Pokot Pastoralism

Environmental Change and Socio-Economic Transformation in North-West Kenya


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions for the African Griot! Can you please begin by giving us a brief overview of your book Pokot Pastoralism?

Yes, of course. I am glad to give you a brief insight into my work. 

It all began in 2013 when I started my PhD at the University of Cologne, at a time when I had just abandoned my idea of continuing research in north-eastern Nigeria, because the conflict unleashed by Boko Haram no longer allowed this. 

At that time, Michael Bollig advertised a position in environmental anthropology, a field I was familiar with, but not yet with the new context in eastern Africa. So, in the following years I conducted my research in East Pokot in the projects “Resilience, Collapse and Reorganisation” and “Future Rural Africa”– both funded by the German Research Council (DFG) – and was able to write this book. 

I see the book both in an anthropological continuum of research with pastoral groups at the University of Cologne and also very much in an interdisciplinary collaborative context, which is becoming increasingly important in the last decades. In my book, I try to respond to this in-depth disciplinary and openly interdisciplinary challenge by offering an ample overview of the pastoral and agro-pastoral Pokot with whom I have lived and worked, along with an account of environmental change over time and the relations of pastoral livelihoods with these changes.

To combine both, the detailed anthropological perspective coupled with the insight into the results of natural sciences, such as botany, geography or paleoecology, and their views on landscape transformation and its rationale that often goes along, but sometimes does not, with Pokot explanations of change, was an important concern for me.

At the beginning of the book, I therefore situate my work in the historical ecology approach that enabled me to connect findings from different domains in this interdisciplinary context, before giving the reader an impression of what it means to pursue research in the pastoral context of East Pokot. The presentation of pastoral livelihoods in the East African context, as well as the detailed description of Pokot pastoralists at Mt Paka and agro-pastoral livelihoods in the Churo region, will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of life in the northern Baringo County.

The following insights into the landscape transformation over the last 200 years from the different perspectives, historically assessed, from a pastoralist’s perspective, and also accompanied by a remote sensing analysis, should give a better understanding of the variability of pastoral landscapes. This should also help to avoid holding pastoralists solely responsible for certain developments (e.g. degradation processes), but to show the complexity of historical processes and the emergence of new actors (colonial powers) and the disappearance of other actors (wildlife, fire), which also had a strong and lasting influence on landscape formation. Furthermore, it is important to show that varying timescales and the magnitude of environmental changes are also highly relevant, as exemplified by slower incremental changes against ecological invasions, and that changing land-use regimes in turn have a significant impact on the landscape configuration. For instance, the use of fire can be used for grazing management by pastoralists, but in the highland context with agro-pastoral land use it also fosters the ecological invasion of Dodonaea viscosa. I would like to see my book as an attempt to better understand the history of pastoralism in East Pokot and the multiple challenges pastoral groups face today. Thereby I believe it is important to let local perspectives go hand in hand with scientific findings, and this is what an environmental anthropology emphasises.

You used a variety of methods to examine landscape change and social transformations for your book, can you please elaborate on what these methods were? Did COVID affect the way you gathered your research?

During research, I used many different methods that contributed in different ways to the overall picture. These included standard anthropological methods such as participant observation, household surveys, interviews, network analysis, or cognitive methods to understand, for example, the extent of environmental change from the perspective of pastoralists, who have an incredible knowledge about their environments and at the same time can assess which changes are local, which are temporary, and which actually follow a long-term trend.

In addition, looking at history through archival material has helped to get an overview of how the landscape used to look in the past. But it is not only the classic archival material that helps us here, but also the work of paleoecologists, whose analyses make fundamental contributions to the landscape reconstruction of past times. 

When we look at the present and recent history, it was very helpful to evaluate remote sensing data in collaboration with colleagues from geography. In this collaboration, my work was especially focused on the collection of data for ground truthing and the discussion of the results of the GIS analysis. Altogether, I focused in particular on anthropological research methods and received further inspiration from collaborations with colleagues working in different disciplines, yet with a similar focus and interest in pastoral landscapes, their formation and transformations.

The Covid situation, however, had little impact on my research, with the exception that a desired research trip to Kenya in 2020 and the following year was not possible. I hope to make up for this in 2022 and continue my research in East Pokot.

Your book looks at two hundred years of social and ecological transformation of the East Pokot in north-west Kenya, how did you decide on this specific time frame and was there a certain period of time that interested you more?

The choice of this period was not random, but based on the reports of the elderly Pokot, as also reproduced in scientific publications, that about 200 to 250 years ago the pastoral section of the Pokot formed and inhabited in the Rift Valley. Since I intended to deal with pastoral livelihoods and the pastoral landscape north of Lake Baringo, and the sources for this period are fairly good, I decided to delve back into history a little deeper than initially planned.

Your book is the first in the Future Rural Africa series from James Currey. What does the series hope to achieve? 

I am very pleased that my book will be published in this series and I think that in the coming years many different contributions will feature in it, offering both a detailed description of rural livelihoods and how these are related to regional, national and global issues. One of the particular strengths of this book series is the focus on rural areas and their entanglements beyond the local context, as well as the consideration of historical transformation processes.

In my book, I seek to accomplish this by examining both the history of pastoral Pokot and the changes in local livelihoods over time along with a changing environment. It is important for me to illustrate that neither environmental changes exert a unilateral influence on pastoral livelihoods, nor vice versa. Rather, I intend to demonstrate that a variety of processes have influenced each other over this relatively short period of 200 years, such as wildlife hunting, the ivory trade, the use of fire for rangeland management, and colonial practices that, when understood as continuities, extend their legacies into the present. Yet similarly, land-use changes affect the local environment and enable landscape transformations, which in their turn create new challenges for certain parts of the population (as can be seen in the case of ecological invasion processes).

The future of pastoral groups is indeed not a novel debate, and many publications already deal with this issue and often highlighted the major challenges that render the future of pastoral groups uncertain.  My contribution to this debate is a reflection of the different future perspectives of pastoral groups. While on the one hand maintaining the potential for livestock husbandry to sustain pastoral livelihoods, parts of the pastoral Pokot are highly innovative and flexible in the implementation of pastoral strategies and the adoption of new strategies that also support pastoral livelihoods.

How is your book relevant today? What do you want your readers to take away from your work?

I hope that the book can be seen as an attempt to offer a profound anthropological perspective, with its unique insights into the life of pastoral Pokot and their understanding of the transformations described, as well as an approach to integrate scientific knowledge into our work beyond our own disciplines. Especially the claim to work in an interdisciplinary way is very present in the humanities in order to integrate our findings into a larger context. But this also means that, in addition to the expectations that our own discipline formulates towards us, we are also given the challenge (or opportunity?) to exchange ideas with other researchers in an interdisciplinary context. I want to emphasize both aspects – the challenges involved in this interdisciplinary process as well as the novel findings that otherwise remain undisclosed.

Moreover, I think it is crucial to gain more insights into the life in rural areas and also about pastoral groups that are dealing with various transregional processes and influences for many years now, and undergo many changes. Furthermore, the pastoral Pokot generally do not have a very positive reputation in Kenya and the media portrayal rarely goes beyond cattle rustling.

Therefore, the book should also provide an opportunity to take an open-minded look at rural northern Baringo and give an insight into the lives of pastoral Pokot, whose livelihoods continue to be centred around livestock husbandry, but certainly cannot solely be reduced to regional conflicts. Rather, I also invite the reader to reflect on the contributions of pastoral groups to the Kenyan society, as these groups continue to produce and sell livestock in the semi-arid and arid environments, which are consumed throughout Kenya.

What do you have planned next?

I am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in the DFG project “Future Rural Africa” and plan to do research in Namibia in early 2022 and again in Kenya towards the end of the year. 

In Namibia, I am working in the Zambezi region in the far northeast of the country and mainly focus on examining the effects of nature conservation projects on local livelihoods. This includes both community-based approaches that aim to facilitate more inclusion in conservation structures, as well as the historical assessment of displacements that took place before the establishment of national parks. 

In Kenya, I expect to continue my research and introduce a stronger future-oriented aspect to my work. The Baringo region, where I have worked before, is still undergoing radical transformations, some of which I address in the book. These include the exploitation of thermal energy and the associated expansion of infrastructures, as well as growing efforts to safeguard nature. How pastoral Pokot can relate and engage with these changes and be a part of it (or not) are key questions for the upcoming research.

Pokot Pastoralism

Hauke-Peter Vehrs

Hardcover, 9781847012968, May 2022

272 pp., 18 b/w, 12 line illus.

£70.00 / $105.00

Future Rural Africa

James Currey


£42 / $63


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HAUKE-PETER VEHRS is a Post-doctoral researcher in the project ‘Future Rural Africa: Future-Making and Social Ecological Transformation’ at the University of Cologne.