Maintaining Links to Tradition in a Changing World

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Danielle takes notes during a discussion with members of a pastoralist community in Samburu (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Danielle takes notes during a discussion with members of a pastoralist community in Samburu (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Maralal, Kenya is mostly known for its wildlife. And as we made the seven hour, bumpy trek from Nairobi—half of it on unpaved roads—we saw our fair share of water buffaloes, rhinos, impala, and giraffes. But we weren’t here to go on safari. We were here to meet with a group of pastoralists—livestock keepers who had agreed to meet with us and talk about the challenges they face (see video below).

We met in the community primary school and it was humbling to see so many people—many wearing traditional Maasai clothing, brightly woven clothe, beads, elaborate earrings—come through the door to greet us.

Although most of these people don’t have access to cable TV or even radios, they do have a good sense of the challenges their fellow livestock keepers face all over Kenya. They are aware that climate change is likely responsible for the drought plaguing much of East Africa, killing thousands of livestock over the last few months. They know that conflict with neighboring pastoral communities over water resources and access to land makes headlines in Kenya’s newspapers. And they know that many policy-makers would like to forget they exist, considering their nomadic lifestyle barbaric, as our guide Dr. Pat Lanyasunya, a member of the Africa LIFE Network, explained.

Danielle met with about twenty-five members of the pastoralist community in Samburu

Danielle met with about twenty-five members of the pastoralist community in Samburu (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

One of the most serious problems we heard about was the effects that replacing indigenous breeds of livestock with mixed breeds of more exotic cattle have had during the drought. These livestock keepers began replacing their indigenous Zebu cattle with mixed breeds about 15 years ago after missionaries introduced them to the community. While the new breeds were bigger and could potentially produce more meat or milk, they aren’t as hardy as native cattle that can travel long distances without much water. According to one of the community elders, the “old breeds could go 40 kilometers (for food and water) and come back,” but the new breeds can’t tolerate the distance or the heat. In the past, water sources could be much farther away and the cattle could thrive, but now they need to be much closer.

That’s one reason different pastoralist communities sometimes clash—when cattle can’t travel far for water, livestock keepers have to find it elsewhere, often at sites that are traditionally used by different communities. A man wearing a Harley-Davidson hat along with his Maasai shawl acknowledged that although they fight with other communities over resources, “they’re just like us,” trying to survive with very little support from the government or NGOs. And the conflict has not only impacted the raising of livestock, but also forced schools to close and created more internally displaced people as they are driven off the land.

What surprised me most about these livestock keepers is their understanding that the world is changing. They know that many of their children won’t live the same kind of lives that their ancestors lived for centuries. Many will choose to go to the cities, but they said if their children become ”landed,” they want them to maintain links to the pastoralist way of life. And they said that for some of them, livestock is what they do best and what they have a passion for—and that they should be allowed to continue doing it.

Dr. Lanyana and Dr. Wanyama (a member of our Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group) are working with this community and others like them to make sure their rights—and needs—aren’t ignored.

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