Last year, I was invited to attend a gathering of 26 tribes of nomadic pastoralists in a remote part of northern Kenya.
This was the first time I have visited sub Sahara Africa. The purpose of my visit was in part, to better understand the way in which the Sustainable Food Trust might be able to support the development of more sustainable food systems in that part of the world.
It was the most extraordinary experience for me, on many different levels. The only prior knowledge I had of nomadic pastoralism was acquired during geography lessons in the 1960s, and from this I concluded that the last remnants of these communities were probably now confined to a few isolated reserves. I could not have been more wrong!
The nomadic pastoralists I was fortunate enough to meet were refined with great presence, wonderful diverse cultures, and extraordinary survival skills, which enable them to coexist with nature in extremely hostile environments through their deep understanding of the world around them. They are also numerically a very significant element of the population of the countries of North East Africa. It is estimated that there are around ten million pastoralists in Ethiopia, 12% of that country’s population, with Pastoralist communities occupying almost half the area of Kenya.
One of the highlights was meeting a 26 year old man called Roba from southern Ethiopia whose tribe live with and derive their living from camels. Robba decided to leave his family to escape a planned arranged marriage, after which he obtained a degree at University in Addis Ababa and then moved to Italy where he is now studying for a masters at the University of Gastronomy in Bra.
Having experienced a westernised lifestyle one might have assumed that he would have little desire to return to his nomadic lifestyle, but this is absolutely not the case. He expressed to me that his most treasured experiences were the repeated periods he spends in the desert with the older boys and men from his village. These last for up to two months during which time, amazingly they subsist entirely on a diet of camels milk.
I asked him whether they ate anything else such as herbs, berries or possibly blood from the animals. He said that not only was this the only food but on returning to the village he felt more alive and full of vitality than at any other time in his life.
I felt truly humbled by the deep knowledge and dignity of these people, of their being and the way in which they are living in total harmony with their environment. It caused me to reflect on the relatively unsophisticated nature of much of the so called settled agriculture which we witnessed in and around the Nairobi area en route to the North.
Other information which came to light during the trip was that the Ethiopian government, supported by the Chinese government, are in the process of constructing an enormous dam across the Omo River in southern Ethiopia.
Apparently, the plan is to irrigate a vast section of previously tribal land, from which the indigenous population have already been evicted. This is likely to half the flow of the Omo river into Lake Turkana, one of the largest bodies of fresh water in North Africa upon which between three and five hundred thousand tribal peoples depend for their livelihoods.
Under normal circumstances, one would have imagined that the Kenyan government would have objected to the imposition of such an aggressive programme from a neighbouring country which will not only deprive them not only of so much water, but also desecrate one of the great natural lakes of North East Africa. However, it was said that the lure of cheap electricity from turbines financed by the Chinese government which are being incorporated into the dam plus bribes and sweeteners have subdued the protest.
It was suggested that the only way in which this unfolding ecological catastrophe could be averted would be through the glare of an intense mass media publicity resulting from a conference, or similar, an event at which high-profile individuals raised objections about the destruction of one of the natural wonders of this part of the world. Will this happen? It remains to be seen.
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