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Pastoralism in Northern Kenya: A Lifestyle under Threat

By Abdi Golo


The pastoral way of life is dying a slow death. Pastoral communities make up around 60 per cent of the northern Kenya population. The majority of pastoralists are in the North eastern Kenya. Their livelihood mainly depends on herding livestock, good rains and pasture. Now we are seeing this way of life coming under threat because of recurrent droughts, environmental degradation and livestock depletion.

Pastorals rely on livestock as a source of income and sustenance. They mainly herd goats, sheep, camels and cattle. Male camels, donkeys and horses are used for transport only. Camels and horses determine the economic rank of a herder family while the number of male members of an extended family identifies each family’s political, and social status.

Few communities in Northern Kenya practice semi-pastoralism. Majority are both camel and cattle herders. Semi -pastoral communities supplement their way of life with rain-fed farming during rainy seasons. They produce sorghum, millet, corn and beans. Yet this is becoming increasingly difficult because of lack of good rains and environmental degradation in recent years.

I was born to a pastoral family in Griftu that roamed between Hadado, Matho, Dela, Eldas, Buna, Qoroto and Arbajahan. We crisscrossed the vast Northern Kenya. My immediate family did not own camels except one or two for transport; therefore, we did not venture into the wilderness so much unless a severe drought compelled us to do.

In those days, many of the daring pastoral families moved around within areas that predominantly had lions, such as the Mathow, Arbajan, Buna and Habaswein. These areas had plenty of pasture which consisted of a variety of acacia forests but water points were scarce and far from each other. Camel herds stayed 30 days without water while being driven to a water point for two days, keeping camels thirsty for 32 days. Goat and sheep herding families stayed closer to water points; their animals surviving 15 days without water during dry seasons.

Although life was difficult for herders because they had to deal with wildlife such as lions attacking both livestock and humans, grasslands and acacia forest species flourished and plant extinction was not a concern.

Historically, during the colonial era, the British colonial authorities introduced boreholes, dams and underground rain water collection points made of cement. Livestock trade found sizeable local markets in Nairobi and locally. As a result, pastoralists with a good amount of herds sold livestock to urban livestock traders. With this extra cash they were able to increase their herds and overcrowding the water points, causing desertification around permanent water points and fueling the rising inter-clan wars over the diminishing resources.

Out of the borehole and Dams proliferation, villages emerged and grew into towns. This only accelerated the desertification in the making. Very few schools and health facilities came out of these new centers. Only boys went to schools and got menial jobs as assistants to the colonial elites for the first 30 years. Until today women make the biggest jobless and illiterate lot among northern Kenya Somalis. However, there were now signs this is changing.

The pastoral way of life became the economic engine as it continued to flourish, consuming the fragile landscapes. The first casualty was the wildlife. As grazing dwindled when livestock was raised, DDT (Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane) and similar sprays and powders were introduced to the pastoral environment in order to keep the multitude of livestock herds safe from ticks. The DIP was very common and managed by veterinary departments (one is still in Griftu town). Lions and other predators fell to metal traps introduced by the colonial masters. When a lion killed a camel, poisonous powders were put on the carcass and left for all predators, vultures dying in great numbers. Wild beasts as well as various kinds of deer disappeared. Also, more wildlife fell due to colonial masters hunting game for sport.

So far no research or study counts the cost urban centers inflicted on the pastoral way of life. Billions of forest plants fell due to charcoal production, forests burned for cooking energy consumed by city dwellers. In addition, countless trucks crisscrossing the new desert made by forest clearing and heavy trucks replacing he-camels, for transport among pastoral communities has inadvertently created channels for rain water. The waters flowing through the channels are taking the top soil, animal droppings and seeds carrying it all away to the seasonal rivers, making the fastest growing desert.

To be fair to the colonial powers, they put into place a forest and grassland protection system as desertification reared its ugly head. Major droughts occurred such as Abar wayne in 1974 but there were only one or two failed rainy seasons once every ten to fifteen years. Forest rangers were created to protect the environment and the Department of Forestry was established.

A small number of trained forest rangers were trained but could not effect positive change on their own. However, some pastoral communities who did experience range land management through Griftu pastoral training supported the new department and its initiatives. They sent messages to the government’s closest stations and their rangers when they spotted environmental destruction or abuse. The government and the pastoral communities learned to cooperate along the lines of environmental protection concerning forest plants and grasslands. Not much attention was given to the wildlife.

Unfortunately, charcoal production became the only cooking energy available for the towns and villages. The colonial government used this wealth of timber and dry wood for cooking energy, yet they continued harvesting live trees for construction of towns, where the British administrators were stationed.

As wildlife population decreased and livestock increased, ticks carried and housed by wildlife attacked livestock more and presented new animal diseases. Thus, DDT became more in use and animals were dipped in a pool of water and DDT mixture few times a year. Since becoming aware, the pastoralists started using other chemicals/medication such as CHLORFENVINPHOS, AMIRAZ and CYERMETHRIN and have moved away from DDT during the last few years.

After independence
In 1964, independent Kenya was born out of the British protectorates, governance systems put in place by foreign colonizers continued to work unchanged for the first five years. Corruption increased as two systems merged. Many weaknesses and loopholes were exploited by greedy politicians.

Integrating the two previous systems of governance was not executed cohesively. Voters were not very educated and put all their trust in these so called freedom fighters who would become these politicians. The latter also had little education and were not very experienced in governance. Thus they fell back into the very systems that they hated under the British.

Charcoal production pushed dry firewood close to exhaustion. More and more pastoral families who had one or two family members who worked in the city or had businesses bought trucks to move their families close to new pastures.

Pastoral communities competed for pasture against charcoal burners. Unfortunately, the pastoral families found their own pastoral youth introduced to Miraa (Kenyan term for khat, leafy Catha edulis plant that is considered a drug), tobacco/cigarettes and other urban habits not at all conducive to the pastoral way of life; the pastoral culture got poisoned by their urban cousins and Pastoral youth got attracted to urban centers.

Pastoralists who have seen their way of life to be no longer sustainable have had to seek alternative livelihoods and have been forced to become pastoral dropouts, often moving to urban settings. This has especially affected pastoral youth. As they get a taste for urban night life, Western clothing, movies, they also come with the resilience, strength, tactics and knowledge in their roles as protectors of the clan.

Thus, the male pastoral youth have become a ready for hire pool and attracted Clan war lords, and ideological armed politicians. These idle men also fall prey to fundamentalist militia who wish to use their zeal for weapons as a way to push forward their ideology.

Female youth also trickled to towns and fell into the millions of under-employed in shanty town businesses where they experience extreme poverty. Their situation does not attract NGOs (local or international), UN agencies and in general, they receive little or no sympathy from others. Therefore, they suffer alone and die unnoticed or ignored. In general, due to the weak infrastructure, unemployment among the urban youth is high. Thus pastoral youth who move to urban settings looking for employment opportunities are often unsuccessful.

The pastoral way of life is becoming extinct. The lifestyle of pastoralists is under threat due to various factors that include cyclic droughts and environmental degradation caused by climate change. Pastoral dropouts are attracted to crimes as they are forced to seek out alternative livelihoods. The environment is key to their survival and its conservation could enable pastoralists get a new beginning, a return to maintain their lifestyle.

Abdi Mohamed Golo hails from Northern Kenya but currently lives in Toronto-Canada. He can be reached at

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NepJournal is a progressive media initiative that aims to serve as the leading space where North Eastern Kenya’s leading thinkers, analysts and writers provide you, our readers, with new perspectives on all issues affecting the region. We aim to publish daring perspectives with original content, and beautifully written pieces, to give voice to writers and thinkers so as to inform, educate and empower our people.

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