an area where animal skins are laid for sleeping on, and the store. Women also claim the right-hand side of the hut (and of the porch outside) as their own.
The Dassanech tribe is not strictly defined by ethnicity. Anyone – man or woman – will be admitted, as long as they agree to be circumcised. Over the centuries, the tribe has absorbed a wide range of different peoples. It’s now divided into eight main clans, which to some extent reflect the wide-ranging origin of its members. Each clan has its own identity and customs, its own responsibilities towards the rest of the tribe, and is linked to a particular territory.
The largest clan is the Galbur, or Water and Crocodile clan. The Dassanech believe its members have the power over both water and crocodiles and are responsible for dealing with diseases of the glands across the tribe. The Turat clan is responsible for dealing with burns from the fire. They have powers to keep away snakes and to cure many diseases, and also have the ability to keep away enemies from their animals. Another important clan is Turnyerim, which has powers over drought. They pray for rains during dry periods and they can also cure snakebites by spitting on the wound.
Other clans claim to have healing powers over eye infections, scorpion bites, muscular problems, and so on. Members of the same clan are forbidden from marrying – or indeed dancing – with each other.
The biggest ceremony in a man’s life of Dassenech tribe is called Dimi. Its purpose is to celebrate and bless his daughter for fertility and future marriage. When he has gone through Dimi, a man becomes an elder. About 10 cattle and 30 smaller animals are slaughtered and other stock is traded for coffee. Men and women dress in animal fur capes to feast and dance, and the leaders of the village bless the girl.
Dimi ceremonies, with their need to slaughter cattle, take place in the dry season – when cattle aren’t producing much milk, and grazing has limited value. Slaughtering cattle at this time of year provides meat when other food sources are low.