How Kenya’s pastoralists find resilience on the move

Written and presented by Dr Greta Semplici

‘Resilience’ is a buzzword in research and policies that aim to support people who are vulnerable. It’s commonly used to refer to the capacity of people, groups or institutions to prepare for surprises, shocks and disasters, in ways that might allow them to bounce back or recover effectively.

But the concept of ‘resilience’ has been controversial. It’s been used to shape models or action plans without proper reflection on what it means. For example, relying too much on ‘building resilience’ might come at the expense of understanding and resisting injustice or marginalisation. ‘Resilience’ might also mean very different things in different contexts, and the meaning may change depending on your perspective.

PASTRES researcher Greta Semplici has been studying what resilience means from the perspective of pastoral communities in drylands, in the context of everyday life. Dr Semplici’s doctoral thesis involved doing long-term work with the herders of Turkana, in northern Kenya. The experiences of these pastoralists challenge conventional ideas about resilience.

Turkana County is a place of ‘resilience making’ for the international community. Threatened by recurrent droughts, security issues, and precarious living, the area is the perfect laboratory for international organisations interested in ‘building resilience’ to shocks and disasters. As such, it’s also worthy of study that aims to bring a more grounded, nuanced, and rooted understanding of resilience in drylands.

Dr Semplici’s research shows that mobility plays a fundamental role in the lived experiences of Turkana herders: it is an integral part of everyday life. This challenges conventional ideas about resilience that focus on ‘equilibrium’ and ‘bouncing back’.
Instead, Dr Semplici argues that mobility—in its many manifestations, as a quality of space, as something people do, as an aspect of identity—allows for more fluid, dynamic, and kaleidoscopic accounts of peoples’ lives in an ever-changing and highly uncertain world. She proposes that mobility can be the site where resilience takes root. Thinking more deeply about mobility can help to produce a richer understanding of the relationships between resilience, drylands, and pastoralism.

To learn more, watch a lecture by Dr Semplici hosted by the Centre for Society, Technology and Development (STANDD) at McGill University in March 2021.

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