Representations of Nomadism

Source: Image from Turkana, Kenya by Greta Semplici

Written by Ariell Ahearn, Giulia Gonzales, Greta Semplici

On Wednesday 10 March 2021, the Commission on Nomadic Peoples (CNP) hosted a two-sessions panel during the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) virtual Inter-Congress (Coming of Age on Earth: Legacies and Next Generation Anthropology), titled Lost in Representation: Changes and Paradoxes in Nomads’ Life. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the panel was well-attended and involved a wide range of papers covering in-depth case studies. The full list of the papers and authors (in order of presentation) is reported at the end of this blog.

The panel was chaired by Giulia Gonzales and Greta Semplici, while Riccardo Ciavolella, director of  l’Institut interdisciplinaire d’anthropologie du contemporain (IIAC Paris), acted as discussant. The panel was inspired by an earlier article by Ciavolella titled “Alteropolitics or alterotopies: A critique of nomadology with reference to West African Fulbe” (2016) which sought to question contemporary representations of “nomads” as trapped in the exoticized image of anarchists, barbarians or evaders of overarching political systems. The conveners opened the panel with reflections on the past several years of efforts to address epistemological approaches to, and representation of, mobile pastoralists and mobile peoples as “nomadic”, including the recently published special issue (volume 24, number 2) “Methodological Mess: Doing Research in Contexts of High Variability” in the journal of Nomadic Peoples.  Deleuzian Nomadology studies were introduced as a provocation for the panellists to reflect on while exploring representations of “nomadic groups” by drawing on ethnographically informed cases. Many were the themes challenged by the contributors to the panel.

As a pivotal point of nomadism, mobility takes great prominence in the public imagination of the nomads’ lives. The panelists questioned mainstream narratives of mobility as representative of the nomads’ lives. They showed how forms of spatiality cannot be reduced to the simple categories of nomadism or sedentarism (Maru), nor their mobility can be essentialised to a livelihood need or trait of their identity (Fotta and Chritoiu). Rather, mobility can take many forms and be also expressed in terms of connections (Gonzales, Ancey et al., Lunacek), modification and re-articulation of everyday practices, knowledge (Grasso) and ritual life (Marmone).

The panelists in different ways also questioned assumptions about nomads’ isolation from “the outside world” (Khazanov 1994). Fotta and Chiritoiu for example compared the case of Romani populations in Romania and Calon in Brazil. They showed that the use of the term nomad or nomadism reflects different types of state actions, such as protection in Romania and segregation in Brazil. At the same time, the authors showed how the communities themselves engage and respond to political, social, and economic changes that revolve around those actions. Often such interaction occurs through the role of “mediators” who may originally be from the communities but have married outside and present themselves as representatives of both realities, within and without the community.

A similar role of mediation is played by elite and professional associations in Burkina Faso, who serve as political brokers for youth migrants from pastoral communities. Véronique Ancey, who presented the paper co-written with Sergio Magnani and Charline Rangé, unraveled normative narratives about youth migration, including resource depletion and climate change and the notion of idle pastoralist youths at the core of insurgent groups. Their paper highlighted the ways in which youth mobility, rather than an exit from pastoralism, is an important part of the wider pastoral economy and networks of relationships that span multiple locations, in contrast to stereotyped representations of isolated nomads living in remote areas.

Challenging views of pastoralists as passive victims of state actions, Maru’s paper showed, through the case of the Rabari in the Katch district of Gugarat, the dialectical nature of their relationship with the state. The households described by Maru have diversified livelihoods beyond pastoralism and occupy multi-ethnical villages without a discrete territorial autonomy. Maru demonstrated that, despite recent major development projects including private industry and commercial agriculture, pastoralist households were nonetheless able to benefit from emerging opportunities by mobilising various identities, including caste, to selectively act and interact with the state.

Lunacek’s presentation also showed the proactive ways emplaced by pastoral communities to interact with the State and benefit from emerging opportunities. She probed the connection between the growth of administrative villages in Niger and local politics of control and access to resources such as schools. These forms of local politics are rooted in the histories of pastoral practices and typologies of land’s appropriation in the region, recently affected by uranium mining concessions, private ranching, urbanisation, and goldmining. The paper highlighted the heterogeneity of such practices and paths that communities take in negotiating with the state, hindering simple categorisations of such acts as “nomadic”.

Gonzales’s paper similarly investigates the complex relationship with State apparatuses. Through the case of Kel Tamasheq in Mali, she showed the co-existence between a nomadic identity, and the willingness of her interlocutors to be integrated into the State, rather than evade it, through educational institutions and employment in state bureaucracies. By considering vernacular translations of the term “nomad”, which do not properly correspond to the latter, local politics and growing inequalities, the paper argues that by leaning on ‘nomadology’ it would be possible to observe only emic representations of nomadic peoples, while emerging realities of integration into state’s structure and growing multiscaled marginalisations would pass unnoticed.

Isolation and distinction between nomads and the urban world are challenged by Marmone’s ethnomusicologist reading of pop performances among the Samburu of Northern Kenya. He showed the harmonisation of educated young men into traditional performance spaces. In the 2010s, Samburu pop musicians began to employ traditional techniques, choreography and the Samburu language in their work. Marmone explained that with the adoption of cell phones, a new type of music circulation was enabled allowing for wider sharing of ritual musical practices across generational cohorts and diverse social worlds.

Finally, Grasso’s paper showed the existing efforts put in place through a multi-disciplinary health project in North Kenya to integrate scientific meteorological knowledge with indigenous understandings of the environment and weather conditions. Despite difficulties emerging from different languages (English, Swahili and Gabra) and different worldviews, the outcome of these efforts is to strengthen existing relationship, improve development practices, and contribute to the re-articulation of knowledge of both development experts and local communities, both benefiting from the incorporation of the respective perspectives and point of views. 

Overall, the panel covered several interrelated themes which included a range of dualities (inside/outside; traditional/modern; mobile/fixed; urban/rural) rooted in the nomadology heritage. In each talk these dualities were deconstructed or unpacked to reveal nuanced and complex socio-spatial dynamics in the lives of mobile peoples today. The panelists brought evidence of the many different existing relationships that exist between states, market institutions, and, “nomadic peoples” and showed the relevance that such connections have for today’s analysis of the world. At the core of such relationships lies, then, the art of negotiation: the possibility to have access to different connections and the ability to navigate them properly. Such art, as Ciavolella noted, is an act of translation, of mediating between different worldviews and of changing them accordingly. Understanding such transformations is essential to comprehend contemporary worlds. To do so, lasting representations of the “nomad” can shed light over patterns of collective self-representations but they do not suffice to comprehend different types of mobilities and current relationships with the state or the global market.

Panel 1:

  • Reflections on Anthropological Productions and Representations of ‘the Nomad’: The case of Kel Tamasheq in Bamako, by Giulia Gonzales
  • A Comparative Anthropology of Circulation: the Sociality of ‘Nomadism’ Among Brazilian Calon and Romanian Rom by Martin Fotta and Ana Chiritoiu
  • The Alter-Temporalities of Pastoral Mobility: The Case of Rabari Pastoralists of Western India by Natasha Maru

Panel 2:

  • Sedentarisation, Decentralisation and Access to Resources: Administrative Villages in the North of Niger by Sarah Lunacek
  • Pastoralist Youth in Towns and Cities: Mobility Patterns in Times of Crisis and Governance in Burkina Faso by Sergio Magnani, Charline Rangé, and Véronique Ancey
  • From Marginality to Ritual Authority: How Pop Music is Transforming the Status of Young Educated Men Among the Samburu by Giordano Marmone
  • Observation, Measurement and Knowledge: Operationalising One Health Among Nomadic Pastoral Communities in Northern Kenya by Erika Grasso

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