Embracing uncertainty: what Kenyan herders can teach us about living in a volatile world

Samuel Derbyshire, 2023 research fellow at Jameel Observatory, shares insights and experiences from his field research in the Tarkana region of northern Kenya. He discusses the longstanding environmental challenges facing pastoralist communities in the area and the more recent shift in approach from the research and development communities, to focus not on the resulting uncertainties these challenges bring, but rather on the ways that dryland communities are already managing these uncertainties. Highlighting several examples of effective community response and adaptation, Samuel suggests that the rest of the world may have lessons to learn from Turkana about dealing with environmental, economic and political uncertainties.

In his essay, Samuel writes, "Of course, societies across the developed world are not going to abandon industry and commerce to take up semi-nomadic pastoralism any time soon. But this is not the point. The point is that whether we like it or not, many in the west are now charged with the task of remaining productive during a period of environmental, political and economic turbulence that seems more pronounced than ever before. So why not look to Turkana for some guidance?"


Loura Ekaale sits down on his carved wooden stool. He sips a cup of black instant coffee, a substance he has taken to calling his “medicine” (inexplicably, he claims it helps him fall asleep). I have been making it for him each afternoon, with my small gas cooker. This has become a routine for us; he roams over to my canvas tent as the sun begins to set and I boil the kettle. We sit there talking about the day as one of his sons, Lolampa, wanders in from the hills behind us, driving the family’s sheep and goats back into their enclosure.

I have known Loura for almost two years now, during which time I have regularly set up my research camp beside his family home, close to the Loriu Hills in Turkana, northern Kenya. This 68,000 square kilometre arid region is one of the most remote areas in Kenya. To the north is South Sudan and a disputed, lawless section of grazing land called the Ilemi Triangle, claimed by both South Sudan and Kenya. To the west is the homeland of the Karamojong in northern Uganda, and to the east is Lake Turkana itself, the world’s largest permanent desert lake.

The Turkana region’s southern boundary is the only one connecting it with the rest of Kenya on land, a fact that has led its population to endure a long history of socio-economic and political marginalisation, spanning both the colonial and postcolonial periods. Its population is largely comprised of highly mobile pastoralists – that is, communities who rely on herds of domesticated livestock, which they graze on communal, open range lands.

The Conversation