No Home On The Range
issue 238 - December 1992
PETER CHARLESWORTH / PANOS
No home on the range
The nomads of the Horn are caught between drought and
an unsympathetic state - John Galaty tells their story.
In the space of 200 kilornetres north of Nairobi the lush highland farms give way to vast wheatfields, the fields to dry lowland plains, the plains to bush and finally the bush to desert.
It's June 1992 and once again the rains have failed. Boulders, volcanic gravel, stunted thorn amidst flows of sand, barren hills, rocky mountains. In the best of times this stem landscape offers rich grazing for the camels, goats and sheep on which the nomads of the Horn of Africa can survive, even thrive. But this is the worst of times. Animals stumble, fall and die before reaching water. People move from distant corners of sparse vegetation to barren settlements where famine relief is a poor substitute for food from their own herds.
Years after we last met I am searching for an old friend. Lughi, with his family, inhabits the borderland between plateau and lowlands, between plains and desert, between the land of cattle and the land of camel and goat. Though he also once owned camels, Lughi now specializes in raising cattle, sheep and goats - whose grazing patterns are more easily co-ordinated. He has waited for us for several days in a small trading centre where he knows we can find him. He's slightly balder and thinner but the same wide smile greets us as we arrive. Though it's late in a hot day we drive another hour down a track to a lonely shop where we leave the vehicle. Then it's two more hours of trekking through dry hills to home - a circle of thornbranches and five squat houses.
But where are the cattle? The cattle are gone. Where is the rest of the family, the neighbours and friends? The last encampment broke up, scattered by drought and wind. Though we have brought food, we are offered hospitality; near-black tea, sweetened and laced with the little goat's milk that remains. The years have not been good to this proud and once rich man. Goats and sheep are the animals of poverty but they are also tokens of hope. They resist drought and are quick to reproduce. Many rich families trade down to goats and sheep as drought progresses, then trade up to cattle when pastures are restored.
Why have they moved westward, from the grassy fringes of the desert, near wet-lands, to these rocky hills? Rendille camel-herders - neighbours, friends and partners of Lughi 's Ariaal community - have been pushed southward due to pressure from their traditional enemies, the camel-herding Gabra. The Gabra occupy the Chabli desert in Kenya and seasonally migrate back and forth from southern Ethiopia. Recently they exchanged animals for guns from refugees fleeing the collapse of the Ethiopian Government. The Rendille have only traditional spears to counter the Gabra's new AK-47s. What used to be low-level skirmishes are now potential massacres.
Civil disorder and insecurity spread across the Horn impacting heavily on pastoral areas and nomadic peoples. With less than 250 millimetres of annual rainfall, the Horn of Africa is in fact an inter-connected extension of the Sahara. This curved belt of low, arid land is inhabited by Cushitic-speaking camel herders; the Beja and the Afar, by Somali-speakers such as the Issa and the Rendille, and by the Oromo-speaking Sakuye and Gabra. They are fiercely independent and owe stronger allegiance to clan and community than to any wider ethnic entity or government. The camel pastoralists have suffered even more from the depredations of drought and the meddling of the state than their cattle-keeping cousins of the Ethiopian and Kenyan highlands.
As early as the fourteenth century the Arabic historian, Ibn Khaldun, described the mutual antagonism between the nomadic and sedentary life. Today the arid-land policy of virtually every Horn government is to encourage nomads to settle. Artificial frontiers have left pastoral communities politically fragmented and vulnerable. Somali-speakers live in four neighbouring states, the Massai in two, and the Borana cattle herders are divided between Ethiopia and Kenya. Fragile drylands are increasingly degraded. Governments, unwittingly or by design, have curtailed the ability of pastoralists to move their herds. The administrators' cure for two problems - land degradation and political control - is proving worse than the disease.
Famine relief-camps are being used as a lure to create permanent villages for pastoralists. In the 1970s this happened to Somali nomads. But concentrating them in arid localities only resulted in serious overgrazing by the remaining animals. Nomads were pressed into fishing co-operatives, despite the fact that Somalis - like most Cushites - traditionally do not eat fish. Arabs and expatriates provided a small, reliable market for fish, but the Somalis fled as soon as their herds had recovered.
In the 1980s impoverished Turkana herders were enticed by the World Food Programme into digging irrigation works in exchange for food. But sites were often inappropriate for local dryland conditions. The Turkana, who were able to rebuild their herds behind the backs of officials, escaped to pastoral camps as soon as they could.
These 'settling' policies stem in part from the view that herding is archaic, even destructive. But in the semi-arid lands of the Horn, pastoralism is the only appropriate way of life. Why then are nomads encouraged, or forced, to settle?
Those with a free-market point of view maintain that settling down provides an incentive for herders to improve their particular parcel of rangeland. Yet ranches given to the Maasai and Samburu proved too small and suffered ecological damage as a result. The quality of their livestock declined when they were prevented from ranging freely. So did the quality of the land they were restricted to. When range-land is subdivided and privatized some of it is inevitably lost to herders. But disillusionment quickly sets in when land-hungry peasants find the land they have gained does not support crops.
Socialists, on the other hand, claim that pastoralists can be better served by social and educational services if they are moved into villages. The hidden agenda here is often one of political control. After the 1974 revolution, land in Ethiopia was nationalized and peasants forcibly uprooted into centralized villages. Some of the most fertile land went to state-owned farms and ranches - where enormous subsidies produced only a small proportion of national output. If villagization failed for the farmers, whose yields quickly fell, it was catastrophic for herders. The quality of the animals crowded around their new villages quickly declined and the surrounding pastureland deteriorated into dustbowls or mudpools.
In September 1990 I travelled through Shoa Province in Ethiopia to see for myself the effects of villagization. The peasants in an association near the town of Ficte were gratified that economic restrictions on marketing and land rental had been lifted but were still bitter about being forced into villages. Previous family residences had had springs nearby, lots of pasture and were close to cultivated fields. Their new situation was much worse. Everyone received less land than before and had to walk much further to get to their fields: travel time of two hours meant arriving as late as midday and leaving by late afternoon. Animals were left with little time to work or graze and their yields plummeted. Weren't there any advantages in moving together into one village? They could see few. They were promised good water, a clinic and a school. But they had better water at home and people had no time for literacy classes after their long walks to their fields.
Much of the suffering endured by the pastoralists of the Horn over the last few decades can be laid at the door of government: too much force used to implement bad policies, too little security offered for their sparsely populated rangelands. The state is the greatest threat to pastoralists today. Aerial bombing of agro-pastoral Dinka people in southern Sudan, forced resettlement of Tigrayan, Afar and Oromo pastoralists in Ethiopia, faction-inspired violence by the Somali dictatorship and atrocities against Somali settlements by Kenya's security forces - all have taken their toll. The history of relations between nomads and the state is a dismal and destructive one.
Governments seem determined to restrict nomadic life within the narrow con- fines of national borders. Policy-makers still see pastoralists as primitive interlopers rather than citizens who can make the most harsh environments productive. In fact they are reliable suppliers of livestock to both internal and international markets. Short-sighted governments are more interested in their own problems than those of the nomad. If the state can do so much harm to nomads, perhaps it could also do some good. It could guarantee access to water and pasture and realistic prices for livestock. It could secure the peace and protect against banditry.
Since the state offers little to herders like Lughi, they ask very little of it. Mostly they want to be left alone. Lughi's contribution to the economy comes when he sells a ram or a goat; to politics when he offers advice in solving local conflicts. He has already sent one son, now in the Kenyan army, to school. A school, a market, a shop, a police post - such institutions could make a difference, but only if he feels they serve him and his community.
At his encampment Lughi and his family hope for rain and peace. His position in the community allowed him to marry a third wife. She has given birth to twins who, though now suckling, will soon depend on the meagre milk his small herd of goats produces. Their future well-being lies not in making them something else, part of a permanently impoverished settled world, but in securing their place among those who make the arid lands productive.
John Galaty teaches anthropology at McGill University, Montreal.