The era of the cow has come to an end

He was the toughest of the toughest. Yet the around thirty years old Lkipseina Lenawuosho has stopped living the harsh nomadic life, he has been defeated by the worst drought in forty years, by lack of space, by violence. “Since I was five years old, I wanted nothing more than to travel around with cows, the life of a shepherd was beautiful,” he says in his native region of Ngupuruti, the savannah region of northern Kenya. There are only tracks here, no roads. There are no stone houses but low build structures, a kind of igloos of mud and cow dung. “At the time I thought my agemates who gave up their freedom and went to school were stupid. Now I accept my loss, the era of the cow has come to an end.”

The inhabitants in the kraal of Lkipseina are weak, they have been eating too little, for months now they have not been able to eat until satiated. When the world still had its green beauty and grass made the cattle fat, the traditional knowledge passed down for generations of the Samburu people, to which Lkipseina belongs, was sufficient for a good life in these savanna regions.

But now the land looks gray, whirling winds push the dust of the bone-dry earth into the air. The bushes no longer bear any leaves and only the desert rose still gives off bright colours. Towards evening, his young wife squats behind a goat, and a thin trickle of milk from the parched udders shoots into the gourd. Everyone is tired and goes to bed early. There is no singing of young warriors, since the last shower two years ago they have moved elsewhere with the remaining cows, very far away, a four days’ walk. “There is no happiness in our lives anymore,” says Lkipseina.

He once tended two hundred cows, less than a quarter of them remain. In his kraal enclosed by thorny bushes, he sadly inspects a handful of meager goats, their fat gone, as well as the hope that the last animals will survive. Goats and sheep will usually withstand drought much longer than cows, with their small snouts they can still find something to eat in crevices and under stones. But even that is not possible anymore, so now they are fed with the fruits from the top of the acacia trees, the very last resort against starvation.

The increasingly frequent and protracted droughts and rapid population growth over the past half century – there are too many people and too many livestock – has disrupted the livestock economy. As a result, the cattle lose more and more value.

Lkipseina: „I have no memory of any major droughts in my childhood. Then the cows stayed around our kraal almost all year round. When we moved away, it was only for a few months, looking for pastures. The first time I went far away was to the Ethiopian border, ten years ago. The journey, with two hundred cows, took nine days and we stayed there for six months”. Lkipseina slept with his fellow herders among the cows in the bush, wrapping himself in a loincloth and using a neck chair as a pillow. They fed by mixing milk with cow’s blood. “It could happen that I did not eat for four days. Then it creaks and hurts all over your body, your eyes sink in, you can no longer see well and you tremble on your legs”.

Only if you adapt to the lifestyle of a cow, you are suitable as a herder. Lkipseina got used to the spartan nomadic life. The absence of luxury was not the hardest thing he had to endure. “Oi, joi, joi,” he says, “it happened so often that other nomads tried to steal our cows. Sometimes we had to fight off a hundred attackers. Of course there were deaths on these occasions, once we killed thirteen warriors of the Boran people in an attack. A nomad nowadays cannot do without a gun”.

In another drought year, he marched with the warriors in yet another direction, west to Baringo. There he got into a fight with the Pokot, another nomadic people. “The Pokot were always trying to rob us, sometimes twice a week. We each had at least three hundred bullets tied around our waists. As a child I never imagined that a shepherd’s life would be like that, that you would be at odds with so many other hostile peoples.”

The herders also increasingly clashed with owners of large cattle ranches. “You do everything for your cows. So I cut the barbed wire and secretly let my animals graze on those farms at night. That was dangerous, because the rich landowners call in the army for help and the soldiers can shoot at you, or worse, they can confiscate your cows.”

Last year when nearly all the grass had disappeared his cows started to die. That’s when he decided to get rid of most of his herd and he drove the animals to the town of Nyahururu. “It was my own decision, although I had of course -out of respect- informed the elderly. They thought I was stupid.” He bought a motorbike for three cows. “The only cows that have benefited me in my life are those that bought me my wife, my rifle and now my motor,” says Lkipseina bitterly.

Despite the deadly drought, the cow remains central to the culture of Lkipseina’s Samburu people. She is needed as a dowry to marry, to dispel a curse, to pay a fine. Lkipseina still feels the urge to go out with cattle, the sweet smell of cow dung hangs around his soul. “With your animals you never feel alone. Ai, jai, jai, but how lonely I am when I drop someone off with my motor in a town where among all those people I don’t understand anyone. I communicated with cows. I sang to them, I knew when they were dissatisfied”.

Young Samburu admired Lkipseina for his perseverance but go to school instead of choosing for a nomadic life. They don’t want to make the long treks he made all his life. “They already come back stressed from a one day walk with the goats. And they take, hidden under their loincloths, a schoolbook so as not to get bored,” snarls Lkipseina. “I don’t take dangerous journeys anymore, I don’t want to die and leave my family alone. I am the last of my family to have had such a hard life, my parents never had to go that far for grazing land. I was mad, if only I had sold all my cows much earlier.” Lkipseina is still an exception, but many young people praise his break with nomadism and say that they will also sell their livestock if drought keep on coming back with such a vengeance.

Lkioseina now uses his purchased motor as a taxi to earn some money. He zigzags through the dry riverbeds and across the savannah with a few passengers on the back. “I have started a new life, as a responsible man for my family. Of course I still have a few cows on hand. You never know”.




A drought of unprecedented proportions affects millions of people in the Horn of Africa – the eastern tip of Africa’s mainland, which includes Somalia and Ethiopia. Relief operations are difficult due to lack of funds. Less than a quarter of the millions of dollars needed have been pledged.

Seven million people in Somalia are in an emergency, according to the UN. That is more than half of the population. There are 10 million people in need in Ethiopia, 14 million in Sudan and 4 million in Kenya. Millions of cattle are already dead and some 210,000 Somalis are at risk of starvation in the coming months. In Somalia, a weak central government is fighting against terrorist group Al-Shabaab. This makes it difficult for aid organizations to reach the population.

The war in Ukraine caused a worldwide shortage of sunflower oil and wheat, and led to inflation. Two years ago in East Africa, huge swarms of locusts ate anything green. Then the drought started.

This article was first published in NRC on 16-7-2022

Photo’s by Koert Lindijer

The nomadic spirit at breaking point due to persistent drought in Somalia

Abdillah Fara’s kraal

Photography Petterik Wiggers/ Text Koert Lindijer

The village meeting in Budunbuto is rudely disrupted when the nomad Abdi storms in. “Water, water, who  has a jerrycan of water for me?” he begs those present on the mats. Village chairman Said comes out of his cross-legged position, rubs his withering red hair and turns to the visitor. “Why do you cover your head with a cloth”, he first wants to know. “Then you can’t see the worry on my face because of the drought,” the nomad replies.

The tall men in sarongs had gathered in the empty food warehouse of the village, 100 kilometres north of the regional capital Garowe, to discuss what to do after four years without rain. There is no water at all in the village. Only Said, the leader of the hamlet of a few hundred homes, can afford the 200 euros to get water with a tanker, 120 kilometres away.

He walks to his home through the swirling dust and hands his last two jerry cans to the desperate nomad. For Somalis, the traditions dictate, take care of each other. His children look sad, because they see the water disappear for their tea, as their parents will have to wash their feet and faces with sand in the morning for prayer.

The nomads outside the villages and towns suffer the most from the drought. “We are lost, last week an old woman and a young man in my family died,” says Abdi Ahmed, “goats and sheep die every day. We are dying, only God can save us.”

In the battered landscape with the blazing wind and the blistering heat, there is only room for hardened people. Their way of caring for each other, the social clan ties of the Somali people – all their drought-fighting traditions are now exhausted.

Development projects – storing rainwater or digging wells – are no longer able to cope with the climate change that has left the country very dry. In Somalia in March 670,000 residents were displaced by drought, 4.5 million are in urgent need of help, that is a quarter of the population. Due to the extreme drought, 13 million people in the entire Horn of Africa are at risk from food shortage.

It’s all about livestock

Hamdi runs the only shop in Budunbuto. Five cans of corn, a packet of flour and a bottle of cooking oil is all that remains on the shelves. “I don’t sell anything anymore,” she complains, “nobody has money, everyone owes me.” She talks about the fate of women and children in the crisis. “It breaks my heart to see them begging for water from the houses.” Outside, the nomad Abdi meanwhile walks agitated through the streets. “My donkey is gone,” he shouts, “how can I transport those jerry cans now, my kraal is one day walking from here.”

In the autonomous state of Puntland with approximately four million inhabitants in north-eastern Somalia, 95 percent of the rural population and 70 percent of urban residents depend on livestock. The savannas are arid, only in the rainy season does the grass reach so high that the sheep disappear into it.

“In Puntland, city dwellers depend on the support of their rural relatives,” says Ahmed Muse, the mayor of the capital Garowe. The city coat of arms shows off a sheep, in Puntland everything revolves around cattle. “I see more and more beggars in the city,” says the mayor, “because relatives in the bush no longer send money. City dwellers can no longer afford two meals a day. If the cattle die, the Somalis die.”

In Somalia, the nomadic spirit prevails, but the breaking point for most residents will come if no rains fall in the coming weeks. Hyena tracks can be seen on the savannah around Abdillah Fara’s kraal beyond Budunbuto.

“We try to bury our dead animals as much as possible because they attract countless predators,” he says as he kneels next to a carcass, the remains of a cow that he left here exhausted yesterday. During the night he repeatedly puts his remaining few cows on their feet, “because if they don’t stand, they fall asleep and succumb.”

Happy sheep don’t make noises. Now they are bleating noisily. “They tell me that they are sick, that the remaining grass is too salty, that they want to drink.” He pushes a faltering sheep towards the herd with his stick and sighs: “He won’t make it to the kraal tonight.”

Cycle of Worries

When it rains and the world turns green again, you can hear people here laughing and animals copulating. “Then we are free, then we milk every day. But the joy has disappeared from our lives. Now nobody is even going to visit his brother in a neighbouring kraal, we are stuck in a cycle of worry.” He apologizes – “I’m too tense to talk” – and walks away behind his animals.

Puntland is a relatively stable part of dangerous Somalia. The terrorist group Al Shabaab is mainly active in the south of the country, but the security situation in Puntland is so precarious that foreign visitors are not allowed to travel without a handful of bodyguards for their protection.

Gasoline prices

The cattle-exporting economy is in tatters and the local shilling has lost so much value through devaluation that the currency has been discontinued and replaced by the dollar. Inflation and high gasoline prices make it even more difficult for residents to survive.

Help is needed, but it isn’t coming. “Somalia always had drought and nothing will change that,” said Abdullahi Abdirahman Ahmed of the national aid organization Hadma in Garowe, “but climate change has left us in a permanent crisis. In the past, droughts struck every ten years, now every three years.”

Neither the central government in the federal capital Mogadishu nor that in the regional capital Garowe has any funds. “We depend on foreign donors, but they tell us that all funds go to the victims of the war in Ukraine. The Somalis will die and we have nothing to help them.”

This article was first published on 29-3-2022 in NRC Handelsblad

The storm gathers in the desert around Al Fashir in Darfur

As the village of Wadda awakens to the sound of pigeons, chickens and donkeys, an old man rides his camel over the sand that has been smoothed by the chilly morning wind. He straightens his turban and looks disapprovingly at the revolutionary slogans on a wall. The youths of this small village in North Darfur renamed it the ‘martyrs’ square’, in memory of a sit-in in 2019 against the then autocratic president Omar al-Bashir in which one of them was killed.

The camel kneels, the man dismounts and introduces himself as one of Wadda’s elders. “Young people are agitators these days,” he grumbles. “We elders have always kept the peace here. Now young people don’t fear to us anymore. That is why blood was spilled in this square.”

There exists a power vacuum in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, on an even bigger scale than in the capital Khartoum, where the conflict revolves around civilian resistance committees against the military coup in October. The conflict in Darfur is more complicated and already started at the beginning of this century. After a peace treaty in 2020, four rebel groups moved into the regional capital of Al Fashir, their leaders were given political positions and their fighters joined the government army of President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the allied Rapid Support Forces of Hamdan Dagalo Hemedti. The latter group, popularly known as Janjaweed, which relies on support of Arabized Sudanese and is notorious for its crimes against African Darfuri, seems to be the strongest of all.


In the marginalized regions of the country, far from the traditional centre of power in the Nile Valley, armed movements, which often represent narrow ethnic interest groups, are claiming their share. Nowhere is the disorder as widespread as in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. As in Khartoum, resistance committees have sprung up in Darfur and people are killed in demonstrations against the old guard. “Darfur was handed over to the rebel groups and militias, and that has led to complete impunity,” says a security specialist in Khartoum. “In addition, with the departure last year of the UN peacekeepers Unamid and the African Union, there is no longer a single force to keep the violence in check.”

In Wadda, a village of 15,000 inhabitants, the elderly who supported Bashir at the time are trying to regain their lost position. “They are trying to reverse everything that young people have achieved since the deposition of Bashir in 2019,” said Huda Adoma of the local resistance committee. He points to the village square. “The family of that man on the camel was involved in the death of our martyr. Like the resistance committees in Khartoum, we demonstrated here for weeks. Then the man’s son and three brothers came. They killed the martyr and stabbed another with a knife.”

To the displeasure of the younger people, the elderly of Wadda want to settle this murder in the village square in the traditional way, by paying ‘blood money’ to the family of the victim.  ”The elderly collaborated with the old regime. Now our time has come. We want justice.” 70 percent of the 45 million Sudanese are under the age of thirty.

Wadda is far from the world of tap water, paved roads, electricity and internet. That’s why it is even more remarkable how politically and culturally aware the young people are after thirty years of strict Islamic dictatorship under Bashir. But the youth are no match for the weapons of the warlords in Darfur. “We have fallen into a bottomless pit after the military coup,” sighs Ibrahim Abdullah, also a member of the resistance committee.

His colleague Rahma Yosif gives him a prod with her elbow to keep him from losing heart. “Certainly, the politics of Sudan are depressing and certainly here,” she says, “but we in the resistance committees are fighting for much more. There must also be a cultural revolution.” Her male supporters nod in agreement. “Sudan’s social problems are far greater than their political ones. In daily life we women have nothing to say and when we do speak out, the elders call us ‘sluts’.”

The overriding problem facing Wadda, and all of Darfur, however, is climate change. This leads to drought, lack of drinking water, impoverishment of the soil, competition for land between the black agricultural population and the Arabized nomads. At the time, instead of dealing with the problems, Bashir sent his army to the black farmers and armed the Janjaweed of the nomadic Arab population to burn their villages. At the height of this conflict, around 2002, an estimated 300,000 people were killed. The International Criminal Court indicted Bashir for genocide. Half of the population of Darfur, more than six million people, has been in need of food aid ever since that war, according to the UN. About two million Darfuri still reside in camps. Last year half a million were added as a result of new conflicts.


On the plains outside Wadda in the blazing midday sun, trees sink into a mirage. A woman on a donkey cart passes a mass grave from the war in 2003, when a rebel movement occupied the village. Since then, farmers keep more livestock so that with the extra proceeds they can buy weapons for their defence. They burned the dry reeds on their fields to keep the nomads out: traditionally, farmers and nomads made mutual agreements about access to the land, but the poisoned political climate has now led to distrust. “Those damn nomads wash their livestock behind our drainage ditches so we can’t drink the water anymore,” says a man who is digging up the sediment behind an artificial sand wall for when the rains return.

The Sahel, of which Sudan is a part, is one of the fastest warming places in the world – 2 degrees warmer than a century ago, research shows. Shepherds and farmers fight over dwindling resources. “Darfur can no longer handle the population pressure,” says an employee of UNEP, the environmental organization of the UN. In the past enough water remained behind in the creeks, now even the basins do not retain enough water.

Digging a water catchment

Until recently, aid organization Save the Children paid citizens with food to dig these types of drainage reservoirs. Now she pays in cash, as all food aid supplies were recently stolen. Development becomes difficult in times of conflict. In the clinic of the same aid organization in the village of Abudialage, nurse Islam Brema weighs a thirteen-month-old child in a washbasin. “Much too light,” he sighs. “And I have nothing to feed her.” Her mother ties the baby on her back and walks back home, 45 kilometers away. Hunger is on the rise: 12 percent of all families in Northern Darfur have at least one severely malnourished child.

A Save the Children employee draws three circles in the sand: two circles opposite facing each other, that of the elderly and that of the young, and a third one called development. “How can we reunite the elderly and the young by working together on development”, he wonders, “because although against the tide we must continue to help the citizens”.

Fatnia Hamad, 11, is sitting on a mat with her mother in Abudialage. The sun is setting, she is exhausted. “I get up at four o’clock, walk to school for two hours and back at the end of the morning. In the afternoon I cover that distance again with the donkey cart for water.” In the morning her mother cannot make tea due to lack of water. Sometimes Fatnia faints at school from fatigue. The mother looks with  a scornful eye at the men sitting separate on another mat, but they say they don’t have time to fetch water.

den of robbers

On the way back to Al Fashir, the capital of North Darfur, the driver zigzags in the clouds of dust over tracks skidding left and right. Under the last rays of the sun, the mountain range in the distance takes on erratic shapes, with in the foreground remains of houses of a village destroyed by a land dispute sticking out of the sand like rotten teeth. Whoever wants to avoid kidnapping for ransom here, always takes a different route on the way back. Al Fashir is a den of robbers, full of rampaging militias, government troops, rebels and armed criminals. Trucks with merchandise are robbed every day. At nine o’clock everyone rushes home to get in before the curfew.

The street into the city center is marked by the looted warehouse of the World Food Program warehouses. Seventeen hundred tons of food were lost at the end of December. All food aid in North Darfur came to a standstill. Further down in the city lies the looted former yard of the peacekeeping force Unamid. Generators and cars worth a total of millions of euros were stolen here.

Former Enemies

In Al Fashir, each armed group controls its own district. Despite the peace deal, warlords continue to recruit fighters. Sometimes they send them as mercenaries to Libya for extra income.

Darfur’s rebel groups say they are fighting for the black farmers, but most have not controlled areas for long since their formation early this century. The Janjaweed militia is probably the most violent against the population, as it were during the war at the beginning of this century. The former enemies must now ensure an integrated army and return of stolen land, two terms of the peace agreement not yet implemented.

Janjaweed fighters also show up in the heavily guarded office of Governor Nimir Abdel Rahim, leader of a rebel group. “I am a freedom fighter,” the governor emphasizes in a conversation. “As a freedom fighter, I captured general Burhan a long time ago, now the president of Sudan. I often remind him of that,” says Governor Nimir. “If you have defeated someone in a battle, you should no longer see him as an enemy.”

As with Burhan, he is lenient on Janjaweed leader Hamdan Dagalo Hemedti, the second most powerful man in the country. “We have to be careful with those two, they feel unsafe. If they give up their position, they risk losing everything.” Janjaweed leader Hemedti was given a gold mine in Darfur by Bashir.

Nimir is the first one to mention the issue of the major looting in Al Fashir at the end of December. “All soldiers misbehave, including those of my rebel group,” he readily admits. “The bases of former peacekeepers Unamid were looted in several towns elsewhere in Dafur. So my soldiers thought: we can do that too. But the government army and the Janjaweed started it. Tomorrow Burhan and Hemedti are coming to visit me in Al Fashir. We need to discuss how to encamp the armed groups outside the city.”

All the rebel leaders of the peace agreement sided with the military after the coup in October, and not with the protesting civilians. They feel part of the military world of thought, the army is the strongest power factor in the country and offers opportunities for money and looting. They call the civilian protesters “rioters.” “But I remain a freedom fighter”, says Nimir, “I allow the young people in Al Fashir to demonstrate”. They try to do so the next day during Burhan and Hemedti’s visit, but they are arrested and robbed of their mobile phones and shoes.

Two days later, fighting breaks out between a faction of the Janjaweed and a rebel group at Unamid’s apparently not-yet-dismantled base. There are several casualties.

This article was first published in NRC Handelsblad on 15-2-2022