A Journey with Kenya’s Shepherds Struggling Against Drought and Land Degradation Text by Anthony Langat
Photographs by Luis Tato

Faced by a complex intermarriage between land degradation and climate change, the Samburu of northern Kenya have to contend with rangelands that are increasingly unproductive and more frequent droughts.

Late afternoon in Lorugusho village in Laisamis, Kenya, the sky is azure and the village is silent, safe for a few children playing.

Some goats forage on trees within the village compound and a group of women help roof a dome-shaped traditional hut -manyatta- hoping to have it done by dusk.

Lagato Leturuka, 52, is seated under
a lone tree in his compound, his gaze fixed on the general direction of Killaker hill in the eastern horizon.
He recalls that the area near Laisamis town was inhabited by wildlife like zebras, elephants and even lions.

“In those days, everyone hurried to get to their manyattas before dusk in fear of the wildlife which roamed these areas as vegetation was thick,” he recollected. The pasture was enough for their livestock and the wildlife.
Though there was drought then, Lagato recalls that they were few and shorter. He vividly remembers the drought of 1974 which decimated seventy of his father’s livestock leaving him with only ten. While the effects were dire then, it took a short while to bring their livestock to healthy numbers.

And it wasn’t until ten years later, in 1984 and then in 1994 that they experienced serious droughts. According to his experience, drought would come in ten-year cycles but in recent years, this has changed.

Nowadays, unlike in decades past, most of the land is bare, pasture and water are scarce. Rangelands in Kenya’s north that were once lush have either turned barren or are riddled with deep gullies.

The dual threat of land degradation and the changing climate have made the Samburu pastoralists’ lives difficult as they have to move far in search of pasture and water, negatively affecting their livelihoods and culture.

Hellen Gichenje, an expert in land degradation said that land degradation and climate change are linked, and the inter-linkages are complex. “Soils contain vast reserves of organic carbon, and when land is degraded, carbon dioxide is released from cleared and dead vegetation, and through the reduction of the carbon sequestration potential of the degraded land. Moreover, climate change may exacerbate land degradation through alteration of precipitation, temperature, and wind patterns,” she said.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines land degradation as “a decline in the current and potential capability of soils to produce goods and services”. The Global Environment Facility estimates that globally, about 25 percent of the total land area has been degraded and that 3.2 billion people are affected by it. It also points out that “the problems are particularly severe in the driest parts of the planet which cover approximately 40 percent of the world’s land area and support two billion people.” Africa is particularly vulnerable, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which estimates that 45 % of the continent’s land is severely affected by land degradation and desertification.
In Kenya, a report by the country’s Ministry of Environment in 2016 found that the problem is serious with high land degradation likely to occur on about 61.4% of the total area of Kenya, while very high degradation affects 27.2% of the land. “The most affected counties include Samburu, Kitui, Garissa, Tana River, Mandera, Turkana, Marsabit, Baringo, West Pokot, Kajiado, Kilifi, Wajir and Makueni,” the report found. However, in the case of Marsabit and other counties in northern Kenya, there are deep gullies due to erosion.

Lejerin Lekorkoroule, 53, an age-mate of Lagato’s lives in Sagardala, a few kilometers east of Lorugusho. Like Lagato, he equally speaks of his youth with such fondness as there was plenty of livestock and enough pasture and water for them.

The father of nine and husband of two wives, has five camels, two cattle, forty sheep and fifteen goats.

“The current life is difficult.
When I was young, there was a lot of rain and not too much drought,”

Like other Samburu herdsmen, when drought bites, he has to move with his livestock. Two years ago, he had to move hundreds of kilometers west with his livestock to West Pokot.

This year has been better as they received rain in May. Two months later, pasture has gotten scarce and he has started moving from his Sagardala home. As of July, he had pitched camp at Killaker some ten kilometers from his home.

He was accompanied by his second wife and children, his elder daughter and her children. The camp was set on a slope of a small hill overlooking Killaker hill to the west. The camp is nothing more than a make-shift one with nothing permanent. There were four different livestock pens circular in shape and made of twigs all attached to each other such that they all crowd and make one big circle.

Lejerin and his family and the son of a friend who also stayed at camp slept at four points of the camp. Lejerin and his wife slept at the north-western part of the camp, his sons slept at the south-western point, his daughter and her children at the south east while the neighbor’s son slept at the north eastern point of the camp. The idea is to box in the livestock in order to protect them from wildlife and rustlers.

The further they move from permanent settlements in search of pasture, the more real the threat from wildlife to his livestock; his only livelihood. Killaker, where Lejerin camped falls under the Melako Conservancy which has wildlife including the hyenas. One night in mid-July, the threat was so vivid. At around ten, Lejerin’s dogs started barking furiously facing south.

Together with his son Peari, he stood by his livestock’s pens shining flashlights to the southern direction. Up to four pairs of eyes could be seen reflecting the light. The unmistakable laughter of hyenas could be heard. Sensing a threat, the hyenas retreated only to come back later. That night, they made three attempts at snatching Lejerin’s livestock to no success.

Lejerin, like his son, was armed with a spear, a sword and a club. Sometimes it is not enough and the hyenas can be lucky if they move swiftly. “Just last week they managed to kill two of my cattle. We managed to chase them away but the damage had been done. Part of the meat we ate last night came from the cows they killed,” said Lejerin.

Life starts early at Lejerin’s camp.

His wife milks the goats and is helped by Peari to milk the cattle as Lejerin milks the camels. Esther milks her own goats and cattle. The activity takes half an hour to one hour and by six it is done.
Lejerin’s wife, Misito and his daughter Esther cook tea for breakfast to be served with dried meat. The tea and meat are put in traditional guards and served in enamel cups or plastic tins.

After breakfast, the livestock are divided according to where they will graze and who will be the shepherd. The schools are closed and therefore Lejerin’s children are not going to school. Even so, not all of his children go to school.

he posed. The young children aged five and seven take the camels to graze not far from camp.

“If all of them go to school, who is going to help me take care of the livestock?”

Misito walks with Lejerin driving the cattle to a solar-powered watering hole in Sagardala almost five kilometers away. She takes the donkeys too so that she can bring back water for domestic use. Peari has to tackle the longest distance of all. The teenager has to take the 55 sheep and goats for water nearly fifteen kilometers away in Laisamis River.

According to Lejerin, the sheep and goats can stay for three days without water while cattle have to drink at least every second day. The camels can stay at camp for ten to fourteen days without water.

The sun is hot and it takes over one hour to get to the watering hole. The borehole at Sagardala was built by the road contractors who built the main highway from Isiolo to Moyale at the border with Ethiopia. Before that there was no borehole at Sagardala and the thousands of livestock had to be taken for water either to Salapani or to Laisamis River. The borehole is a beehive of activity.

Men, women and children have brought their livestock to drink. They also have their donkeys to ferry jerrycans of water back home for domestic use. Others decide to get a shower from the trough as the livestock drink.

By noon, the crowd has thinned out as the pastoralists head out to their various camps or homes. The next day, they will continue with the same circle.

At Laisamis River where Peari takes his father’s sheep and goats, thousands of other livestock meet there. The river is no longer flowing since the last time there was rain in the area was over two months ago. It is made up of small pools of greening water along the course of the river. Huge rounded rocks and deep banks are a reminder of how big the river once was.

Years ago, it is said, the Laisamis River was once permanent; flowing all year round. Along its banks, locals have dug boreholes from which they fetch water. Troughs have also been made in some places. Just like at the Sagardala borehole, many bring their livestock to the Laisamis River to drink, they bathe, wash and fetch water for domestic use.

Peari, bare-chested with a traditional cloth tied around his waist, arrives at the river at around noon. The sun is unforgivingly hot so finds a rock under the shade of an acacia to wait for his turn at the borehole. Once his turn comes, he embarks on the arduous task of fetching water from the hole and pouring it on the trough for his sheep and goats to drink.

He leaves for camp at around three so that the sheep and goats can browse on their way home. He makes sure to get home before dark in order to avoid the threat of hyenas on the way.

“If any livestock doesn’t get here by dark, it will definitely be eaten by hyenas,” said Lejerin.

Another deadly encounter for the Samburu livestock is the gullies that have torn across their land. Lagato knows the dangers so well having lost a camel to a deep one just recently. His sons were away in the grazing fields of Soriado tending to his camels, cattle, sheep and goats when a pregnant camel fell into a deep gully dying on the spot.

“My son called me to tell me that the camel has died from falling into a gully and I was devastated. Losing a camel is like losing a huge truck to an accident,” he said. Lagato usually sells his camels to pay for his children;s school fees. A mature camel can fetch between USD700 to USD900.

Jugged gullies rip across bare land leaving behind open scars where no grass can germinate. The gullies can be witnessed across Salapani and neighboring Sagardala which is home to Lejerin. The borehole in Salapani for instance, is surrounded by gullies in all directions. Livestock can still get into some o them as they are taken to the borehole for water or for pasture. It was partly because of the killer gullies that Lejerin moved his cattle further north to Killaker which has fewer gullies and better pasture.

The same for Lagato, who preferred far Soriado as better rangelands. He was aware of the killer gullies but hoped that his livestock could evade the danger.
For several weeks since May, his camels, cattle and goats were up in Soriado over fifty kilometers east of his home in Salapani. At around the same time, three other camels belonging to fellow villagers which had been taken to the same grazing fields fell into the gullies and died.

The difficult life of pastoralism now has led the Samburu to embrace education and also look for alternative sources of livelihoods. Lejerin ensures that he has one household near town where his children who go to school can easily get to one. As he moves far with his livestock, his second wife and some children, his first wife has to remain in the home to care for the school-going children.

His eldest son, Ben Lekorkoroule went to school and is now working in the government’s power distribution company as an electrician.
Lejerin’s younger brother, Lengipin Gargoroule, 43, never went to school. However, he was lucky to be trained as a wildlife warden. For over ten years, he has worked in many conservancies in Marsabit, Isiolo and Samburu. He now works in Milako Conservancy tracking poachers and protecting wildlife.

Lengipin’s wife, Mperes Gargaroule, 32, is a member of Salami Women Group together with her sister-in-law Nkisama Gapana.

The group was founded by 30 women but now has only 18 active in the group’s activities. The self-help group engages in beadwork on order whereby they make colorful traditional Samburu ornaments including necklaces, belts, bracelets, curios among others. In a good month Mperes and Nkisama can each get USD200.

However, things have been tough during the Covid-19 pandemic. Orders haven’t been coming through. They have therefore resorted to other activities to earn an income. Mperes sells household items like sugar, salt and cooking fat while Nkisama builds the traditional dome-shaped houses called Manyatta for a fee.

Nkisama charges USD70 for a complete house. It takes her and two other women up to two weeks to finish building the house. She doesn’t know whether she will be commissioned for another. She looks forward to an end to the pandemic so that she can get back to making curios from beads.

With a restored land, the Samburu can comfortably earn a decent livelihood from its livestock. Some restoration work has been done in Kenya and the region to stave off further land degradation. As Johan Robinson, the UNEP Chief of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Biodiversity and Land Degradation states, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have mainstreamed sustainable land management in national policies and best practices are being replicated in neighboring countries.
With a restored land, the Samburu can comfortably earn a decent livelihood from its livestock. Some restoration work has been done in Kenya and the region to stave off further land degradation. As Johan Robinson, the UNEP Chief of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Biodiversity and Land Degradation states, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have mainstreamed sustainable land management in national policies and best practices are being replicated in neighboring countries.
With a restored land, the Samburu can comfortably earn a decent livelihood from its livestock. Some restoration work has been done in Kenya and the region to stave off further land degradation. As Johan Robinson, the UNEP Chief of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Biodiversity and Land Degradation states, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have mainstreamed sustainable land management in national policies and best practices are being replicated in neighboring countries.
As a solution, Robinson counsels that managing the rangelands sustainably will be an effective way in halting desertification. “This includes both estimating and maintaining rangeland carrying capacity and leaving land fallow at the correct times. In doing so, pastoralists need to be able to determine what is a healthy rangeland and be incentivized in keeping the land healthy. Conservation and restoration initiatives should be matched with economic incentives for pastoralists,” he said.
In Kenya however, a system of agricultural extension which had officers who would carry such messages to the pastoralists and lead the community in restoration activities has broken down and the pastoralists are on their own. Neither Lagato nor Lejirin has had an extension officer come to advise them on their livestock.

The traditional system of rotational grazing has also been undermined by constant conflicts over resources such that if the Samburu were to leave some land fallow, another community would take advantage of the fallow land.Lagato, Lejerin and other Samburu pastoralists may continue facing a difficult life in search of pasture and water if their rangelands aren’t restored as it is only then that they can grow their herds and livelihoods. “Well-managed rangelands have a higher capacity to trap and store water and nutrients, including soil organic carbon, sustaining primary productivity,” said Robinson.

Text: Anthony Langat
Photographs: Luis Tato
Interactive production team: Lola García-Ajofrín, Marcin Suder, Piotr Kliks
Design: Małgorzata Mrozek
Web development: Piotr Kliks
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