Friday, March 23, 2007

I love when the Maasai make the news; its never an actual news story, and more like , "Oh those crazy Maasai! What will they do next? They love their cows so much! Silly nomads!" Still, this article is pretty hillarious; at the same time, most of the Maasai guys that I know would not be obsessing about their herds, and would be quite keen to make the most of being so up close and personal with Gisele.

Thanks to Rob Person for sending this along.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

little miss kenyan sunshine

That is, if you set the movie in northern Kenya instead of the American Southwest and you replaced the beat-up yellow VW bus full of a quirky family of misfits with a yellow beat-up VW bus full of sheep. And this guy right here!

That's right, in my ongoing adventures with transportation, I rode back from doing interviews on Monday in a van full of sheep. We were doing interviews in a town called Ngare Ngiro that is located about 40 minutes west of Nanuyuki, and which was having a big livestock auction that day. This worked out well for the interviews, as there were a lot of pastoralists around. However, by the time we wanted to go home, the only cars going east were also filled with animals. I thought this was fine at first, but then the VW started to break down every 15 minutes or so; in the end we had to get it started in a Litte Miss Sunshine-style running push. In addition, the butt of one of the sheep was pressed up against my leg, and i started to get afraid that it was going to poop on me, so I kept trying to push it away. I was vindicated in my fear when the sheep started peeing on the floor of the van, luckily now further away from my foot.

Tune in Friday, when I cross the red sea in a dinghy with a bunch of somali pirates.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

900 cubic centimeters of raw whining power. No outstanding warrants for my arrest.

Oh man, another incredibly busy week. I think I'm going to hold off on writing extensively until I get a chance to resume writing daily journal entries (I'm praying that that will happen soon). In addition, my internet connection seems to be pretty crap-tacular right now, so another photo-heavy update will have to wait (which is a shame, because I have a ton of good ones). Suffice it to say, interviews are going well- so far, I have recorded over 25 hours of oral history from 16 old men and women from various pastoralist communities in the area. I've been working with two enumerators for each interview, one who asks the questions (usually in Maa, occasionally in Kiswahili) and another who translates for me, so that I can follow along and ask follow-up questions if I need to. For the most part, the interviews have gone really well, yielding some fascinating details about the history of the communities I'm studying (which I'll describe in more detail some other time).

Anyhow, I just wanted to share that I rode a motorcycle (a pikipiki for all of you following along kwa kiswahili) for the first time in my life. I suppose "motorcycle" is less accurate than "totally awesome off-road dirtbike driven by a maasai guy named nicholas". I was able to line up an interview with a 104 year old Maasai man in the village of Chumvi, but I wasn't able to rent a car. However, I managed to take a public bus (matatu) to where the paved road ends; from there, my research assistant managed to find a friend with a motorbike who could take me the other 8 kilometers or so back to Chumvi. It was pretty much the most fun thing I've done in the history of ever, and I'm seriously considering buying one and learning to drive it, as it is cheaper than continuously hiring cars, and I find it a lot more pleasant. And don't worry mom, I wore a helmet.

Hi-Diddly-Dee! Goddamn! The Pirate's Life for Me!

More soon! I promise!

Monday, March 12, 2007

On The Road Again

So, as you might be able to tell by the protracted silence, I've been busy. I was in the field from last Wednesday through Saturday night, and am on my way back out right now. In addition, the internets have been quite slow here in Nanyuki, so I've been stymied in my last few attempts to post. At any rate, enjoy these pictures from the weekend, and look for regular posts to resume sometime in the next few days!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

So as of yesterday, the Suzuki was not yet road-ready; however, it happened that Saaya's uncle Massere was going to be going to be visiting Koija, a group ranch in western Mukogodo and that we could get a ride with him.

On our way to Koija, we stopped briefly in Kimanjo, which is a small town in the Digirri community (one of the five Maa speaking communities of Mukogodo). The village itself was quite small; essentially two rows of small concrete and corrugated metal buildings built across the side of a hill, with houses extending in both directions up and down the hill. Something that I noticed was that most of the people that I saw in the central town were male; pre-teen and early teen boys kicking a soccer ball, older teenagers of the warrior age set standing around with spears and knives, and still older men sitting and talking in front of buildings and under trees; the only women I saw were in transit, carrying large packages from one place to another.

After sitting and chatting a bit, we headed on to Koija, a group ranch in the far western end of Mukogodo division, in the LeUaso community. The idea of the group ranches, which were created in the late 1970s by a joint project of the Government of Kenya and the World Bank, was to formalize a system of communal land tenure, giving entire communities title to the land. The idea was to help “rationalize livestock management” and essentially turn these nomadic pastoralists into market-oriented cattle ranchers. The group ranch project in Koija (unlike in many ranches in southern Maasailand), has succeeded, not necessarily because of improved efficiency of livestock production, but because the community used the group ranch land to create a community-owned eco-lodge in the late 90s. While the group ranch eco-lodges are also common on the other group ranches in Mukogodo, what is more unique about Koija is that it operates in a partnership with a western investor, who actually manages the lodge and does publicity, with the profits after expenses going to the community. The purpose of the trip was that leaders from Tessia, another group ranch on the other side of Mukogodo, are also considering partnering with a western investor, as they currently manage their lodge alone, and they barely break even, and occasionally run losses. The meeting was brokered by Mesere, in his role as a community facilitator for the Laikipia Wildlife Forum.

What I got out of the meeting was that the success of the Koija group ranch was not so much due to the partnership with the western investor as it was its internal structure of the group ranch. What is interesting is that although all group ranches were chartered by the same law, the constitution of the group ranch was up to the individual communities, meaning that it was up to them how to structure the organization. As the Koija group ranch leaders explained it, the unique feature of Koija is the strength of community development groups; small independent organizations created for a specific purpose (women’s beadmaking groups, young men’s singing and dancing groups, etc.). In addition to participating in income generating activities in and around the lodge (selling souvenirs and entertainment to tourists), these organized groups are themselves the constituent units of the Group Ranch Institutional Management committee. As the leaders said themselves, this ensures that information flows from both the level of the group ranch chairperson and board of trustees down to the community, but also in the other direction, providing very good information about the micro-management of the ranch. They also mentioned that these flows of information have also been utilized by the area chief, therefore helping with local government. It will be interesting to see how this organizational structure compares with other group ranches in the area, and how the actual day-to-day operation of Koija matches this description.

Monday, March 05, 2007

In my country, there's a problem...

And that problem is the transport.

As I mentioned in my last post, at the end of last week, I had been pretty eager to get out into the field and start doing interviews; I arrived in Nanyuki on Wednesday and had been in a bit of a holding pattern all day Thursday and Friday, as Saaya had some meetings regarding his HIV/AIDS initiative. At any rate, he and I had sat down on Thursday night and sketched out a relatively ambitious schedule for Friday and Saturday night whereby we would interview 5 or 6 elders from in various neighborhoods in his home community, Il Ngwesi, and then return to Nanyuki sunday so he could have a final meeting about the HIV/AIDS initiative. We arranged to rent a small Suzuki four wheel drive vehicle from his uncle, who works as a community facilitator for the Laikipia wildlife forum. I got a bit nervous when I saw the car, as it looked pretty old and beat up, but he assured me that it drives well.

So around midday on Friday, we set off, eager to get to the village where were going to be doing our first interview. About 15 minutes out of Nanyuki, we started to smell smoke, and when we pulled over, the engine was totally overheating, and it looked like a tube from the radiator to the engine had cracked, meaning that no water was getting to the engine, which is why we were standing at the side of the road looking at a hot, steaming mess. Luckily, while were stopped there trying to figure out what to do,Githeri, a family friend of Saaya's who just happens to work as a mechanic, was coming by on a bus, and he stopped and gave us a hand, changing the tube, and riding with us to the next closest town, where he proceeded to tinker with the engine for the next 2 hours or so- as soon as he fixed one thing, something else seemed to blow.

At any rate, once he got everything fixed and running, we were quite eager to get back on the road. Saaya, Githeri, and I piled into the Suzuki, and we headed off towards our first interview. However, once we got out of range of this village, the roads started to get terrible, until it narrowed to little more than a dusty, uneven path. How bad was it? So bad, in fact that at one point, we skidded off the road and the vehicle TIPPED OVER ONTO ITS SIDE. Everyone was fine, as we were wearing seatbelts, but we were definitely a bit rattled, as was the Suzuki. There were relatively substantial scratches and dents, and the rear view mirror on the driver's side had come off completely. In addition, all of Githeri's intrepid tinkering had apparently been undone, and for the rest of the day, the suzuki stalled out every 20 minutes or so. By the time we got to our first interviewee, it was 6 PM. We decided to just do the interview, and then cut our losses and head back to Nanyuki to have the car looked at by a car repair shop.

The interview went well, but on the way back to Nanyuki, I couldn't help despairing a bit. It sunk in just how tough it is to do research (or anything for that matter) here, and just how bad the transportation infrastructure is. Even though one of my big aims in my dissertation is disproving arguments that state weakness in Africa is solely due to bad roads and other infrastructural problems that make broadcasting power difficult, I am now certain that this is in fact a part of the picture that it is IMPOSSIBLE to ignore.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Something I’ve been wrestling over in the process of writing my prospectus and preparing to start my project is exactly how to describe the communities I’m working in. My initial inclination to check out Laikipia District as a field site over the summer was reading in several different places that there were Maasai communities there. Upon visiting, these writings seemed to be confirmed; I recognized at least the most superficial aspects of Maasai culture from my prior trips to Maasai communities in the south, and most of the people I talked to self-identified as Maasai. However, things started to get more complicated as I read some papers in the Fall which made strong claims that there were no Maasai in remaining Laikipia, and that all existing Maasai sections were either in southern Kenya or Tanzania. I more or less ignored this discrepancy and carried on, describing this set of communities I intended to work with as “Maasai” in my prospectus. In the last few days, I’ve managed to clarify this situation by reading a bunch of work by Lee Cronk, an anthropologist at Rutgers who did work in Mukogodo division (the area I’m planning on working in) in the 1980s. Cronk clarifies that although most of the people living in Mukogodo division self-identify as Maasai, speak Maa, practice a number of Maasai rituals, and practice cattle pastoralism, they all have in the past practiced some combination of hunting, gathering, or cultivation, all of which fall ouside of the “Maasai Mainstream”. As a result, they are categorized as “Il-Torrobo” by the Maasai, a word that means “hunters” but which carries substantial social stigma.
Cronk’s work focuses on the Mukogodo, who were previously cave-dwelling beekeepers who became cattle pastoralists in about two generations. More interesting to me is a neighboring community, the Mumonyot, who are one of the remnants of the Laikipiak maasai, a peripheral Maasai community that was politically dominant in the early 19th century, but was defeated by an alliance of core maasai sections in the 1860s. After the defeat, some of the Laikipiak were assimilated into the victorious Maasai sections, while others adopted hunting and gathering while trying to regain stock by raiding neighboring communities of Samburu, Boran, and Rendille. Eventually they started herding cattle again, but they are still recognized as being “Dorrobo”. What I think is really fascinating about this community is that it raises important questions about what “survival” of political units entails; even though the Laikipiak were eliminated as a political unit, this didn’t entail death for all (or even most) of the people who had previously identified as Laikipiak. In addition, looking at this community should provide an interesting opportunity to look at the effect of changes in the size, structure, and economic orientation of a community shape and are shaped by local institutions.

truth be told, I wrote this on Tuesday, before I left Nairobi for Nanyuki, the captial of Laikipia. I tried to post it on Thursday, but the power cut out before I got to save (that's how things roll here up in Laikipia), and then I spent the past two days starting my interviews with leaders from two different Mukogodo Maasai communities. Lots of stories from both of those, but not until I'm less exhausted.