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Young Kenyan man drinks milk in the middle of his goat herd.
Lolampa, a Turkana herder, with his goats and sheep. Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

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

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.

Two men and a child sitting in front of a tent with car to the right
Loura Ekaale with two of his sons, Lolampa and Anam, in the foreground. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

Loura has two wives and ten children. My research into how people forge their livelihoods in this harsh and unpredictable region has been greatly influenced by his insight.

Like most people here, one of his foremost concerns is the weather. Whenever clouds form overhead, they must be scrutinised carefully and discussed. Meanwhile, prominent seers in nearby villages offer their predictions about when the next downpour will come. Rain has always been unpredictable in this place. The whole of northern Kenya has seen widespread and recurrent droughts since beyond living memory. But in recent decades, climate change has intensified this unpredictability. Vegetation that is diminished and more sparsely scattered than ever before must now support the livestock of a population that has grown rapidly over the last 50 years.

Such acute resource scarcity sustains longstanding inter-ethnic conflicts. Loura and his first wife, Nakiru, migrated to their current location ten years ago, fleeing from an area close to an administrative and ethnic border dividing the Turkana from their southern pastoralist neighbours, the Pokot.

Three people tie sticks together to create a wall in a sandy landscape.
Nakiru, Lorot and Amug of the Ekaale family constructing a new homestead. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

Sometimes, in our daily conversations, Loura tells me how difficult things were back there, and now and then he is visited by old friends and family members who travel up from the border to see him. They sit outside my tent with their Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders or propped up against their thighs, telling stories about violent skirmishes and cattle raids. I make them coffee too. They are good-humoured, for the most part.

One would be forgiven for assuming that increased pressure on already scant resources, conflict along territorial boundaries and scanter, less predictable rainfall are the extent of north-western Kenya’s troubles. But this is not the case.

Other forms of ecological degradation, largely caused by external activities, threaten major water sources. The Kerio, one of only two major rivers in Turkana, has suffered catastrophically in recent years. Heightened irrigation activity upstream and the haphazard introduction of an invasive, deep-rooted kind of mesquite (a shrub native to Mexico, South America and the Carribean) by NGOs in the early 1980s now mean that it is often dry for several years at a time (it used to flood every year). Lake Turkana itself is threatened by damming activity in Ethiopia along its major water source, the Omo.

This story is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism and is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects to tackle societal and scientific challenges.


Standing back and looking at this conglomeration of troubles, it is hard not to feel despondent. As with many other historically marginalised parts of Africa, the stories about Turkana that make it into the mainstream media tend to be couched in the language of crisis and disaster. Perhaps it doesn’t help that its only representation in a feature film was in the popular adaptation of John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, where it was the wild, lawless setting for a brutal assassination.

Some may argue that negativity about Africa’s pastoralist homelands is warranted. But others have suggested that such a focus has brought forth inappropriate responses from the development sector.

Over the years, this perception of crisis and turbulence has provoked solutions that have sought to impose new forms of uniformity, order and stability, many of which have met with calamitous failure. Recently, researchers have begun to emphasise the need to stop fixating on the uncertainty itself, and instead to look beyond it. That is, to base development efforts on the ways people are already managing it.

Tent and car in a grassland.
Our research camp in Moru Sipo, southern Turkana. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

Independent organisations such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) have argued that a more prosperous future can only be achieved by supporting what communities in Africa’s drylands are already doing to exploit the changing and unpredictable resources around them.

The research my team and I have undertaken over the last few years has supported this argument with new case studies from Turkana, exploring changing patterns of movement and the transforming relationship between cultivators and specialised herders.

Meanwhile, a research programme at the University of Sussex has gone a step further, arguing that pastoralist adaptations contain unexplored connections with other, perhaps more familiar domains and sectors that are uncertain. For example; financial and commodity systems, critical infrastructure management, disease outbreak responses, migration policy, climate change and conflict and security governance (to name but a few). Developed countries, they argue, may have a lot to learn from those forging their livelihoods in ecologically and politically volatile contexts.

Knowing Loura’s past, it is difficult to disagree with this thinking. His life story is a playbook for how to thrive in unpredictable circumstances. Study it carefully enough and it will yield important lessons, whatever challenge you may be facing.

But the ingenuity and skill of the Turkana has rarely been recognised. In fact, in many instances their responses to moments of crisis have directly contradicted the interventions of large-scale development programmes.

The Turkana Rehabilitation Project

In the early 1980s, following a severe drought, a famine took hold across Turkana. In response, a collaboration emerged between the Kenyan government and the European Economic Community, which set about settling people into so-called “famine camps”. The scheme was called the Turkana Rehabilitation Project. It was a success at first, alleviating mass starvation and radically reducing associated deaths. But it began to struggle when it sought to instigate its second objective: a five-year land rehabilitation plan, encouraging mobile herders to settle permanently into sedentary riverside agricultural schemes. This, they envisaged, was a more sustainable, stable way of getting along.

While researching this scheme for my recent book about the region, I was often told by my interviewees that it was doomed as soon as the local population figured out what it was trying to achieve. For a society fundamentally disposed to hedging its bets, the idea of whole families settling permanently in one place to farm riverside plots appeared both nonsensical and dangerous.

It was not that farming itself was seen as worthless. On the contrary, farming has always been important in the regional economy. But it has always been just one piece of a larger jigsaw of flexible livelihoods. In early 2015, I spent several days talking about this with Emeri Lowasa, the head of a large and influential family in southern Turkana. From her farmland on the edge of the Kerio River (now strangled by the invasive mesqusite introduced in the 1980s) she told me about a time when there were “no kiosks, no markets and no roads”. It was then, she recalled, that she and her family were regularly trading the sorghum (a cereal grain) they grew by the river to visiting herders for livestock and milk.

A line of sticks mark out a boundary in the land.
A boundary between two Turkana farms lying fallow on the bank of the Kerio River, mesquite growing in the background. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

Emeri’s family, and their wider social network, have always been spread across many different livelihoods. During times of abundance, their different livelihoods complement each other (livestock being exchanged for grain). During times of scarcity, her family members survive by turning to whatever in their repertoire of activities is still tenable.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, most of the people who had been settled into the Turkana Rehabilitation Project’s famine camps merely exploited the nutritional security that relief food handouts provided to grow their dwindling herds. When climatic conditions shifted once more, they departed the camps altogether to return to a semi-nomadic life.

This dynamism is simply what is necessary in a place that has never offered predictability or uniformity. Uncertainty must be embraced, harnessed for the better. Stability never lasts long, and if you invest everything in it, you are sure to meet with catastrophe.

Even for those involved in the most specialised, highly mobile forms of herding, extreme variability in rain and vegetation has never been an insurmountable threat. In fact, their livelihood allows them to be as productive as is humanly possible in a place with such uncertain ecological characteristics. By carefully managing rates of consumption in their livestock, herders like Loura are able to make the most of scarce and changing vegetation. The size and constitution of his herd also changes over time in tune with prevailing conditions, allowing him and his family to endure over the long term, weathering radical environmental shifts. The knowledge that makes all this possible is highly complex.


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?

It is not difficult to find starting points. Loura’s careful management of his herd’s consumption to maximise the nutritional value of scant resources resonates with the broader challenge of living more sustainably in the face of climate change. Likewise, many of us would benefit from learning how to be more open, both physically and psychologically, to radical shifts in routine.

A young man walks behind a herd of goats in a grassland landscape.
Lolampa with the family herd. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

Across the world, COVID lockdowns and restrictions have shattered old forms of reliability, predictability and comfort. They have laid bare the fragility of entire economic systems. Even in places with high vaccination rates, few are allowing themselves to return to the sense of complacency that came before. The future is anything but certain. In short, we must learn how to make our lives and livelihoods less fragile, less vulnerable to the shocks of random turbulence that are sure to return.

To the statistician, essayist and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, this requires us to think more carefully about what the opposite end of the fragility spectrum really is. He argues that it is not resilience or robustness; not the weathering of uncertainty by blocking it out and shielding interior forms of stability and uniformity. The antithesis of fragility is actually something called “antifragility”, that is, the ability to actively gain from disorder, and to get stronger by means of random shocks (not despite them).

Taleb has explained his concept through multiple case studies, ranging from the 2008 financial crisis to biological processes like evolution. Even information itself, he says, is anti-fragile, “because it feeds more on attempts to harm it than it does on efforts to promote it”.

The idea of anti-fragility provokes new questions of places like Turkana, where time and again internationally funded interventions aimed at fixing various perceived economic and social issues have simply instigated forms of fragile, short-term stability that have collapsed into failure at the first sign of trouble. The Turkana Rehabilitation Project was by no means an anomaly.

A woman sits on sand, smiling at the camera.
Emeri Lowasa at her home in Nakurio, by the Kerio River. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

The NORAD scheme

In 1970, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) began work in the region to develop a commercial fishing industry, the history of which I explored in a recent article. NORAD spent over two million US dollars (over 14 million in today’s money) building a monumental fish drying and freezing factory beside Fergusson’s Gulf, a sleepy cluster of fishing villages on the western shore of Lake Turkana.

Within a few years, however, the buildings had all been abandoned and bolted shut. With fluctuations in the economy, the freezing of lake fish had proven financially impracticable at an off-the-grid location. The overly complex system put in place by the scheme to facilitate the movement of fish from lakeside villages to the factory and then on to markets was inefficient and prone to corruption. The final nail in the coffin came in the form of a drought to the north-east, which desiccated the Omo River and caused Lake Turkana’s levels to recede drastically. Fergusson’s gulf dried out; its fishery collapsed.

Once again, a scheme that had aimed to achieve prosperity by means of systemic rigidity and uniformity was undone by the uncertain context in which it was established.

A deserted concrete and corrugated iron building
The factory built by NORAD at Kalokol, on the western shore of Lake Turkana. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

Looking back, it is easy to cast aspersions on developmental failures. They are rendered simpler and more obvious by hindsight. It is not true to say that international aid and development – in general – have been pointless in Turkana. The Turkana Rehabilitation Project no doubt saved thousands from starvation through the simple distribution of relief food. The NORAD scheme saw huge and much-needed investments in regional infrastructure and the allocation of vital fishing equipment.

In both instances, the problem was not the decision to intervene in the first place, nor was it necessarily the form or scale of material investment. It was arguably the assumption that the solution to the troubles at hand lay in overhauling previously open-ended livelihoods and trying to stabilise them.

In the end, both interventions came to be co-opted through their insertion into much more varied and flexible long-term strategies. The Turkana Rehabilitation Project became a pathway back into a dynamic, semi-nomadic form of pastoralism. After the NORAD scheme’s initial failure, the equipment and infrastructure it left behind were used by participating communities to advance a more adaptive, malleable fishing industry. Today, the great factory at Kalokol lies empty while bundles of dried fish are traded a stone’s throw from its closed gates to businessmen and entrepreneurs who travel to northern Kenya from far and wide.

These fish are not transported via a rigid, centrally organised system, nor do they undergo complex processing. They are brought straight to Kalokol, after they have been dried in the sun, from villages that continue to be constructed entirely of organic materials. The houses in these villages can be partly dismantled, abandoned and reconstructed at a moment’s notice, using local palms and woods.

Over the years, they are moved in and out following the lake shore as it fluctuates. If there is a slump in demand or constrictions on supply, the fishing communities suspend their commerce and make do by subsisting on the lake’s resources. This industry is not perfect, but it is strong, and it is strong because, like the world in which it operates, it is unpredictable.

Traditional huts stand on the shore of a lake.
Merier, a fishing village on the western shore of Lake Turkana. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

Embracing volatility

Fortunately, the sector has largely moved on from the kind of large-scale, technocratic, externally planned interventions that predominated in the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder whether development in Africa is still, broadly speaking, underpinned by a western preoccupation with battling uncertainty by means of stability; with establishing new forms of predictability that are ultimately doomed to failure. Perhaps it is time to question whether such a mindset is going to be the best way of supporting those making a living at the margins, as they face a future that promises more volatility than ever before.

Back in 2015, Emeri Lowasa explained to me that when the River Kerio’s flood cycle began to degenerate, seasonal farmers like her found themselves at a loose end. In the space of a few short years, they had gone from regularly exchanging their excess sorghum with friends and family members in the herding sector to being unable to plant their riverside plots altogether. This was a critical threat to their livelihood, but it was also nutritionally detrimental to the visiting herders, whose diets had been regularly supplemented by grains provided by the riverside communities. It was a moment of crisis.

A dry watercourse with shrub lining the shore.
The Kerio River, dry, with invasive Mesquite growing along its bank. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

The solution, Emeri said, was not to be found in doubling down and trying to make things work despite the circumstances. It lay in radically rethinking what the cultivating/herding relationship consisted of in the first place and transforming how it operated.

Her family and wider community took advantage of a gradually improving national infrastructure to begin importing grains from further afield. Many of them became tradespeople. Instead of their own crops, they sold sacks of maize, millet, beans and other foodstuffs to herders who capitalised on burgeoning riverside settlements to establish cash markets for their livestock. The farmers also made mats and baskets from the palm trees that grew along the river. Whatever they could not sell at the new markets, they sent off to the nearest urban centre where women’s groups sold them to customers travelling south into the rest of Kenya.

They embraced the very volatility that threatened catastrophe, gaining from the disorder by making something new with the remnants of what came before. Today, farmers along the Kerio still provide grain to herders out on the plains, even if this grain is no longer regularly grown in their riverside plots. Herders still distribute livestock into these riverside populations, these days via cash markets rather than seasonal exchanges. The relationship endures, indeed it grows stronger, because it has welcomed disorder in to reshape it.

A man crouches on the sand amongst some tools
Loura Ekaale applying red ochre to the cowhide sheath of a circular wrist knife. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

It is this same extraordinary orientation towards uncertainty that allows people like Loura, and his family, to flourish in this demanding land, bouncing back time and again from conflict and drought and negotiating fundamental changes to the ecological conditions surrounding them. Each constraint must, somehow, be made into a new opportunity, each ending a new beginning.

The knowledge they draw on to do this is not an archaic reservoir of traditional practices and beliefs. It is a modern mindset: a collection of habits and intuitions established on the back of many generations of iterative change and adaptation. It is a particular way of reading things.

A woman and a child amongst the goats
Nakiru, Loura’s wife, collecting milk. © Samuel Derbyshire, Author provided

In the years ahead, Turkana, like many other pastoralist regions across Africa, will no doubt face some of its most testing times. The support of international development programmes will remain critical. If new understandings of Africa’s drylands are allowed to shape the policies behind these programmes, their solutions will be more flexible and open-ended than ever before. New projects must engage with the variability of the environment, supporting adaptability, rather than seeking to enforce single path approaches.

But the help does not necessarily need to flow one way. Places like Turkana harbour valuable lessons for the world, and precious inspiration for anyone seeking to grow stronger through future volatility.

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