Changing Customary Land Use in Turkana 

by Jeremy Lind  

The scenery became more and more dreary as we advanced.  The barren ground was strewn with gleaming, chiefly red and green volcanic debris, pumice stone, huge blocks of blistered lava and here and there pieces of wood,   Samuel Teleki, 1888, Austrian explorer 

…great expanse of dusty red broken sporadically by dots of green.  Welcome to the land of the living dead,   Daily Nation, 22 November 1999 

The Turkana people of northern Kenya just sit for hours, silent and powerless, waiting for aid as they have lost everything to the drought, BBC World News on-line, 21 April 2000 

Something about the Turkana rangelands in northwest Kenya, colored in alternating shades of yellow, red, and brown, inspires intrigue and a haunting sense of abandon and perversion in many observers. Turkana is violent. Turkana is a victim. Turkana is valorous and vengeful at once. Turkana is typically understood in these ways, a place that is emotional and extreme, and that bears little relation to life in the rest of Kenya and beyond. It is Kenya’s frontier, a place recalled more for its difference and for what does not make sense than for its similarities and for what does. The pejorative metaphors and anecdotes used to represent Turkana are more than entertainment, ‘news’, or a quick and convenient way of understanding an unfamiliar people and place. Rather, they represent a dominant way of seeing and making, of socializing those unfamiliar with the region to accept Turkana as a freak landscape infused with mystery, extremity, and hardship.    

The Turkana environment has long been demonized, primarily by visitors curious with the region’s unusual rangelands and nomadic ways of life. Curiosity about the Turkana environment, communicated through countless anecdotes, is molded in part by fascination, in part by alarm. For most, Turkana epitomizes environmental waste and humanitarian crisis. Turkana’s environments are inhospitable. Its natural resource use systems are incapable. Its people are insecure. Knowledge of the Turkana environment is influenced by similar grandiose leaps in judgment, ones encapsulated in anecdotes that indoctrinate, that frighten, and that agonize.     

It is challenging to locate alternative meanings of the Turkana environment. This is primarily what interested me: how might the Turkana environment appear differently through the eyes of someone familiar with its contours and shapes than through the eyes of someone from someplace greener, say Vermont, Vienna, or Vancouver?  Can there exist multiple ‘realities’ of one place?  Can Turkana exist as something different for a nomadic inhabitant than for an urban adventurer, journalist, or scientist?  Are there meanings of the Turkana environment that go beyond simple judgments of catastrophe and collapse?  Who better to consult than the pastoralist Turkana themselves? 

Constructing agony 

The dangers of alarmist anecdotes are real: they construct agony as a way of life for the region’s predominately nomadic pastoralists. They leave an impression that pastoralists are helpless against the vagaries of nature, and that pastoralism as a way of life is incapable of meeting basic food security needs. This is nowhere more evident than in the media coverage over the past several months of the ongoing drought and food insecurity situation in Turkana. The identity of food security in Turkana has assumed crisis proportions in the media, in part through alarmist descriptions of the Turkana environment. Images of a bleak and barren landscape, isolated and apart from the rest of Kenya, point to the environment as a problem, and by doing so justify representations of famine popularized in the media. Famine complements ideas of Turkana as a “mass trap of starvation, death, deprivation and poverty”, as Kenya’s leading daily, the Nation, describes the region, providing greater impetus to debates surrounding issues of pastoral vulnerability in the region.      

The Nation in particular has actively supported an understanding of Turkana premised on notions of destitution, deprivation, and disaster as a way of life for its people. The Nation introduced its coverage of the Turkana ‘famine’ during the short rains in November of 1999, under the exaggerated headline ‘Agony and death’. A large color picture of a naked young Turkana girl, Aro Koriang, appeared under a bold, large font. It provided the perfect pretext to create Turkana once again as that haunting place, unfamiliar, unknown, and in need. Aro, or “famine girl” as the Nation came to call her, became the poster child for the Nation’s ‘Famine Relief Fund’. The amount raised was updated daily in the Nation. Figures were often accompanied by pictures of Nairobi school children standing with cheques or bags of maize flour bound for Lodwar, Turkana’s administrative center. These images were testimony to the goodwill of Kenya, and to the goodwill of the Nation.    

A March 16 article in the Nation updated Aro’s condition. It explained that Aro was ‘found starving in an arid wasteland’, but had since recovered at Gertrude’s Garden Children’s Hospital in Nairobi, courtesy of the Nation Media Group. The Group’s chief executive, Mr. Wilfred Kiboro, claimed, ‘The recovery of this girl shows what we can achieve if we are committed to alleviating poverty.’ It also shows, although Mr. Kiboro would perhaps be loathe to admit, the power of anecdote, the perpetuation of agony as the popular way that Turkana is understood, and the continuation of dependency approaches to address real problems in Turkana.    

Real tragedies? 

Real food security concerns in the region raise legitimate questions, such as what processes conspire to make pastoralists vulnerable to hunger, what local and non-local systems are in place to mitigate the impacts of hunger, and what further interventions (or non-interventions) may strengthen these systems. A focus on alarming descriptions of the environment serves a strategic purpose in this debate for it suggests that livelihood insecurity in the region is primarily a factor of environmental stress. The allocation of famine relief, irrigation, the drilling of bore holes, and other measures designed to counteract uncertain environmental variables are seen as the most appropriate ways to strengthen Turkana livelihoods. The Nation, for its part, in numerous articles and opinions on the Turkana food security situation, made reference to non-environmental factors, including poor infrastructure in the area to deliver relief supplies, as well as insecurity caused by banditry and cattle raiding. However, the Nation’s unmeasured reference to the ‘tragic’ condition of the Turkana environment slowly indoctrinates people to believe that famine is understandable for the Turkana people, and that tragedy comes with tragedy.     

Perhaps more tragic than any objective or ‘real’ tragedy in the everyday lives of the Turkana is the tragic consequence of our own fascination and fright, and of our implacable need to make uncommon environments and ways of life familiar, predictable, and treatable in our own minds. Transforming livelihoods in Turkana is a key objective of most interventions in the region, including those that distribute famine relief maize and those that promote irrigated agriculture as an investment priority.  Transformation means making livelihoods different, not necessarily making livelihoods better.     

For many, Turkana is an insurmountable problem if it cannot be changed, a place where violence, disorder and danger are more common than not. Investments are subsequently channeled into ways of transforming Turkana, rather than finding ways of sustaining prevailing livelihood systems. It is a place where abandonment of the nomadic pastoral economy is favored over its adaptation and adjustment, and where the ‘powerless’ are empowered through their own self-denigration and through the adoption of different ways of life. 

Self-defeat, self-determination 

Encouragement is left to the Turkana themselves. Although it is more and more difficult to sustain customary drought responses, there is a substantial local commitment to making nomadic pastoralism both a sustainable and secure livelihood option. At least superficially, it may appear that incapability and inadequacy rightly characterize Turkana drought responses. However, the Turkana are not defeated by the challenges posed by recurring drought, nor by insecurity that complicates customary drought coping strategies. Rather, time and again they show their resilience, determination and capacity to innovate new responses to drought.    

In the past, during the akamu, or dry season, south Turkana pastoralists lived and moved in search of water and pasture for grazing livestock in adakar, or small units of one or two families. Each pastoralist grazed his own animals separate from those of others, and at night returned his animals to a separate holding pen. This strategy helped spread grazing pressure and its associated risks over a wider area. In the akiporo, or wet season, pastoralists came together in medium sized units to move in search of grazing resources in the interior Tooma region, or plains. Many resources for grazing are available in this typically arid environment following the seasonal long rains in March and April. Families reunite, and different livestock are grazed near to one another in close proximity to temporary settlements.    

However, beginning in the 1980s, south Turkana pastoralists re-organised their customary land use systems.  Living and moving in adakar had become risky due to the constant threat of violent robbery and death caused by marauding norokos, or armed bandits. Alternatively, pastoralists formed arumurums. These are extensive, designated areas of the range with mutually observed boundaries, in which pastoralists congregate their livestock together, and share responsibility for grazing livestock.  Entrance is tightly regulated and determined by the arumurum leader, a mutually respected elder man from within the community. Animals are grazed in larger congregations, and at night return to larger fortified pens that hold the livestock of many families. Guards patrol the periphery, and are instructed in their movements by the arumurum leader. For the time being, the formation of arumurums is the most prominent local strategy for responding to insecurity. At the same time, these sustain customary drought responses in the absence of other supportive measures.    

To many, particularly conservationists, arumurums are viewed as environmentally destructive, and a further proof that nomadic pastoral livelihood systems are not sustainable or viable in contemporary Kenya. It could be argued that grazing livestock in larger units is a mal-adaptation of past systems for managing environmental limitations, which were centered on splitting herds within and between families. Many might quickly conclude that arumurums will inevitably lead to localised environmental degradation. Arumurums could also be seen as an ineffective security measure by grouping greater numbers of animals in one place. However, arumurums prolong individual and ‘household’ participation in the pastoral livestock economy by making areas of the range safe for grazing. As a temporary measure to contend with insecurity, they provide an additional means of dealing with risk, and prevent pastoralists from falling out of reciprocal networks that individual herders depend on to rebuild herds following drought. Arumurums, despite their clear disadvantages, are perhaps less a degradation of the traditional pastoral land use system than they are an innovation.    

Ultimately, the Turkana need the liberty to make their own decisions, as well as the self-determination to realize their own ideas of human and natural resource development apart from what is prescribed or reasoned to best for them by outside policy makers, legislators, researchers, and charitable and other non governmental organisations.  Norokos, poverty, preventable disease, and drought complicate the ability of many pastoralists to make decisions independent of outside assistance. However, these obstacles are less emergencies than they are manageable challenges (as the Turkana demonstrate in setting up arumurums), which may be worked through with commitment and determination, rather than through quick relief, and through understanding Turkana more as a familiar than as a freak, and as do-able rather than insurmountable. 

Beyond agony and anecdote 

Standing before a map made to illustrate the current wet season, a group of elder women in Loperot location in south Turkana responded forcefully when asked to explain different features on the map. Two parallel lines consisting of sticks and leaves represent the Kalapata River, the women motion. Sticks are trees and leaves are grass.  Rocks piled to represent a nearby mountain, Lokone, are dressed with more leaves. Here the animals are taken to graze, the women add. Beyond the concentration of sticks, leaves, and palm fronds along rivers and on mountains, the remaining areas of the map are littered with pieces of carefully placed twigs and other greenery. During the akiporo, grazing resources can be found everywhere, including the typically arid plains, they say. Now asked how the map would look different if it were made for the akamu, several women quickly clear the area of the map representing the plains of all vegetation and sticks.  All that remains are the concentration of sticks and leaves along rivers and on mountains. 

In similar focus group meetings in south Turkana in June and July of 1999, Turkana pastoralists communicated the power of landscape through the making of maps, and through the sharing of ideas of an environment long discredited.  Pastoralists in south Turkana communicate an environment that is different from conventional, alarmist testimonies popularised elsewhere. Their idea of the environment is neither harsh nor homogenous. They articulate a highly dynamic landscape cut by numerous seasonal small streams and rivers, and framed by mountains, with these diverse habitats supporting substantial reserves of trees and pasture. Water, mountains, pastures, trees, markets, insecurity and conflict are all parts of the environment that the Turkana describe, as are change and uncertainty. As they describe it, the environment is heterogeneous from one mountain or riverbed to the next, as well as one season or year to the next.  When asked how the plains appear in the dry season, a young man confided, ‘On the plains there is nothing, only sunshine.’ Asked how the plains appear in the wet season, two women assuredly maintained, ‘Alakarabon’, or ‘there is only happiness’. 

Turkana pastoralists are intimately familiar with this landscape. Their familiarity is manifest in a situated knowledge of where to move for specific needs, such as where to graze milking goats, where to collect medicinal plants, where to find weapons of defense, or where to find safety from bandits. Moves are highly strategic and planned according to a host of factors, including the availability of pasture, water and trees, areas of insecurity, and market opportunities. They are familiar with both the doings and the makings of the environment. 

Importantly, the Turkana do not view the landscape as an undifferentiated level plain. Rather, the ‘plain’ has many ‘ups and downs’, as the Turkana see it, both in the literal sense, as in the topography of the land, as well as figuratively, such as fluctuations in the market price of livestock products, in climate, and in settlement patterns. First impressions may leave the idea that the south Turkana environment is degraded or harsh. Turkana pastoralists imagine the environment differently, with multiple risks and opportunities associated with different locations in the environment and to different times. The dynamic understanding of the environment they impart offers invaluable lessons for those of us trying to manage change, uncertainty and vulnerability in arid lands like Turkana. 

On a short walk through the bush outside of Lokichar, a permanent settlement on the main Turkana road, I could ‘see’ the environment that Turkana pastoralists described.  The sand was coarse, cutting into the soles of my feet, a constant reminder of grit and discomfort with each step. The sun reached everywhere, like tentacles, stinging the nape of my neck, bleaching the bark of an acacia tree, reaching underneath stones and volcanic rock. The environment was otherwise ‘soft’, the terrain rising up and down in quick succession as I walked down and across the embankment of one river to the next, and up the slopes of a rapidly rising hill. The vegetation grew dense nearer to streams and rivers. From the top of a hill I observed the variability and micro-level differences in the environment that the Turkana spoke of. The landscape here was rocky, smooth, rising, flat, vegetated, bare, brown, red, green, yellow, the distant ridge of mountains to the west indigo, and the horizon in all directions was uneven and rough. Sitting here above a varied Turkana, wonderful with different colors, lines, and shapes, the words of the two Turkana women came to mind, ‘Alakarabon’. 


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