Dry Land, Dry Sentiment: Remembering Traditional Patterns in Times of Drought

Photo source: World Bank

Pastoralists in Kenya are suffering huge losses as livestock herds are decimated by water shortages. (Photo source: World Bank)

By guest blogger: Brendan Buzzard

In parts of East Africa, it has not rained in over a year and the soil drifts away without the roots of grass to hold it. Dominic, a herder and Samburu scout working for a community wildlife conservation program on the eastern edge of Samburu district, understands this reality.

“I tried and tried to save my cows,” he explains as he squats down and brushes the dry sand with a twig. “I tried everything I could think of. During the day, the animals were too weak to walk to water, so they would rest in the shade and I would try to find food. At night, we would walk slowly, sometimes the whole night, to get to water. But they died one by one. The last one I had to leave alone in the bush because I did not have food. She was very weak.”

For a family that depends on livestock, leaving an animal to die is a difficult choice. The thin bodies of cattle that dot the rangelands of northern Kenya are more than sun-baked skin draped over empty skeletons; they represent years and years of mutual respect, careful nurturing, and companionship, a partnership between the pastoralists that inhabit this land and the animals they lead to food and water. In this part of Kenya, livestock have formed the relationship between people and the land for over 4,000 years. The current drought is challenging this livelihood’s future.

Dominic’s story is echoed throughout the various communities of these rangelands, a reality that leads governments, organizations, and the wider public to view pastoralism as an unsuccessful livelihood whose chance in history has faded. Last week, as Kenyan national television showed a clip of the animal carcasses littering this northern landscape, a woman working as a cook in urban Nairobi expressed a common sentiment:

Those people never want to sell their cows. They just stay with them until they die and they have nothing left. I don’t understand why they do not just move to town and find real work when they know a drought is coming.

Yet here, in a land where the thorny branches of acacia trees knock together with the breeze, culture, livelihood, and land are intricately woven together. In the midday sun, the words of an older Samburu woman, a member of a women’s group of the Gir Gir Group Ranch that promotes the sale of traditional jewelry, illustrate these links clearly:

“The cows are like my children, and I went to help my son to try and feed them and give them water. We could not do it, they were very weak, and last night the last one died,” she says as she adjusts the rolled up cowhide she is carrying and shades her eyes with her hand. “We could not just leave them without trying, but it was too hard. We did not have any water. The cows are what we know.”

A belief is circling among governments and organizations that pastoralists should find other ways of living, more productive methods of using the land on which they live. Supplements to livelihoods can be found—jewelry making is one example—yet withdrawing livestock from the land removes a vital ecological component that has shaped the ecology of place as pastoralists moved across it. It may be dangerous to forget these traditional patterns.

“In the past, we used to move long distances,” explains Sammy, another scout from the Samburu conservancy, as it starts to get dark and the stars blink down from a clear sky. “We used to cooperate with other communities to save grass and water in times when we needed it. Now people are settled, there are boreholes with water and schools and clinics and shops. People are staying in one place and there is no buffer of grass to move to when it is dry.”

Understanding traditional patterns and finding ways to merge them into development activities is vital for the integrity of local cultures that grew from the husbandry of livestock. But it is also important for local ecological systems. The fact that the pastoral lands are co-inhabited by wildlife—Kenya’s main economic asset—illustrates the importance of these rangelands and the pastoral livelihood that manages them.

“Do you really think that these animals like elephants and gazelles would be here after all these years if the Samburu did not tolerate and respect them?” Sammy asks. Though he understands this fact, he does not preach that all Samburu care about wildlife like he does. “It is true, many animals are being killed both by poachers and people that get a hold of small arms. Some are from the community. They are also dying from the lack of grass or water. But with the conservancy we are trying to change this. Being pastoralists at least gives us a chance to protect Kenya’s wildlife.”

As governments, organizations and communities make decisions about the future of similar arid landscapes throughout the world, they may do well to consider traditional patterns. Land and people have shaped each other and, as with wildlife in Kenya’s case, sometimes the patterns of the past hold the key to a healthy economic future.

Brendan Buzzard is a contributor to Nourishing the Planet. A writer and conservationist, he works and travels widely while focusing on the link between human prosperity and landscape integrity. He has a degree in Geography and Environment from Prescott College.

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