Seeing Pastoralism 1: “Everything has changed, even the way we die”

This post is the first in a series highlighting the photo exhibition, Seeing Pastoralism, which explores how pastoralists understand and respond to uncertainty. In this post, we focus on Borana in southern Ethiopia.

Borana forms a zone within the Oromia region of southern Ethiopia, on the border with Kenya. Far away from the war engulfing the northern area of the country, Borana’s pastoralists still face uncertainty of a different kind. With the recent drought in the region, thousands of livestock died putting major stress on those who are dependent on livestock and their produce.

PASTRES PhD candidate, Masresha Taye, is conducting research in the area, focusing on the role of insurance in mitigating risk and generating resilience among Borana pastoralists. For our new online exhibition, Seeing Pastoralism, he brought together pictures and stories from those he has met. His research also using Photovoice, where pastoralists themselves took pictures and created narratives about their lives (explore the Photovoice pictures and stories here).

Changing pastoralism in Borana

Pastoralism is rarely static, it is continuously evolving to meet the needs of individuals and communities. In Gomole, Borana, there are signs of pastoralists making changes to their livelihoods, especially moving from livestock rearing to farming. Within peoples’ homes one can find attire and utensils that were once used for the practice of livestock rearing, but are now used in other ways, for example as household decorations.

Political uncertainty is also evident in Borana. Between 2015 and 2018 protests took place amongst the Oromo peoples of Ethiopia, in which they brought to the fore long standing grievances with the state. The Gada flag, represented by white, red and black colours, and the Oromo political resistance flag of green, red and some yellow, has been painted onto homes. Local officials are known to target people with these flags, but pastoralists are prepared to face the consequences of their resistance.

Doyo, a 62 year old pastoralist from Borana, gives a clearer insight into how diverse uncertainties are approached.

“We sniff opportunities, and we grab them. We are pragmatic. We are not pastoralists by choice; rather, we know it is vital in such environmental conditions. That does not mean we should stick with it [pastoralism] when things change, we should look for ways of supporting it. I know the environment will fail me if not now, maybe next year, so I invest in different forms of supporting livelihood through livestock.”

New investments to confront uncertainty can take the form of modern agronomic practices. Previously, the risk of rain failure was a major stress for Borana pastoralists. For a week or so Yabello, the zonal capital, would see a rush of agro-pastoralists leasing tractors in order to utilise the short rains in order to plant. However, rainfall is inconsistent these days, with floods destroying crops and killing animals in 2019.

As public infrastructure expands in Ethiopia, Borana and other pastoral areas in the country are under threat, generating uncertainties around land use. Borana University was was built on land that served pastoralists as a dry season pasture reserve, which is also used for sporadic farming. Locals feared that more land could be taken and distributed in the name of investment, so in response they worked with the local administration to distribute land to selected members of the community, who were then able to build houses for rent, shops or other business.

As the photographs highlight, through a range of strategies pastoralists, individually and collectively, respond to a wide range of risks and uncertainties.

Explore the exhibition

For more on pastoralism in Borana, and to explore the other PASTRES research sites, visit the exhibition site at Seeing Pastoralism.

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