‘I exist because you exist’: The ‘moral economy’ of pastoralists’ in response to COVID-19

Written by PASTRES PhD researcher Tahira Shariff

As the world struggles to respond to the spread of COVID-19, uncertainties are being confronted at every turn. Standard approaches to disease preparedness and control have not been sufficient to contain the spread of the virus, and the mortality rate continue to rise. Modern interventions that provide ‘fixity’, ‘stability’ and ‘control’ cannot effectively respond to diverse uncertainties across time and space.

Many pastoral areas are beyond state provision of health and social security, and so even standard approaches do not reach such populations.  In these areas, people necessarily will get through the pandemic primarily through mobilising their own connections, resources and responses. This blog asks how can support networks within pastoral communities be mobilised quickly, and how are these structured to respond to uncertainty?

As a recent PASTRES paper has explained, uncertainty is a condition where people don’t know the likelihood of future outcomes. In pastoral production, uncertainty is everyday business. Uncertainties range from variable rainfall and drought, the possibility of conflict, animal disease and market shocks. Today, we simply don’t know how everything, including the world economy, international travel and health system will stabilise. A new mind-set is needed, and a galvanisation of flexible, adaptable relationships that might help in these turbulent times, allowing us to engage with variability and uncertainty.

Through the current pandemic, across the globe there have been messages of hope and solidarity, the emergence of networks of mutual support, the reawakening of campaigns and the return to religious practices to attain solace. Humanity is redefining itself to try and show each other that ‘I exist because you exist’, creating a new ‘moral economy’ at a time of crisis. The term, ‘moral economy’ can be applied to a wide set of traditional and recently created networks of relations centred on collective and redistributive transfer of values, norms and some forms of solidarity to help people survive. Can moral economies help us survive the pandemic, and can pastoralists help us find a way forward to foster solidarity and collective approaches?

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kenyan government commissioned different measures including closure of schools, a curfew, closing borders and locking up four affected Counties. In addition, some tax relief measures were adopted such as tax waiver for those earning KSh 24,000 (US$240) and below, a 2% cut in VAT and the provisiion of already existing social protection funds.  Although this might be a good move to cushion the wider economy, who do these measures apply to? What other responses are seen, generated on the ground, and particularly in pastoral areas? What lessons can we learn in this  time of uncertainty around collective responses, mutual aid and making use of variability as an opportunity?

Collective responses

Collective responses are key in engaging with variable conditions. If people do not stay at home and follow national health guidelines, then the containment achieved today is not possible. As argued in The Moral Economy of the English Crowd, cooperation and struggle to stand-up for a just and fair world is what is needed.

In pastoral production, collectivity in labour sharing, pasture surveillance and protecting livestock is fundamental. As a pastoralist, when in the evening you find livestock moving in an unsafe place, it becomes your duty to take charge of the livestock and move them to safe place, no matter the distance and the energy required. This means you protect your ‘brother’ from any harm. Simply put, it is being concerned about the well-being of fellow pastoralists. In response to COVID-19, voluntary committees have been established across Isiolo from local villages to county level. These committees include community health volunteers, area chiefs, university students from the region, local elders, youths and women representatives. The region does not have a reliable public health infrastructure therefore people have established a collective network of ‘expertise’ at their disposal to respond to the pandemic.  In one of our research sites, Kinna, the committee cleaned Kinna secondary school and set aside beds for emergency need as the only dispensary in the area cannot meet the needs.  

Mutual aid

When calamities, such as loss of livestock, befall pastoralists, there is quick assistance and the first thing is ‘hirba’ (literally ‘heel’), which means support so that an individual could at least stand up. Among the Borana pastoralists it starts with ‘qulaamo’ (first aid). This is where close relatives contribute to sustain an individual and, later, the larger tribe and clan organise gatherings meant for restocking affected individual. Redistribution ensures that the pastoralist is able to return to pastoral production and they are not left to be destitute.

Owing to closure of borders, curfew and ban on miraa some people have completely lost their livelihood, significantly affecting the pastoral area. In Isiolo, a women’s camel milk group (Anolei) suffered greatly due to closure of access to Nairobi and Eastleigh, their main market. The Anolei coordinator, Abdinoor, stated:

Since this pandemic the cost of transporting 10 litres of milk which was KShs 100 has increased to KShs 150. This is because there are no public buses which we depend on. Due to curfew, we cannot go to the warehouse to transfer milk from cooler to jerricans… now I sleep at the site because the milk is too much and the demand in Nairobi has drastically decreased as Eastleigh is under lock down…. I just have to show some humanity and go out of my way and sleep in the warehouse so that the only available lorries could transport the milk. 

This is a great example of traditional normative values of mutual aid, as embedded in our pastoralist culture, which is paramount in managing uncertainty. Community members are also not left behind in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as a CBO (Kinna Integrated Community Based-Initiative) donated water containers for handwashing in strategic places. Equally, some elders have distributed bags of maize and beans among orphans and vulnerable people whose livelihoods have been affected.

Variability as an opportunity

It is with great hope that we do not live to remember 2020 as pandemic year, but we learn practical and critical lesson of our time. Among the pastoralists, learning through different uncertainties and devising opportunistic responses are key strategies to survive. 

For instance, pastoralists in Kinna in Isiolo County face pasture shortages and Meru farmers sometimes face market failures. Although both groups are in recurrent conflict due to boundary related issues, at the local level they have established relationships, where pastoralists purchase/exchange farmland from their Meru neighbours to provide feed for their livestock. Borana pastoralists can then use the maize farm following the exchange of KShs 10,000 or some cattle. This symbiotic relationship is established to survive different shocks that they both experience.

Can we also learn from COVID-19 as an example of an uncertain event? It is an opportunity to reflect on the plight of persons dealing with everyday uncertainties. Among them are food producers like pastoralists, farmworkers and other rural labourers. They unfortunately were not recognised as ‘essential’ workers but have proved so in the fight against the virus. Today, people are locked up in various regions, staying safe with their families, but rural producers, traders and workers, including in the pastoral areas, are essential service providers who work tirelessly to ensure survival through this period.

As the Borana proverbs goes – ‘borani wali waheela amalle walii wareega’. This literally, means that Boranas are ‘companions’ to each other and ‘feed’ each other. Put in context it refers to the fact that as long as Boranas exist, no any other Borana will go hungry or miss out on protection and companionship. We can learn something from this saying and conclude that in the Borana worldview, ‘I exist because you exist’. Therefore, moral economies and traditional normative values of brotherhood/sisterhood are embedded in the pastoral culture, whereby welfare of others supersedes personal interest.

To conclude, collective mobilisations have always been important for defending human rights against racism, superiority and the colonial mindset. This collectivity has been widely uncovered amongst the human race when responding to the public health crisis and the needs of vulnerable groups during this pandemic. Equally, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in remote places like pastoral areas, shows how diverse ‘moral economy’ practices – new and old – are essential in confronting diseases, and require mobilising together. Drawing from the collective moral economy perspectives of pastoralists, every human matters: refugees, homeless, those affected by climate-related disasters and so on. Connecting and learning from these struggles, and building solidarities together, planet earth will become a safer place for us all to engage with what will always be variable and uncertain conditions.

Photo credit: Suleiman Abdikadir Sama and Nura Edin Boru

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10 thoughts

    1. So far there is only one case reported and the case is imported from Nairobi, so locals are living ‘virus free’ life despite livelihood disruptions. Camel milk is great immune booster but the connection with virus is a grey area for further exploration

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  1. Thanks for this very informative update concerning COVID-19 impacts on your research site.

    I’ve been searching web the last month trying to find similar first-hand accounts of the impacts elsewhere in pastoralist areas of East Africa. If you have heard of reports from other areas in Kenya (the Turkana? Pokot? Samburu? ) or East Africa (the Karamojong? others?), I’m sure I’m not the only reader of the PASTRES blog who would be interested in hearing about them, even if second-hand.

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  2. A concise, factual and logical article describing the social-cultural lifestyle of the wider Oromo people. There exists numerous communal collaborative moral strategies devised since time immemorial to deal with and overcome calamities and disasters like Covid-19. This is for the mutual benefit of all through collective resource mobilization and allocations based on factual priorities and severity of need with the clan domains. Such practices are numerous and can be applied by modern society as a way of equitable resource sharing and empowerment. The writer can research more on pastoralists work dynamics, pasture & rangeland mgt, water resources allocation, organisation of warfare, jurisprudence, ceremonies
    weddings, funerals. Talk about: Iyeessa Goa, buussa gonofa, Aada fuuda, chapa bassaa, badii barbaadha etc. Good reading.

    Like

  3. concise, factual and logical article describing the social-cultural lifestyle of the wider Oromo people. There exists numerous communal collaborative moral strategies devised since time immemorial to deal with and overcome calamities and disasters like Covid-19. This is for the mutual benefit of all through collective resource mobilization and allocations based on factual priorities and severity of need with the clan domains. Such practices are numerous and can be applied by modern society as a way of equitable resource sharing and empowerment. The writer can research more on pastoralists work dynamics, pasture & rangeland mgt, water resources allocation, organisation of warfare, jurisprudence, ceremonies
    weddings, funerals. Talk about: Iyeessa Goa, buussa gonofa, Aada fuuda, chapa bassaa, badii barbaadha etc. Good reading.

    Like

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