By Oliver Noonan
The Shalom Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation works with pastoralists communities across East Africa. Shalom supports them in two ways: firstly by enhancing their skills of managing conflict in the region so they continue to practice their traditional way of life – and secondly by supporting development initiatives which allows them access to basic human needs.
The Organisation of African Union defines pastoralism as “high reliance on livestock as a source of economic and social wellbeing and various types of strategic mobility to access water and grazing resources in areas of high rainfall variability” – which aptly describes the traditional livelihood and environment of pastoralist communities in northwestern Kenya. Although changes are occurring in many aspects of life for them such as culture, economics and politics – these traditional nomadic herders of goats, cattle and camels are still resolute in adhering to their lifestyle. There are estimated, according to the OAU, over 268 million pastoralists in Africa, living on 40 percent of the land mass, residing in over 21 countries. In Kenya, 80 percent of the land is arid or semi-arid, populated by one third of the nation and housing 70 percent of the national herd. The Government of Kenya in 2010 estimated that the largest livestock populations were held by the Turkana and Pokot communities.
Most of this land, ‘arid and semi-arid’, is unsuitable for agricultural production, subject to low and unpredictable rainfalls coupled with frequent droughts and covered with assorted vegetation. The geographical homeland of the Turkana and Pokot is one of the most uninhabitable areas in Africa, with unpredictable rainfall and where agriculture is a very unreliable source of income. Indeed, considering the terrain and climate of these semi-arid lands that pastoralism still remains the best option for ‘land management’ in these areas. Experts believe that pastoralism is “a very clever way of converting the otherwise useless resources of the drylands” and that pastoralism itself is a form of adaptation to the environment of semi-arid lands and has proved successful over many hundreds of years. The life of the pastoralist is linked to activities they must undertake to access resources which entails cooperation with other ethnic groups, overcome the neglect by state institutions and a “negative discourse” regarding their way of life.
The colonial governments created boundaries and in responding to the pastoralists used repressive force to disrupt the traditional practices in the movement of animals to wetlands and returning to drylands at specific times in the year. Pastoralists found themselves divided by new state borders where their movements were restricted, where traditional pathways and migratory routes were blocked by international boundaries – yet the colonialists often let the pastoralists administer their own affairs, but intervened only in the returning of stolen animals. What is significant to the pastoralist’s communities of East Africa is that as boundaries were created, the tensions and flashpoints for conflict increased. Coupled to this was the manipulation and division created by the colonialists in protecting their own interests in the region contributing to the confusion and disruption of a nomadic pastoral lifestyle.
Studies rightly point to the indifference of governments and particular in Kenya that there is to the way of life of the pastoralists, by not acknowledging them and supporting their way of life. It is true to say that agricultural projects which promote food security and there have been many, have had limited success in semi-arid terrains – many of the responses by both governments and some NGOs is to impose solutions from outside, to the detriment of recognizing the admirable adaptations and innovations which characterizes the pastoralists. There are numerous challenges to the pastoral regions of East Africa such as poverty, environmental degradation, low rainfall which are compounded by ineffective interventions which if anything often exacerbate the situation. The OAU states: “the persistence of poverty in pastoral communities relates to the inability of most African countries to satisfy the basic needs of the pastoral communities.”
It is clear that rather than looking at ways at trying to change the life of pastoralists, perhaps there is a need to focus on what can be done to enhance, support and acknowledge the life of pastoralists and to address their basic human needs. Pastoralism is not going to go away, nomadic movements across East Africa are part of the life of the region. Building local capacities in the different communities to engage with each other to manage conflicts, resources rights, empowering women’s roles as leaders in communities and promoting education will by far create a more just society. By collaborating with the pastoralist communities, Shalom looks at creating these strategies/interventions to address and prevent conflicts in order for these communities of East Africa to enjoy the freedom and security to practice their traditional life.