I reiterate, this lifestyle is not sustainable

The Economist’s Middle East and Africa section has a piece on the plight of those exposed to environemntal disasters due to climate change. The article talks a bit about the nomads of northern Kenya and how their livelihood remain endangered as the place gets drier and the drought cycle shortens. As I have stated before, it is not enough for us to pretend that the type of lifestyles still maintained by the nomads of Kenya, and Africa in general, are sustainable. The simple truth is that they are not. It is 2009 and human beings should not still be living at the mercy of nature, if they can avoid it. It is time these communities were given incentives to start laying the groundwork for a sedentary lifestyle. This is not cultural imperialism or anything. It is what’s practical.

And by the way, it is not condescending to say that nomadic pastoralism belongs in the stateless past when there was no concept of land tenure or stuff like libraries and hospitals and schools that require a sedentary lifestyle. “Incentives” here means some sort of nudge in the right direction. And to be quite honest, sometimes communities might make the wrong choices if the state stays out of their business. If a community chooses a lifestyle that kills half its children before they are five, confines women to the fields and kitchen, promotes high illiteracy rates and is generally backward by universally accepted standards of human life then I believe that the state has a duty to intervene. Now I know that for most of Africa the state is largely unable to do anything, and that is why there are NGOs everywhere (well to some extent). But this (the existence of an interventionist developmental state) ought to be the case.

How we can make the state do what it ought to do is another can of worms. But I think that right off the bat those involved in the development industry should always make it clear that the aim is to guarantee people a decent livelihood and not to merely make them comfortable in their poverty by pretending to “respect” their cultures and ways of life. This faux-respect is the kind of stuff that should never leave anthropology seminar rooms.

And going back to the Economist piece, the clown who wrote that piece should know that talking about the poor of the global south “picking up sticks” in conflicts is not cool. Such a condescending tone does not help anyone. The cheap humor is not worth it.

some unwelcome radicalism

I am not a radical, or at least I don’t think of myself as one. But after reading this story about pastoralists in Eastern Kenyan, a rather radical idea came to my mind. You see, ever since man began living a sedentary life, history has proven that it is the best way to live. It offers security, provides opportunity for the development of a strong government, enables easy provision of essential services like education, healthcare and social care, among others. There are a few exceptions to the rule. The Mongols were a nomadic bunch that terrorized the life out of sedentary city states. But they were the exception that proves the rule. Civilization and human society flourishes in a sedentary setting, period.

So knowing this, I wonder if it would be a bad idea to make it government policy that nomadic pastoralist communities (in East Africa, the Sahel and Southern Africa) be offered incentives to settle down. Not forced, but given the right incentives. They move around not because they love to, but in search of pasture and water. The government could dig wells and start grass farms for these communities. It sounds naive and outlandish but think of the difference such an initiative would make in two or three generations.

Now before you anthropologists come for my neck I challenge you to be honest with yourselves. Why do you believe that it is OK for the such communities to live the way they do, with their short life spans and limited options while the rest of humanity does infinitely better? And don’t tell me that they are happy with their lives. I doubt that they would be if they had the options that other people have. I hearken to Amartya Sen’s arguments here. We need to expand these communities’ options if we are going to develop a single united country. They are not samples of past human existence for our study and amusements. They are people who are ends in themselves.

This reminds me of a post that I have been working on forever (still coming) on the approach to development in Africa. The prevailing mentality is that the African is developed when he is not dying of aids, malaria, hunger, civil war and the like. The current development efforts all across the continent aim at keeping people alive and comfortable at a very low station in life. I think this should change. Sustainable developmetn in Africa will only be achieved through real transformation of African societies. China is doing it. India is doing it. Africa can, and will, do it.  I know that some will argue that we should stop the civil conflict, eradicate HIV prevalence and do all other kinds of things before we think of putting refrigerators in people’s homes and housing them in modern houses. I say this is a heap of horse manure. Botswana, although with a high HIV prevalence rate, is doing fine. And the civil wars are not everywhere. Somalia, Darfur and Eastern Congo, compared to the rest of the vast continent of Africa can qualify as “isolated incidents” (yes, I can push the envelope on this one).