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Pastoral visions: changing perceptions of pastoral lives

Pastoral visions: a young boy describing the shape of his bull's horns (CAPE-IBAR)
Pastoral visions: a young boy describing the shape of his bull's horns

A young boy stands in the rich evening sunlight. The colours are striking but so is the image. The boy holds his hands up as if to shield his eyes from the sun but it is the testimony of the photographer that reveals the reality of the image. The boy is holding his hands in the shape of the horns of his bull, a prized possession which was given to him at birth by his father. Indeed, the boy is named after his bull. The significance of the bull in the boy's life is evident by the pride that the child has for his animal and the position he holds amongst his peers.

This image has been captured by an amateur photographer from the Karamajong Cluster in Eastern Africa and is just one of a selection of pictures and testimonies to be exhibited in Kampala. But this is no ordinary photographic exhibition. Whilst the images are striking and reveal an interesting insight into the daily lives of pastoralists, the purpose is to challenge perceptions, particularly at policy level, that are commonly held of these people.

The photographic project began with the distribution of disposable cameras to more than 30 community members in the pastoral border areas of Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda with the purpose of allowing the individuals to document the lives of their community over a period of several months. Collecting the cameras and later re-visiting the photographers with the processed pictures was no mean feat because these mobile communities travel over large areas. But ultimately, testimonies were collected from each of the photographers allowing them an opportunity to express their viewpoints and concerns about pastoral life. It is these viewpoints and concerns that Richard Grahn, Natural Resources and Conflict Adviser for the Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources, who has co-ordinated the project, hopes will convince policy-makers to overcome common misconceptions and result in greater understanding about the way in which pastoralists live.

Livestock and livelihoods

The life of a pastoralist is not an easy one. Constantly on the move, the young boys will care for the goats and sheep whilst adolescent boys are given responsibility for the calves. The most important assets, the mature cattle, are left to the men although the young women will be involved in the twice-daily milking. From the photographs, the men play a more visible role in the daily activities. The boys and young men can be seen tending the animals whilst the elders discuss community matters under the ekitoingikilok, the tree of men. But it is the women who are the hidden managers of pastoral life. They provide for the household by bartering animals products and milk for grains, preparing the food and drawing water and, whilst not recognized publicly, they play a vital role in influencing decisions on conflict, which is a constant threat in the region.

Looking and learning?

Pastoral visions: A young boy takes his goats to drink at a dam in Lokiwach, Kenya (CAPE-IBAR)
Pastoral visions: A young boy takes his goats to drink at a dam in Lokiwach, Kenya

Taking the images as a whole, it can be seen that pastoralism provides a productive way of life for the many thousands of people who live in such an arid and unpredictable environment. What many people do not appreciate is that pastoralists have complex social networks and natural resource management strategies, which are unique to this way of life and it is the challenges and pressures that pastoralists cope with on a daily basis that need to be understood and embraced by policymakers. In particular, there are clear messages that have emerged from the project that it is hoped that policy-makers will respond to. The first is that access to animal health services should be improved and community-based animal health workers recognised in policy and legislation in all four countries. This is currently not the case. Trade is also an important issue and without better access to markets, pastoralists are unable to interact with a cash economy. Provision of health and education to these mobile communities is another challenge for policy-makers and finding an effective response to conflict requires an understanding of the causes of conflict.

For those not able to visit the exhibition in Kampala or later during its tour throughout the Greater Horn region a selection of the images and testimonies are presented in the book "Pastoral Visions." From these, one can get an insight into the demands of daily life but examples of the pastoralists' enjoyment of singing and dancing, and the importance of appearance, rituals and celebrations are also evident. It is said that appearances can be deceptive but, in this case, it is hoped that the images will reveal the reality.

Date published: January 2004


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