Drought / East Africa / Kenya / Knowledge and Information / Opinion piece / Pastoralism

Obsession with a bull, and related matters

Dinka Cattle Camp at Sunset

A Dinka cattle camp at sunset in Abyei, Sudan (photo credit: UN photo/Tim McKulka).

Here’s an interesting essay on the nature of human-livestock relations. It starts with a story of Emong, a Turkana herder, and his obsession with a bull, and quickly moves on to the ravages of drought in pastoral regions, Western concepts of nature and animals, the Western angst and alienation those concepts engender, the twinned violation of animals and subjugated peoples, and the recent ‘apartheid’ practices of factory farming and mechanized killing of animals, pointing out along the way where (if not why) poverty intersects with those cultures that continue to blur the boundaries between animal and human, placing high value on the domesticated animal stock that sustains their emotional as well as physical lives.

‘. . . At first sight the dry expanses [of northern Kenya] might seem as remote, primordial and untouched as anywhere on earth. They are not. The vast semi-arid savannahs which herders like Turkana and their cattle traverse is in fact a landscape sculpted by the western ideas of “nature” and “the animal” contained in the development projects of recent history. Northern Kenya can easily be seen as a vast open-air museum of failed development schemes, cluttered with the rusting remains of long forgotten “infrastructure” projects propelled by the core ideas of “development”: irrigation agriculture, fishery and forestry.

‘These projects were designed to wean pastoralists off their reliance on livestock and their nomadic ways which, since early colonial times, have been seen as signs of poverty and primitivism. To become sedentary and agricultural, on the other hand, was a sign of “progress”. It is a bitter twist of fate that the flip-side of that pragmatic colonizing vision was the romantic dream of the pastoral nomad as the noble savage of a “wild, untamed” Africa. As real herders like Emong are now reduced to rural poverty, this romance now drives a world of game parks from which they are excluded.

‘Large swathes of Africa are being privatised and carved up into reserves for wildlife, an altogether more attractive and “natural” spectacle than herds of cattle. European settlers, having appropriated huge tracts of pastoralist land during the colonial era, have now turned their ranches into private conservancies that market themselves globally as friends of the earth, elephants and exotic peoples. The multi-million-dollar safari industry brings in vast tourist revenues, ring-fenced by hard-to-argue-with discourses of ecology and conservationism.

‘For the pastoralists of northern Kenya all this is a disaster. Turkana, Samburu and Borana are being shut out of their pasturelands and reduced to sellers of tourist trinkets. . . .’

Thanks to Luigi Guarino for linking to this essay in his Agricultural Biodiversity ‘ScoopIt’ magazine.

Read the whole essay at the On the Human Forum, an initiative of the National Humanities Center (USA): Animal in mind: People, cattle and shared nature on the African savannah, by Vigdis Broch-Due, professor of social anthropology and international poverty research at the University of Bergen, Norway, 3 Oct 2011.

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