Pastorialists in Transition

Photographs and Text by Brent Stirton

Kenya’s ancient pastoralist culture is going through dramatic changes. The worst drought in over one hundred years, Kenya’s over-population dynamics, Immigrant ambitions and tribalism, accelerated cattle conflict over shrinking resources and the battle for conservation are some of the issues. The Masaai of the Mara region find them-selves facing hard choices between land for cattle or land for conservation. The Samburu, the Rendille, the Borana and other tribes of the government neglected North find themselves transitioning from the devastation of the worst drought in 100 years to an increasing conflict over the cattle which remain and the shrinking land on which to graze them. The Dasnetch of far north Lake Turkana now find themselves more reliant on fishing than on cattle due to climate change over the last 20 years. They face the growing threat of Ethiopia’s dams projects and how that will impact Lake Turkana.
In the middle are numerous conservation areas, both public and private, struggling to preserve some of the most precious wildlife resources in the world. All of these groups find themselves increasingly pressured in a volatile country that has tripled in population since the 1970’s.
Cattle as a cultural value are caught between two generations. The elders who want a visible manifestation of their wealth, herds upon herds on the landscape; and the younger men who understand the increasing limits of cattle for their future. This younger generation is tired of the endless conflicts. They are beginning to understand the need for balance between conservation and cattle and now face the delicate task of respectfully enlightening the elders. This is in spite of cattle losses of between 50% and 95% for most pastoralist groups across Kenya due to last year’s devastating drought.
In the Mara region a small number of viable community-linked conservancies are emerging and more are in negotiation. Masaai communities are speaking with long time Safari operators on land use issues and weighing that up against the value of their herds. More and more are choosing conservation. This is complicated by poor land management policies by corrupt county councils and has created issues of non-sustainable tourism. Only 29% of the lodges in the Mara are legal operations. This has seen recent protest from the foreign tourism sector as the Masaai Mara Reserve reaches a tipping point regarding the number of tourists in the area.
In the North organizations like the Northern Rangelands Trust have already set up 17 different community conservation areas, principally amongst the Samburu, the Rendille and the Borana. The money these communities are beginning to receive in exchange for land use is slowly leading to increased conservation values and improved land and cattle management. Massive cattle raiding by a well-armed Borana against the Samburu is threatening this arrangement as is a disarmament policy being conducted by brutal Kenya Administrative police and Government Security Units.
In the Koya area, a large swathe of No-Mans Land is being rehabilitated by community appointed rangers. Deserted since 1992 after extensive cattle related conflict, they hope that local people will return there for sustainable conservation and pastoralism after relentless cattle raiding made it unlivable in the 1990’s. Limited wildlife in this region is also an issue in sustainable tourism but there are already successful collaborations between these local communities and tourist hotels for wildlife reserves.
The Turkana region of the far North offers further alternatives for failing pastoralists, with access to some of the greatest fossil fields in the world offering tourism and educational potential in a moon-like landscape. The Leakey’s, some of the world’s most famous Paleontologists, have established the Turkana Basin Institute and are completing construction of one of the largest educational facilities of its kind in the world. Employment options are very limited for the Dasnetch and other tribes in this area and with the threat of Ethiopia’s new dams project, Lake Turkana, the worlds largest desert lake, could lose up to four fifths of its water tributary supply. The Dasnetch people have adapted to drought in the region by embracing fishing over cattle and Ethiopia’s Dam’s could devastate their chief subsistence resource.
The recent influence of the church as well as education have also been a major factor in how these pastoralists are transitioning from their traditional lives. Any conversation with these people invariably leads to prioritizing two things, access to medical care and access to education for their children. The cost of these priorities is causing pastoralists to think differently about how they earn money and the viability of cattle in that process.
Across Kenya the Somalis are also increasingly a factor. Their natural talent as traders has made them formidable businessmen and in towns like Kajiado and others, the Somalis and their brand of Islam is dominant and growing. Somalis have entered into business relations with the Kikuyu people and they have acquired large tracts of land from naïve pastoralists who now find themselves squeezed into unsustainable pockets of grazing land. As a consequence many pastoralists are forced into urban poverty or unskilled alternatives to cattle, all of which guarantee the increasing domination of the Somalis who already have political representation in Nairobi. In a country still reeling from the political violence of 2 years ago, this is a recipe for future conflict. The Somalis have ready access to weapons across the porous Northern border which only adds fuel to the potential fire Kenya’s 2012 elections could bring.
The traditional way of life of all these pastoralists is changing at a pace which brings uncertainty to the lives of millions of people across the entire region. This group brings together some of the most volatile of Africa’s nations, this change has already disenfranchised thousands of people and looks set to increase those numbers. Conflict is likely as people compete for ever-diminishing resources to sustain an ancient lifestyle whose days may finally be numbered.