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Preserving the “authentic”? Changing lifestyles in North Eastern Kenya

Siena Anstis's picture

The pastoral lifestyle in Kenya has made headlines around the world. Faced with the worst drought in memory, 2009 has been a difficult year for communities like the North Eastern Somali Kenyans.

The extreme weather conditions that Kenya is facing—intense drought followed by torrential rains—will probably get worse. Pastoral communities need to find ways to survive beyond demeaning foreign handouts that only prolong their unreliable lifestyle without offering sustainable new options.

Locally-developed organizations like Education for Marginalized Children of Kenya (EMACK) have realized this and are helping their nomadic Somali communities plan for the future. Olad Farah, EMACK's Deputy Chief of Party, agrees that offering the next generation a choice of pursuing their pastoral ways or entering the mainstream system is necessary.

In order to provide this option, EMACK has set up mobile schools. Teachers follow each mobile community around with basic teaching necessities (a blackboard, laminated posters, notebooks and pens). The students attend school for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. During the day, they attend dugsi (religious education), a requirement of the community, and take care of animals.
Abakore Primary School

Abakore Primary school, a school that takes a lot of transition students from mobile schools

When I was visiting the Rebai Mobile School, I spoke to a local chief. Trained in anthropology as well as journalism, I was curious to know whether cultural changes like the introduction of primary school and boarding school were a welcome initiative. Did communities want to diversify to preserve their culture? Was the constant and immediate threat of famine and floods enough to motivate internal change?

The chief insisted that change was needed. Somali pastoral children had to be educated to be able to teach in their communities, fight for the environment and represent the Somalis in the Kenyan Parliament. Education was a part of cultural adaptation to the challenges of the present and the future.

Just last week, I visited another mobile school, Garunley. A member of the School Management Committee (SMC) highlighted that education was the most important gift to a child because, “the type of life we are leading is not the best and we do not want our children to live the same way.”
Garunley Mobile School

A class at the Garunley Mobile School

Like the rest of the Somali community, the chief and the SMC member had once been opposed to education, which they suspected aimed at “Christianizing” children and ruining the pastoral way of life. However, through education, these people are supporting a generational change of children who want to be pilots, doctors and teachers.

The potential extinction of a way of life in favor of one that is more sustainable and dependable tends to alarm conservative anthropologists and aid organizations. They seem to have this idea of “authentic culture”: anything that remains non-Western and based in the origins of human development, which they believe should be preserved.

However, large-scale economic development that makes a tangible difference in the economic conditions of the poor comes at a cultural cost. While living standards may go up, the global capitalist system imposes itself. Cultural preservation may simply not be sustainable when communities want their immediate situations to improve despite the shock of a new port, highways and IT infrastructure. 

But, many aid organizations are averse to this deep-reaching "industrial development." Insisting on the “authenticity” of a culture, they are reluctant to implement development projects that might transform local markets and throw them into a more complicated—but financially enriching—international system.

In all these questions, it remains the community’s choice. So, what is more important? Combining cultural preservation and economic development in the long-run, i.e., low impact projects that can be adapted to local cultures? Or large-scale projects that undermine cultures by separating families, introducing higher coeducation, while including women in the work force etc.

In conclusion, has anyone seen any particularly interesting mixes of economic development (not bee-keeping or goat-rearing, but large-scale projects like the building of a new port), where cultural sustainability has been factored into development? Was it successful?