Seeing Pastoralism 3: I Exist Because You Exist

This is the third post in our Seeing Pastoralism series, drawing on materials from a new online exhibition that draws on PASTRES research.

This week, we focus on the stories of the Waso Borana pastoralists of Northern Kenya. Tahira Shariff’s research has explored how the ‘moral economy’ practiced by these pastoralists has changed over time, and their varying responses to uncertainty.

In 1975, anthropologist Gudrun Dahl began her ethnographic studies on the social and economic situation of Waso Borana pastoralists. Tahira’s research draws on this study and asks how things have changed between 1975 and the present day.

In particular, Tahira has looked at moral economy – the systems of obligations between pastoralists, based on values and shared understandings of mutual aid and exchange.

Between 1975-2020, major transformations have taken place in pastoral livelihoods, which can be seen in settlement patterns, the growth of towns, population rise, improved transport, better communication networks and expanding markets. All of these changes and developments affect the uncertainties that households experience and need to manage.

Despite these changes, a variety of collective solidarities, based on redistributing and exchanging livestock or labour, have remained central in pastoralist life.

For example, traditionally mothers would weave fibres (dase) to cover new homes for their children who were getting married. This would be done with the support of other women in the community. Nowadays, new houses are constructed with iron sheets and furnished with modern furniture, which is more costly than the traditional dase. As a result, people commonly hold fundraisers and pre-wedding harambee (pulling together) among the community as a support structure.

Responding to the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has also shown how pastoralists in Isiolo respond to uncertainty. Despite the uncertainty and problems caused by Covid-19 for many communities, pastoralists have turned variability into opportunity.

During the pandemic, a new labour force emerged, which locals have dubbed the ‘corona herders’. Parents have allowed young boys and girls, absent from school lessons, to help look after livestock, which has relieved the strains on family labour. The ‘corona herders’ have taken up a traditional role that was lost to modern education.

However, not all communal resources have been successfully maintained. Nura spoke to Tahira about the Duse Water Pan. The Duse Water Pan was meant to be communally managed with a water tank for human use, a water trough for livestock, and public washrooms. However, because some in the community do not want to pay a management fee, the pan has deteriorated and can no longer be used as a water source.

Nura explained:

“The pan can provide water for almost four months if managed properly, but now due to a lack of hygiene it gets contaminated within a month or two. The water changes colour and starts to smell. Even the livestock do not want to drink from it anymore. We are afraid that such misuse will bring cholera and other disease. We need proper management of the pan, but people do not want to pay as they believe everything in the rangelands is free.”

Acacia trees are another asset in the rangelands which is being neglected. Historically, the Acacia tree has held a special place in the life of pastoralists and community members alike. Many pastoral towns are named after Acacia trees, and pastoralists used them for keeping beehives. On sunny days, they provide decent shelter for livestock and herders.

However, Acacia trees are now being cut down to be burned for charcoal. Ralia, a pastoralist, has called for education on the importance of the Acacia tree. As Ralia points out, ‘charcoal benefits an individual once, but the Acacia serves the entire dryland population’.

Explore the exhibition

For more images and stories from Isiolo, and to explore the other PASTRES research sites, visit the exhibition site Seeing Pastoralism.

Previous posts in this series:

Seeing Pastoralism 2: Dharma on the Left, Conservation on the Right

Seeing Pastoralism 1: ‘Everything has changed, even the way we die’

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