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Livestock herders simply want a livelihood

Wednesday April 26 2017

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Kenyans have read with concern of the unrest in pastoral lands in Kenya.

Pastoralists and ranch owners have been killed and seriously injured. First, Tristan Voorspuy, a retired British Army officer who co-owned Sosian Ranch was killed and more recently, Kuki Gallman, who owns the Laikipia Nature Conservancy, was shot and seriously injured.

What is of interest to me as a Kenyan and anthropologist are the terms and insinuations used to shape the opinion of both the Kenyan public and the international community on an issue that is not going anywhere in this country until someone deals with it: the land question.

The Kenyan Africans affected by this unrest are referred to in the press using very uncomplimentary terms that should worry not only government, but also the rest of us Kenyans.


We read of ‘bandits, armed herdsmen, cattle rustlers, sometimes even poachers, suggesting they are up to no good. Meanwhile, white Kenyans are referred to in very complementary terms: conservationists, land owners, ranchers and tourist lodge owners.

This is an overspill of the pastoralism question and inadequate pastoral lands. Pastoralism is a way of life and a cultural system that must be managed and given a chance to evolve into something acceptable to the people who practice it, while at the same time giving the environment a chance to adapt and blend with this way of life.

The environment is very important, no doubt about that, but pastoralism is not a greedy way of life. It only uses what it needs now and leaves the rest to nature.  The attitude that pastoralism is bad for wildlife conservation is some sort of folly infused into Kenyans by the colonial master, yet we continue to walk around and preach it today like drunkards unable to control their inebriety.

Every human being has a right to self-determination and to make choices about cultural or economic changes, including pastoralists. We cannot shoot them into change over pastoral lands.

I will avoid the issue of how this land got into the hands of the ranchers in the first place because that would be flogging a dead horse, but underneath all this drama is the question of money, economics and livelihoods.


Pastoral communities are often portrayed as living in the back of beyond, where marginalisation, poverty and underdevelopment thrive. But below the surface is a thriving market-oriented trade in livestock. Where do you think those thousands of cattle they want to graze end up? At the local butchery, no?

That is why they will hold to livestock by the thousands even in times of drought and famine. According to the Institute of Development Studies, this trade rakes in millions of shillings and stretches from Kenya to Ethiopia, Sudan, the Middle East and even Kinshasa.

Ranchers also rake in millions of shillings from the tourism sector, trade in game meat from so-called culling and even donor funding for conservation. That is why they too will not leave these lands.

It might be that pastoralists will need to adjust their methods with some innovations and by this, I mean indigenous innovations, but they must be protected from any further land grabbing by so-called wildlife investors, oil prospectors and other private business opportunities that the county dispensation has refocused on their lands.

Their way of life - mobile pastoralism - may still be the only answers for the vast lands. In any case even if it turns out not be, this country is theirs too and coercing them with guns or other violent legal means is a travesty.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa