Kenyan pastoralists fight for a future adapted to climate change

By Peyton Fleming

  • Pastoralism provides much of the milk and protein consumed in Kenya, but it faces a perilous future especially from climate change but also a lack of infrastructure and land rights.
  • Recent droughts have exacerbated the challenges, leading to conflict between pastoralist communities struggling to find enough forage and water for livestock.
  • Fresh ideas and new programs are arising to help ease the situation in areas of northern Kenya, from where this dispatch originates.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

‘Wabi-sabi’ is a world view about finding beauty in nature’s imperfections.

It perfectly describes pastoralism in northern Kenya – where nomadic livestock herders scrape out a living by moving their animals from place to place in search of water and grass in a dry and unforgiving landscape.

For at least 10,000 years, this migratory lifestyle has supported more than a half-million Samburu, Turkana and Rendille communities scattered across this vast region dotted with thorn trees, dwarf shrubs and little else. It stretches from the dusty town of Isiolo in the south to the Ethiopia and Somalia borders in the north and east. Livestock, mostly goats, cattle and camels, are the primary food and income source for pastoralists living on these collectively owned and arid lands.

But pastoralism faces perilous threats today from climate change, population growth, land pressures and tribal conflicts. Warmer temperatures and more extreme droughts are increasing the number of livestock raids among tribes across the region. Land encroachment from agriculture interests and wildlife-focused conservancies in the south are also shrinking traditional grazing territories.

“Our biggest problem is climate change,” said Christopher Ogom, a Samburu pastoralist and local leader in the village of Gatab, who lost most of his goats and cattle during a devastating four-year drought that ended in April. “Food security is a big problem due to the loss of animals. Many people are still depending on relief (assistance).”

Ndurra Tarakino, a Rendille pastoralist with some of his camels at the Civicon borehole, a key water source for herders near Mount Kulal in northern Kenya. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

And it isn’t just indigenous tribes with their deep cultural knowledge who are threatened by these trends. Pastoralism plays a critical role in conserving open landscapes that support elephants and giraffes which drive tourism. It protects biodiversity and provides carbon sinks, sequestering up to 5 million tons of carbon per acre per year. Pastoralism also provides much of the milk and meat consumed in Kenya.

I recently spent 10 days traveling to remote settlements, watering holes and villages across northern Kenya. I witnessed the challenges pastoralists are facing and the solutions that are giving them hope in this expanse of savannahs, scrublands and dry grasslands. Oddly enough, my trip began with rain.

Water holes, mud and camel milk

Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands in southern and northern Kenya are reeling from a string of recent withering droughts that turned grassland to dust, the longest one being from 2020 to early 2023. By last fall, according to ReliefWeb, more than 2.4 million livestock had perished for lack of food and water, and more than 4.2 million people were suffering from acute food insecurity.

The first seasonal rains returned for a few weeks in April, followed by a second round that began on Oct. 17, the first day of my trip north from Nairobi.

After passing through Isiolo, a key transport hub for Lorries heading to Ethiopia 170 miles north of the capital, the rugged empty landscape immediately became dry and brown, even after rains the night before. One hour later, I saw my first camels, first a handful, then dozens. Cow bells clanged around many of their necks while being herded by young pastoralist boys who survive for days at a time on camel milk.

Thirty miles further north, I visited a Rendille settlement, a cluster of two dozen huts made from tree branches and plastic. Nestled behind a mountain, the rainy season had transformed the bumpy path to the settlement into slurry of mud up to a foot deep.

A Rendille settlement purposefully located at the base of a mountain for water access and security from cattle raids. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

The Rendille families moved here during the drought so they could have better access to a manmade water catchment that collects water from the mountain. The location is also considered safer for the women and young girls who live here mostly alone while men and boys are away with their herds.

Soon after leaving the settlement and traveling east, dozens of herds of goats, cattle and camels were assembled a few-hundred yards off the road. Moments later, I saw the reason why: A half-dozen concrete troughs filled to the brim with clean, bountiful water.

Basic infrastructure brings enormous value to this marginalized region crisscrossed by unmarked dirt roads on dried-out riverbeds. Take the new A2 highway, built by a Chinese company from Isiolo to the Ethiopian border: this has reduced travel times dramatically, allowing hay, food and livestock to be transported more quickly across the region.

Well-maintained boreholes – deep groundwater wells often outfitted with solar pumps – also improve local livelihoods. The borehole I visited is a direct result of a green energy boom underway in Kenya. When the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, Africa’s largest wind power facility, was built a decade ago, the company dug a 420-meter-deep well to provide water for the construction crews (power from the wind farm is all going south to Nairobi; none is available for local pastoralists who live without electricity).

The community borehole, known as Civicon, is popular among Samburu and Rendille herders who come from all directions with their goats, camels and cattle. One of those herders is Ndurra Tarakino, a Rendille man who lost three of his children in a fight over livestock several years ago with the Turkana tribe. Today he’s herding about four dozen cattle and camels, along with more than 50 goats – a far cry from the size of his herds before the drought.

Still, he’s thankful he can bring his animals to this borehole instead of the longer, more arduous task of moving them up into a nearby mountain forest, Mount Kulal, whenever it gets dry. For years, herders like Tarakino lived on the lush green mountain with their livestock and families during droughts, but because of the environmental damage they were causing to the mountain’s rich diversity of trees, plants and birds, they were evicted seven years ago.

“This has made my life much easier,” said Tarakino, while awaiting his turn to bring his livestock to the borehole in the lowlands away from Mount Kulal. “We have no more need for the mountain.”

Clusters of camels, cattle and goats are a common sight in northern Kenya. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

Coping with climate change

Twenty miles north, I stopped for two days at Gatab, a Samburu village of 3,700 people on Mount Kulal’s south side. At a meeting with four dozen members of the local Community Forest Association, made up of male elders, women and youth, myself and other visitors received an earful about the challenges the mountain is facing.

Climate change and dwindling water supplies were the biggest concerns. The mountain was no longer ‘misting’ because of hotter temperatures. Seasonal rains were less reliable. Droughts lasted years instead of months. It was all about water.

For as long as anyone could remember, the mountain’s numerous springs have always provided water. Not anymore. Even with the recent rains last spring, critical water sources near the top of Mount Kulal stopped producing during the summer and fall.

“Two springs that we depended on in the upper village are dry,” said Shadrack Lengoyiap, secretary of the Community Forest Association, speaking in mid-October. “There’s only one spring left in the forest that we can use (in Gatab).”

After heavy rains in early November, the springs began flowing again, but community members are still nervous about the future.

They offer specific suggestions for solving the water gap, including drilling new boreholes, pumping water from the Civicon borehole – even building a dam near the top of the mountain.

But who has the money to pay for a $200,000 borehole, let alone a dam? Certainly not Gatab or Marsabit County, where most families are living in poverty.

A Rendille girl with a camel in northern Kenya. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

A more resilient pastoralism

There are lots of ideas for making pastoralism more financially viable, whether by modifying livestock practices, strengthening land rights, or diversifying economic livelihoods.

Securing pastoralists’ community land right is a foundational step that will provide stability and reduce conflicts over scarce land resources. With support from IMPACT Kenya, a nonprofit supporting Indigenous groups, more than a dozen pastoralist communities in Laikipia and Samburu counties have successfully registered their lands in the past three years.

Transitioning to climate-resilient livestock is another important step. Local pastoralists are increasingly switching from cattle to camels, which require less water and grass. Chickens, long a taboo among pastoralists, are becoming more commonplace in settlements, too. New mobile fencing innovations that shield livestock from wildlife attacks at night, while recharging vegetation, are also gaining traction in southern Kenya.

Mixed farming systems, which combine crop and livestock agriculture, are another ripe opportunity. Like many countries, Kenya has been aggressively pushing tree planting to reduce deforestation and climate change impacts. Many of these efforts, in Gatab and elsewhere, include fruit trees such as oranges, mangoes and avocados, which can improve diets and income diversification.

Putting fruit tree saplings in the hands of women and youth is an especially popular idea being pushed by government and nonprofit groups such as BOMA, which is supporting more than 100 women-led tree nurseries in Marsabit and Samburu counties.

A larger and more controversial opportunity is a carbon credit project which claims to increase carbon storage in areas of northern Kenya by managing Indigenous livestock grazing routes. Launched a decade ago, the Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project has paid out millions of dollars in carbon credits to a dozen ‘community conservancies’ for modifying traditional grazing practices, protecting wildlife and other conservation activity. The projects, mostly in greener areas closer to Nairobi and wildlife parks, are financed with carbon offsets paid for by global companies.

The northern Kenya landscape is dry most of the year, making it unsuitable for growing crops. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

While the project’s climate and community benefits – particularly in terms of benefits for local pastoralists – have been broadly questioned, community conservancies say the money helps pay for community activities like education and water sourcing that would otherwise be unavailable.

Yet there is no appetite for these projects further north near Mount Kulal, where an isolated mountain surrounded by a rugged desert is not suitable for elephants, lions and other wildlife that attract tourists.

“A conservancy to protect the forest is something we’d be open to,” said Christopher Ogom, chair of the Mount Kulal Community Forest Association. “But nobody has approached us to talk about it.”

For Malih Ole Kaunga, executive director of IMPACT Kenya, this is the challenge facing pastoralism in Kenya.

“Unless it can be commoditized with iconic wildlife and tourism, it’s easy to be overlooked and marginalized,” he said.

My visit underscored this thought: It’s too easy to focus government spending and carbon offsets to protect beloved wildlife and their habitats. Given that traditional pastoralists and their durable livelihoods have been protecting landscapes that deliver important – but less charismatic – benefits for thousands of years, they also deserve more support in terms of infrastructure, climate resiliency tools and legal land protections.

 This article was first published on Mongabay

John Hlatywayo: remembering a great Zimbabwean artist who was woefully neglected by history

By Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti

John Hlatywayo, who has died at 96, was a great painter, sculptor and mentor. However he is woefully neglected in the art history of Zimbabwe and southern Africa.

Belonging to an early generation of Zimbabwean artists, Hlatywayo was overshadowed by international interest in the nation’s mainstreamed stone sculptors. Yet he was one of Zimbabwe’s most versatile artists. He could work with different media and produce intriguing conceptual pieces. But he was mainly drawn to portraying aspects of people’s daily lives.

He trained in neighboring South Africa and went on to exhibit his work in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Salisbury (now Harare) and London. His pieces are in the collections of the Wits Art Museum and the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

In 2018 I had the opportunity to interview Hlatywayo as one of the Black artist-teachers at the centre of my PhD thesis. My thesis tries to broaden Zimbabwe’s modern art canon, arguing for the inclusion of marginalized artist-teachers like Hlatywayo.

A selfless individual, Hlatywayo worked tirelessly to teach and develop art in his community. His story is also important to the region as it represents the transnational sharing of art traditions between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

John Hlatywayo has passed away at the age of 96. Courtesy Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti


Hlatywayo was born in 1927 at Chikore Mission in the Ndau-speaking Chipinge district of Rhodesia – today Zimbabwe. (Ndau is a Shona dialect spoken in southeastern Zimbabwe.)

At primary school at the Mount Selinda Institute, a US mission school, he took an interest in art classes offered by a US expatriate. As a carpentry and building trainee, he helped the self-sustaining institution with the construction of houses.

South Africa

In 1948 he set off for South Africa. He told me about how migrants were screened by officials at the Musina border post. Under the system implemented by the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, those who were fit to work in the mines progressed to Johannesburg. The rest were taken to work on the nearby farms.

In Johannesburg he was settled in a compound among other migrant laborers who worked in the mines. Before long, he moved to Pretoria, finding work at a metal smelting plant, doubling as a “tea boy” serving a white manager with whom, he said, he never held a normal conversation.

Back in Johannesburg he teamed up with a cousin to start a carpentry shop. It was there that he met a client who ended up introducing him to celebrate South African artist Cecil Skotnes.

Art school

From 1952 to 1966 Skotnes ran the Polly Street Art Centre, converting the former Adult Non-European Recreation Centre into a place where artists would train and fraternize, regardless of their background in a racially divided South Africa during apartheid.

Art historians note that the teaching at the institution generally followed “international modernist styles” with Skotnes also inviting some artists of European origin to work with him. Scholars indicate that at the centre, knowledge and skills were imparted through mentorship or apprenticeship. The goal was to fast-track trainees into professional practice. Besides offering studio space and materials to Black South African artists, the centre also exhibited work along non-racial lines.

Hlatywayo worked at Polly Street from 1954 to 1960, meeting many other sculptors and painters – including Ephraim Ngatane, Durant Sihlali and Louis Maqhubela. His mentors were mainly Skotnes and South African sculptor Sydney Kumalo. This community had an immediate positive impact on his artistic development. Soon he had staged his first solo exhibition, with others to follow.


Two accounts highlighted by academics indicate that Hlatywayo’s work stood out. In 1960, he participated in the important Urban African Art show. Commenting in the Fontein Quarterly magazine, Skotnes singled out the work of Hlatywayo and Kumalo.

In 1963 he took part in a joint exhibition in Cape Town of Polly Street artists. Professor and gallerist Neville Dubow was so impressed by Hlatywayo’s work that he wrote, in the Cape Argus newspaper, that

Hlatywayo shows a firm feeling for organizing forms; he is adept in the monotype technique and is perhaps the most skilled craftsman of the group.

Rhodesia and Zimbabwe

In the mid-1960s Hlatywayo returned home and exhibited works in several institutions. His first solo show in Zimbabwe was at Gallery Delta in 1979. That same year, his work titled Woman won second prize at the annual WeldArt exhibition in Harare.

After independence in 1980, Hlatywayo’s work continued to be exhibited at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and at numerous international institutions.

As recently as 2016, towards the end of his long career as a multimedia artist, Hlatywayo participated in a two-man exhibition with Tafadzwa Gwetai, a Bulawayo-based painter and collage artist. The show, The People Watchers, was also presented in London. In it, Hlatywayo presents metal sculptures that are curved and elongated to capture emotion.

Teacher and mentor

But Hlatwayo was also a prominent teacher. Noticing how few adults showed an interest in art, he made pleas for schools to teach the subject, especially at primary school and in lower grades of high school. As he was quoted in the Rhodesia Herald in 1971:

“No education can claim to be complete that does not include teaching of art.”

Hlatywayo dreamed of starting his own art centre. When a building in Mbare was secured by the national gallery for art classes, he volunteered to teach there on a part-time basis. He also taught students from his home.

Besides creating and teaching, he also served on several panels and committees promoting art.

Why his story matters

Hlatywayo’s story highlights the cultural exchange between South Africa and Zimbabwe that continues to this day, with many Zimbabwean artists working with South African galleries. He also represents a gap in knowledge about Zimbabwean art that urgently needs to be filled to understand the contributions and influence of these neglected artists.

This Article was first published on The Conversation

“Don’t burn us”. The horrors of Ardamata

“Words are inadequate to describe the horrors in Sudan,” said Clementine Nkweta-Salami of the UN humanitarian organization OCHA recently in New York. “What happens there on borders is pure evil.”

The ongoing conflict between Sudan Armed forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has resulted in what may be the biggest massacre in the seven-month-old war. Masalit, a population group from African origins, fell victim to the assault that took place in and around Ardamata, whereas the perpetrators are RSF members from Arab populations. The RSF has been gaining ground and using these victories to carry out a new wave of ethnic cleansing. Ardamata is situated just north of El Geneina in the western Darfur region.

Wednesday November 1st

The government base at Ardamata finds itself surrounded by the RSF and their Arab allies. Adjacent to the base lays a secondary boys’ school. “Three rockets hit the square next to the school where many people had gathered, and two hit the school itself,” according to eyewitness Farid. “One fell on a classroom at west side, killing at least nine people, including two women. I got shrapnel wound in my arm.”

Thursday November 2

Kamal Adam, a teacher in Ardamata, “On Thursday, November 2, the RSF soldiers surrounded Ardamata. They started searching houses of prominent Masalit,” he said. “On that day they killed Mohammed Arbab, an 85-year-old traditional leader, along with his son and eight grandchildren, as well as two other leaders.” The funerals of the deceased were interrupted by the RSF gunfire. “We had to leave the bodies uncovered and ran in panic in all directions.”

Following daybreak at the government base, the soldiers make a startling realization that their army commanders have deserted them without any prior notice. In the darkness of the night, the officers silently slipped away, leaving the junior soldiers behind. “They departed without informing us,” expressed Ibrahim, a soldier serving under the government. “All of a sudden, the RSF appeared right in front of us.” Khamis, another soldier, added, “We were completely unaware of the leadership’s covert withdrawal, and as a result, defeat swiftly followed.”

Youssef finds himself in a clinic located on the base when the RSF forcefully storms in. “The wounded were shot at, but I managed to escape by maneuvering behind walls and through bushes.” As the assailants flood the area, soldier Gamareldin Mohammed strategically lies down on the ground, concealing himself under the body of a fallen comrade and pretending to be deceased. “I covered myself with the dead body and its blood.”

Amidst the triumph declared in front of the barracks by Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo, the brother of RSF leader Hemedti, a large group consisting of two thousand soldiers and civilians embarks on a journey through the mountains. Many fall victim to ambushes orchestrated by the RSF. “Everyone was running for their lives. If someone got hurt, you didn’t have time to help him up,” said one of the soldiers.

Tribal leaders in Ardamata have initiated negotiations with the RSF and their Arab militias, aiming to secure the safety of the camp’s residents in exchange for the surrender of all firearms. However, this supposed agreement is nothing but a ruse, as the RSF soldiers continue to escalate their campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Masalit community. “They ordered all men to leave their homes and all women to stay indoors,” according to an official. “Slaves, get out,” they shouted.

Abdu Mohammed Ibrahim, observing from his house overlooking a vast field, witnesses RSF members and Arab militiamen herding numerous young men into a field. These victims are then divided into groups and positioned in different corners before being mercilessly gunned down. Among the casualties are individuals as young as twelve years old, whom Abdu personally knows by name. The incident is further corroborated by a nearby shopkeeper near the football field, who hears the cries of the youths pleading, “Don’t burn us,” before the sound of gunshots shatters the air.

Samira and her family were frightened by the sound of gunfire and attempted to flee Ardamata. According to Samira, “We saw how two fighters on a motorcycle stopped a young woman and raped her in the street. We couldn’t help her, we had to move on.”

Friday November 3

In the morning, Hussein and his twin brother Hassan are enjoying a cup of tea in the residential area of Ardamata when suddenly; soldiers from the RSF and militia members on horseback and motorcycles abruptly halt in front of their home. They proceed to shoot Hussein’s twin brother right in front of their mother and proceed to ransack the house, stealing money, phones, and other valuable possessions. Witnessing this scene, the women present quickly come to Hussein’s aid, encircling him and swiftly dressing him in an abaya, a long robe traditionally worn by Muslim women. As Hussein looks outside, he is confronted with the sight of lifeless bodies of young men, many of whom are his age, some with their hands bound and gunshot wounds to their heads. This marks the beginning of a pogrom against the Masalit community, primarily targeting young men, in the town of Ardamata. The attackers relentlessly shout, “Kill the Masalit!” Amidst this chaos, Hussein manages to escape the danger, aided by the protective circle of women, and successfully evades several RSF checkpoints until he reaches Adré in Chad.

In Ardamata, the sight of lifeless bodies is ubiquitous. Mustafa, a resident said, “At every step I saw bodies, some covered with blankets,”.  The throats of two innocent children seem to have been brutally slit. Doctor Hayder meticulously counts a total of 95 deceased individuals on that fateful day. “I found an 18-day-old baby in a house next to her mother and four other women. All wounds resulted from gunshots aimed at the chest or head.”

Saturday November 6

A group of men and children, surrounded by RSF and other fighters sit at the bridge of Ardamata. “Execute them all,” says one fighter, “let’s take revenge on them one by one,” shouts another.

Sunday November 7

A group of Arab militiamen forcefully enter the residence of a 45-year-old farmer residing in Ardamata. They proceed to gather seven individuals in front of the house. “The moment I came out, they shot at the seven men at close range. They were all lying there on the ground. One of the attackers said to me, ‘Do you see how many we killed?’ They told me to leave the city.” As nightfall arrives, Arabs arrive at the police station in trucks and donkey carts, carrying stolen goods such as doors, window frames, vehicles, and rickshaws. Arab women enthusiastically encourage and support their actions.

Sunday November 26

Ardamata, a desolate place with only a handful of residents, bears witness to the presence of mass graves scattered throughout its vicinity. “The dead bodies at the army base and in the neighborhoods on the other side of the bridge are all buried by the RSF,” said Dr Ahmed, “but there are still bodies in the northern part of Ardamata.” Countless Masalit remain in RSF detention centers. “There is no more fighting, but they still shoot young people. They continue to kill and plunder.” Teacher Kamal Adam, residing in Ardamata: “We victims of the RSF want only one thing, and that is that they take responsibility for both old and new crimes, and that they provide reparations.”

This detailed account of the massacre is compiled from approximately 100 eyewitness interviews conducted by Reuter, Human Rights Watch, and our own interviews, with the assistance of Dr. Abdelmonin Ali.

This article was first published in NRC on 27-11-2023