Roaming the Rift: Development and Pastoralists in Northern Kenya

April 3, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

The road leading to the settlement of Loiyangalani from South Horr is rough, hacked through a merciless landscape of crumbling volcanic rock, baking in the equatorial sun. There is scarcely a plant in sight as our pick-up truck jostles and squeaks over a rise and the enormous Lake Turkana comes into view, a turquoise gem of fresh water stretching into the horizon. Then a herd of goats blocks our way. Impossibly, it seems, the animals are fat and healthy, enjoying a feast invisible to the untrained human eye, a nutritious buffet of roots, grasses and shrubs hiding between rocks and below ground. Navigating the rocky terrain as nimbly as his animals is a sure-footed Turkana herder. He regards our moaning, dusty vehicle with what seems like pity as we turn to descend toward the shore of the largest desert lake in the world.

When seen from above, the vast expanse of Northern Kenya appears as a painted mosaic of desert ecosystems from green to brown, hot to cool, moist to dry. This part of the African Rift Valley is home to dozens of pastoralist tribes including the Borana, Gabbra, Turkana, Wayu, Samburu, Rendille, El Molo and more. Some who fly over this place, however, claim to see an under-populated territory ripe for large-scale energy and tourism developments, for fenced-off ranches and other projects that flout the fragile ecological economy of these rangelands.

“This place is so special to us because it is a vast land where we can graze our animals without any problems,” says Alice Lesepen, a Rendille woman and representative of the Merigo Cultural Group of Marsabit County. “They might say that most of our land has not been occupied. But according to the ecological nature of our pastoral lifestyle, we feel that we have been occupying the land.”

“We are here, and we are supposed to be involved in whatever is to be done on our lands.”

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Lowasa Nyeusi, a young Turkana man, tends to his family’s goats outside of Loiyangalani. In the vast, arid landscapes of Northern Kenya pastoralism has proven to be the most flexible and viable form of land use. Almost all of the meat consumed in Kenya comes from the pastoralist rangelands.

The Irony of the Commons

East of Lake Turkana on the edge of the Chalbi desert, two large vultures cautiously hop across a dusty road to inspect a sun-dried cow carcass. It’s the kind of image that government and NGOs seize upon to support the narrative that pastoralism here is not sustainable; that drought and climate change are devastating the people and that what’s needed is a raft of externally-driven investment in alternative land use including irrigation, parks and conservation and the development of Las Vegas-style resort cities to promote a tourism-based cash economy.

“People have tried a lot of things here using a top-down way of thinking, disregarding what the people already know,” says Dr. Hassan Roba, the African Rift Valley Program Officer for The Christensen Fund. “The problem is that people with good intentions oversimplify the issues and reduce the complexity of the system. ‘The pastoralists need water’, they say, so they dig wells everywhere, but that doesn’t seem to work. ‘They need grass for their animals’, they say, so NGOs want to reseed the rangeland by planting grasses at an impossible scale, ignoring the rich seed bank in the rangeland soils.”

Dr. Roba tells the story of a well-meaning NGO that came to Northern Kenya and donated Toggenburg dairy goats to a pastoral village. The pastoralists became disappointed with their new goats, however, which they described as exceedingly lazy and unable to deal with the scorching desert sun, unlike their selectively-bred and highly-adapted Galla goats. Sadly, the introduction of the exotic goats will likely dilute the gene pool of the indigenous Galla, reducing the community’s resilience to drought and other shocks.

“Pastoralists normally don’t dig wells in the desert, they migrate to their good water points and maintain the grazing balance on their seasonal rangelands,” says Dr. Roba. “The people have accumulated over the years immense knowledge about the rangelands and about how they should be managed, and their indigenous animals are resilient and can thrive in the desert if their movements are not constrained.”

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Studies show that sacred sites have higher rates of biodiversity than surrounding areas, and that intact traditional institutions can support sustainable land management practices.

Droughts are normal and don’t devastate communities when the system is allowed to work, says Dr. Roba, who has collaborated for nearly a decade with pastoralist peoples to integrate their local knowledge systems with scientific approaches to landscape management. He talks about Garret Harding’s famous ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, a pillar of developmentalist philosophy, which Dr. Roba says is flat wrong in this part of Kenya when culture is strong.

“When the people are allowed to be pastoralists what we have is a successfully managed commons. When there are institutions, culture and traditional governance in place to determine when and where to graze and how to give incentives and to punish for misuse, then it is not tragic.”

But when the local institutions begin to break down and the fences go up, and the deep knowledge maintained in the beautiful songs about cattle grazing and sacred watering holes starts to erode, that’s when Harding’s tragedy starts to take hold, as a crowd of struggling people pounces on what’s left of their ancestral lands. That is why one of the best things that funders can do is support culture and traditional institutions, because by helping the culture to thrive we can bring integrity and resilience to the system. It’s about identity, and resource use is cultural and landscapes and animals are sacred which means that they are taken care of and if the people are culturally alive then they will respect the traditional law as the elders lay it down, and they will respect the elders.

That’s where Dr. Hussein Isack comes in, a Gabbra man with a deep love for the cultures of Northern Kenya and a passion for the rights of pastoralists.

Kivulini and The Cultural Solution

On a cool desert morning at the humming oasis of Kalacha, not far from where the vultures eyeballed the dehydrated roadside cow, Dr. Hussein brings us to meet the Quri Tura family, who welcome us for hot tea in camel’s milk. It’s a nourishing brew with a sweet and smoky flavor. As the sun rises in the sky the women and kids are busy collecting milk from the goats while the men prepare to milk the camels. For Dr. Hussein it is a scene awash in the traditional wealth of his people: Camels and goats and open land, fresh water burbling out of the desert floor, traditional Gabbra houses and children and the stories and sacred knowledge that enable humans to thrive in a place that can appear as hostile to people not from here.

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Dr. Hussein Isack (left) of Kivulini Trust visits with a Gabbra family in Kalacha. Kivulini provides direct support to community groups throughout Northern Kenya and is the producer of the annual Kalacha Festival which draws thousands of attendees for a multi-day celebration of music, dance, food and animals.

Dr. Hussein’s connection with the Gabbra – and with the many other cultures throughout Northern Kenya – is remarkable, and he is welcomed as a respected elder wherever we go. He is perhaps best known around here as the Director of Kivulini Trust, a key ally of The Christensen Fund, which is well described by a paragraph from their website:

“We draw on the wisdom inherent in our communities’ traditional cultural systems and practices, and believe in their power to shape their own destiny – in order to create sustainable livelihoods and inspire the protection and celebration of their rich cultural and natural heritage.”

Indeed, Dr. Hussein and his colleagues at Kivulini know how to celebrate. A stone’s throw from the Quri Tura clan’s houses are Kivulini’s regional offices and the site of the Kalacha Cultural Festival, a multi-day annual event that brings together tribes from around Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia to dance and sing and share food and knowledge. It’s a wild celebration that fosters cross-cultural understanding and respect; instills pride and injects energy into culture and reminds young men and women that they have a purpose, that they still have culture.

That is the core of Kivulini’s strategy: to strengthen cultural and community cohesion within and among the Indigenous Peoples of Northern Kenya so that they can identify and articulate choices; so that they can proudly stand together to face the economic and political forces that are gathering on their ancestral rangelands. This requires celebrating and supporting language, music, dance, animals, food, crafts and tradition, for within these things lives the best option for a resilient human existence on this hot and dry part of the planet. So in addition to supporting festivals and cultural exchanges, Kivulini gives strategic small grants to community groups to back their efforts not just to survive, but to thrive. Bouncing around in a beat-up Land Cruiser for days on end to bring affinity and support to the most remote communities in Kenya is what makes Dr. Hussein and Kivulini unique. Kenya may be the African poster child for foreign aid, but you won’t find many representatives of the BINGOs (big international NGOs) out on these lonely Northern roads.

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A view of an El Molo village on the shore of Lake Turkana. In addition to pastoralist peoples, Northern Kenya is home to multiple hunter-gatherer and fisher folk communities like the El Molo, a threatened culture whose numbers are estimated to be below 1,000 people. The Christensen Fund and Kivulini Trust are supporting the El Molo’s efforts to revitalize their language and culture.

Cross-Border Biocultural Connections

The monotonous lava landscape of Northern Kenya is broken by desert towns like North Horr, a dusty oasis where people stroll from shadow to shadow, hiding from the sun in the shady shapes of one-story mud and wood structures, electricity poles and acacia trees. Horr, meaning water, is the main attraction of this place, a deeply important historical stopping point for generations of pastoralists passing through on their seasonal movements to green pastures and sacred sites. The surrounding rangelands consist of parched patches that suddenly flash green when the rain comes. But precipitation is highly variable – some places may not see rain for two or three years – and when rain finally comes it does not fall uniformly, so the mobility of pastoralists is paramount. To put livestock and people into areas bounded by borders and politics is to create a dangerous trap.

“This is not a static region and fodder and rain are not controllable,” says Dr. Hassan Roba. “It’s patchy, and the idea is to put pressure evenly on resources and to remain flexible within the system. Pastoralists know this and they are inherently flexible. But now they are dealing with people who want to control the system in a static way and make it mechanical, and then it breaks. That’s when you get catastrophe.”

That’s why the people have always moved. And during the dry season many Gabbra herders bring their animals north across what is now the border with Ethiopia to the trusty watering points near the sacred hills, and in the wet season the nutrient fluxes shift south, and the Borana pastoralists in Ethiopia cross the border to access the green grasses on the sprawling rangelands in Kenya. But these days disagreements and political rivalries make the pilgrimage to pastoral resources more difficult. Trust is eroding and getting herds to pasture has become risky business. Some pastoralists now carry guns.

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Gabbra camel herders at Kalacha, from left to right: Sharamo Isacko Guyo, Elema Ayicha Ele, Sharamo Dhambala. For generations the Gabbra and Borana have enjoyed strong cultural connections and have collaboratively managed many grazing resources. Sacred sites for many Gabbra lie across the border in Ethiopia and during important pilgrimages the two cultures traditionally exchange myrrh gum and other materials in respect and good faith.

Helping to keep the peace in the far North is AJEMA, the Arda Jilla Ecosystem Management Association, a pastoralist community group near Mount Forole that facilitates peaceful cross-border movements, connections and collaboration. Supported by Kivulini Trust, AJEMA works to demarcate sacred sites, convenes dialogue of cross-border stakeholder groups, enables tracking of wildlife and prevention of poaching, and promotes peaceful coexistence on both sides of the border.

Kivulini works with many groups like AJEMA, Indigenous Peoples who are learning how to assert their culture and are working to normalize the pastoralist way within the modern state. A key player in this fight further south is Waso Trustland Project, a scrappy association based in Isiolo County where outsiders are coming in to ‘buy’ grazing land from sellers with often fraudulent claims to the land. Led by community organizer Liban Golicha, a peoples’ diplomat with the trust of elders and politicians alike, Waso Trustland works to protect pastoralists’ land rights and ensure fair resource distribution. With drought and land grabs sparking more cattle rustling and conflict in the region, there is a lot of work to be done.

“The big changes are coming,” says the Merigo Cultural Group’s Alice Lesepen, whose resolve is as solid as the new tarmac road being laid mere meters from her family’s compound. “So it is good for us to maintain our culture for our young ones to know and understand better where they are from.”

Tags: indigenous culture, the commons