Things that bug me about Kenya(ns)

Wonderful! Wonderful! and Wonderful! I enjoyed reading this immensely. I love all of it but the paragraph on shallow religiosity and the one on colonialism are my absolute favourites. Kenyans think colonialism was a foot massage. Thank you for your brilliant work!!!

Deconstructing tribe and tribalism

If you read Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s book ‘Secure the base: Making Africa visible in the Globe’, you will forever remove the words Tribe and Tribalism from your  vocabulary – hopefully. And that is, if you haven’t done so already.


The name word tribe is a colonial creation that seeks to make Africans look small, weak and incomprehensible. These terms have become accepted by all, including Africans without any critical analysis of their impact on African peoples. Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes:

“It is fair to say that ‘tribe’, ‘tribalism’ and ‘tribal wars’, the terms so often used to explain conflict in Africa were colonial inventions. Most African languages do not have the equivalent of the English word tribe, with its pejorative connotations that sprung up in the evolution of the anthropological vocabulary of eighteenth -and nineneteenth-century European adventurism in Africa. The worlds have companionship with other colonial conceptions, such as ‘primitive’, the ‘Dark Continent’, ‘backward races’ and ‘warrior communities.'”


You already knew that? Okay. Let us move on.  Once colonialism proper was in place efforts were made to keep communities in the various countries separated along linguistic lines. This was effected by amongst others creation of reserves, homelands etc. In the Kenyan context, those that ended up working for white settlers in the Rift valley were kept in separate quarters based on, again, linguistic formulations. During the struggle for independence every effort was made to scuttle nationalistic movements. You could only organize within your linguistic group. As Ngugi writes “European settlers, and even Asian immigrants, could organize nationally , but Africans were allowed to organize labour, social and political unions only within ethnic boundaries.” Hence, differences were heightened.  The infiltration of a capitalistic economy created class differences between and within different communities – depending on whether you are collaborating with the colonial regime, are close to urban centres and so on.

NB: Most  “flag independence” regimes carried on the same colonial models of governance and divide and rule tactics.


What is the problem with all this?

The problem is that Africans start seeing themselves through the ethnic lines. The term “tribe” is then assigned biological characteristics.  This “tribe”  becomes a “genetic stamp” to explain why the Yoruba’s behave like this and the Zulu’s behave like this.  It is just the way they are – people will say. When it comes to explaining conflict and understanding socio-economic issues in Africa today, the “tribe” becomes the key unit of analysis. Hence conflicts that could have social, economic or environmental origins are seen as “tribal wars.” If a problem is perceived as biological, then you just despair about finding a solution – because, what can you really do to alter biology?  Indifference takes over. Africans and the rest of the world watch as say, genocides are carried out in Rwanda and Darfur because it is impossible to sort out biological issues. Enter the African middle class- the “educated” and “civilized”. Those that the Mau Mau used to refer to as “Black Europeans.” Ngugi argues that  this group has imbibed “self-hatred ” from years of internalizing the colonial gaze makes which some among them gleeful at humiliating another African.”  Using the example of the Congo, Ngugi illustrates the fact that as Africans fight each other over non-existent differences, there is an outsider who is keenly waiting to see what they can pick from the ruins. He has a name for this outsider: “the corporate tribe of the west.” In other words, there are beneficiaries of conflict in Africa – economic beneficiaries.  Once conflict in Africa is understood as “tribal wars” then it ceases to be tied to global issues, for instance climate change, resource depletion or globalization.


Tribe vs Nation

According to Ngugi, the tribe is used  in contrast to the state. Sample this:

“In much of the media coverage of Africa, every African community is said to comprise a tribe and every African a tribes man. We can see the absurdity of the current usages, where a group of 300,000 Icelanders constitutes a nation while 30 million Ibos make up a tribe. Yet, looked at through more objective lenses, what’s commonly describes as tribe fulfills all the criteria of shared history, geography, economic life, language and culture that are used to define a nation.”

As I said in the beginning, the word “tribe” diminishes. It was important in advancing the evils of colonialism. Unfortunately, Africans have embraced the term and this diversity is seen as a weakness as opposed to a strength.


What should we do?

  1. Analyze African issues through social, political, environmental , economic lenses because their issues, like those of any other group of people develop/come about historically and NOT biologically
  2. Refer to Africans or other groups of people by their names. As Ngugi writes:

“While I can understand why detractors of non-European peoples would want to append the word tribe to them, I have not been able to make sense of why African, Pacific, Native American and Indian intellectuals have embraced this pejorative term. It still baffles me why more than 40 million Yorubas are a tribe and 5 million Danes a nation. Every community has a name by which they identify themselves. Call them by that name.”





“Saving Africa from Africans”: A conversation about conservation in Africa 2.0

This post is an interview  I gave to a PhD student in the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia. This interview was a requirement  for their research methods class. The aim of this exercise was to equip the student with skills on how to conduct one on one interviews. The interview was transcribed for by the student and I will present it in that form. Here is our conversation.

Interviewer(GD):  Can you tell me about your current position?

GKB(me): I am now a PhD student here at the Faculty of Forestry, and I am at the stage of starting to write my dissertation. My research focus is on indigenous knowledge systems and their application in forest governance. I try to understand how people relate to their forests or to landscapes through indigenous knowledge systems in the Kenyan context. But my interest is more in the African scope.

Mugumo tree in Kakamega Forest, western Kenya

GD: Have you been involved with any environmental protection initiatives in Africa?

GKB:  Yes. Prior to starting my PhD  in 2014,  I worked  on several community conservation or community-oriented conservation projects, actively in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi. These projects were mainly around heritage sites, but heritage sites or cultural sites exist in landscapes. And, so, communities view their sites and landscapes in the sense of  a general landscape orientation and not –  this is a forest, this is a mountain, this is an agricultural land, this is an archaeological site- but all in one encompassing landscape. That was what I was involved in for 8 years before beginning my PhD.


Ankole cattle in Uganda

 GD: So, from an African perspective, is land a seamless transition without divisions?

GKB: Yeah, I would argue that in the traditional set-up, before the encounter with colonialism, most African societies had different conceptions of land or landscapes. It might not be the same, but amongst the group of people I do my research with, land was just land. There was no subdivision which has been created by colonialism [and furthered by post-independence African governments], where you would say this is a protected area, forest reserve or national park that is out of bounds to everybody including the community on whose traditional territory it sits because it is preserved for conservation. Then you have agricultural land or land for pastoralism or other kinds of land uses. So, that kind of subdivision was not necessarily there from what I have begun to understand, so far.

Sunset in Pokotland, northern Kenya

 GD: What do you see as the most unique challenges in the recognition and incorporation of local values in environmental protection in Africa, today?

GKB: There are many problems, I do not know which is the most important one [respondent laughs], but I would say the most important one for me, is the dismantling of communities from their landscapes. Physical dismantling or psychological dismantling of their understanding of their landscapes, and also treating communities, majority who live in rural areas as stupid people who do not know anything. They need to be taught conservation, they need to be taught development, they need to be taught this, they need to be taught that. And, that diminishes their power. People have different kinds of synergies with the environment in which they live and we do not seem to harness that or recognise that properly. It might be in legislation, and legislation now seems to be changing towards that orientation, but in actual practice it is not as valorized as say conservation of national parks or other areas for tourism or protected areas. Communities are still viewed as trespassers or poachers, or I do not know [respondent shrugs] shifting cultivators or whatever other unpalatable adjectives that you might come up with [respondent laughs]. I think to me, that is the failure of, failure to harness the potential of the people, the power of the masses in landscape governance. And, that stems from the colonial experience.

Turkana people, Kenya

 GD: You mentioned the dismantling of communities, physical and psychological. Can you tell me more about that?

So, the physical is the relocation of people, physical movement of people either to create a national park or create a forest reserve or some other land use. Dislocating them and moving them to another place or dislocating them from one place so that you can have settler agriculture. This creates dis-organisation within the landscape.  I see the psychological dismantling as the destruction of knowledge systems, destruction of connections to the land, destruction of synergies with the land. This is tied to  physical dislocation because knowledge is produced as a result of interaction with the environment. It just does not happen. It is not an abstract thing. It is based on practical use of resources and responding to challenges in nature. So, if you have been moved, from your traditional territory, dislocated to another place, it means you have to learn a whole new knowledge system and also, even if you remain within your territory and your knowledge systems are completed devalued, then you to relearn, a kind of formatting of our people’s heads [respondent laughs] and telling them that anything that they knew before is bad, is not good, is primitive, is destructive, and environmentally destructive and you have to learn afresh. So, how do you learn that? And, how effective is that when it comes to the actual practice of resource use or environmental governance or any other aspect for that matter?

Gabbra women, northern Kenya

GD:  You mentioned four countries you worked in, are there any peculiar values you see in those regions, or what you talk about is general in character?

GKB: Okay, I think they are all facing devaluation of knowledge systems,  apart from the remote rural communities who do not have that push of government or the push of international NGOs to modernise or change them. So, there are similarities and differences. The similarities can bee seen when communities are made to feel that what they know is not good enough and this is buttressed by modern education systems. So, when they see a person coming from outside the community, especially an educated person, they think that they should not speak or say what they think because this person is there to teach them whatever it is that they are discussing. But, it depends on how you engage with the communities. Out approach (when I was working in those countries) was not to tell those communities that we are not here to teach you or to train you. “Teaching” and “training” is the most common language in use with respect to communities. Our approach was to say we are engaging. So, everyone is here to make a contribution and we are here to learn from each other. Once you create that kind of atmosphere, people begin to really open up and share ideas and lots of interesting stuff [respondent laughs]. There is a huge base of knowledge that is held within these communities and by different kinds of people and presented in different ways. This is not to say we were prefect or did not make mistakes. We made lots and lots of mistakes. But, like anything else in life, you have keep improving…correcting ourselves. We have to keep learning. Learning with humility.


GD:  Can you tell me one or two examples of these local values?

GKB: So, for the Abasuba people in Western Kenya, they understand their environment through the history of their migration routes and peace and conflict resolution, and give a story of how they came from Uganda and settled on  Mfangano Island. So, this is an island on the Kenyan side of the Lake Namlolwe  otherwise known as “Lake Victoria”. It was so named by John Hanning Speke after in honour of his queen after he  allegedly”discovered” it. Yes, one of Africa’s magnificent waterscapes is named after a woman who presided over their death and destruction. I am digressing. Let us come back to the Abasuba. Their understanding of land, the lake, is tied to their migration, their quest for peace, and conflict resolution.  Mfangano remains a very peaceful island as compared to many other places where there is conflict over natural resources and other things. Read more about the Abasuba people in a book I co-authored with a colleague here.

Abasuba Community Peace Museum: picture courtesy of the Trust for African Rock Art

GKB continued: And then, there is the Chewa people in Malawi. Interestingly, they still practice what you would call very traditional systems of using rock art sites which are paintings and engravings on stones and caves, and these are sites set in mountainous forest landscapes. They are still used  for initiation rituals to date. You would think that some of these practices would have died off as a result of the colonial missionary assault but they have not. They also have another practice known as the ‘gule wamkulu’ which is a secret society in which they dress in masks. There are teachings to be impacted through different kinds of masks and different kinds of costumes. They parade round the community tackling different kinds of issues including health, conservation, landscape use, and relationships between people and so on.

GDHow do they do this?

GKB: They have their own way, they have  song, and a dance. And, it is recognized by  UNESCO as a form of intangible cultural heritage. Read more about this here and watch the video.

GD: So, gule wamkulu has UNESCO endorsement?

GKB: Oh yeah, it is a unique form of cultural heritage among the Chewa people. So, there are these kind of practices, the fact that they are alive, to me, is indicative of a very strong form of resistance from the communities saying that we think it is important and we want to continue practising it.

A gule wa mukulu dancer in Malawi

GD: What are the threats to environmental values in Africa?

GKB: For me, where there is no honest community engagement, then there is a threat to these values.

GD: Why do  you see this as a threat?

GKB: To me, threats must be seen as injustice, because if people are denied their livelihood, if I cannot feed my children or take my children to school and you have locked up the forest which is only accessed by tourists, and I cannot even fetch firewood from it, people become antagonistic to conservation spaces when there is no proper community engagement. There has to be equitable sharing of benefits from conservation spaces with communities living around these spaces because all our sites are surrounded by people. I do not know of any conservation spaces in Africa that are not surrounded by people. As difficult as it is, I think that is where we have to find a way of unlocking that deadlock and it has to vary from case to case with the communities.

Chewa people in Malawi

GD: Who are those creating these threats to environmental values?

GKB:  I think there are different kinds of people. Usually the communities are blamed for all the environmental ills. They are poachers, deforesters or whatever. But environmental destruction, if I can give the Kenyan case, if we look at the 1990s,  was more of a government-driven initiative. A failure of government by opening up forests and dishing out land to people. This was one of the things Wangari Maathai was fighting for. Government’s failure to enhance or oversee or manage, because you know, these are public spaces, and so they should be accessible to the public, first and foremost. But if the government is the one that is grabbing the land or allocating the land  to individuals or to communities as well in order to mobilise votes, then who is to blame, who is to bear more responsibility? I think all sides bear responsibility. But, if you are a government and you have been given a responsibility to oversee, then I think you should take more responsibility.

Shores of Lake Malawi

GDApart from governments, who else?

GKB: Conservation in Africa remains a very colonial discipline or colonial undertaking. Who makes conservation decisions on Africa’s landscape? Not even African governments. It is tightly controlled by international organisations. It is tightly controlled by researchers. It is tightly controlled by the philanthropists and philanthrocapitalists.

GDThat is an interesting term, philathro-capitalists. Can you explain, please?

GKB: [laughing] People who are seen to be benevolent but really they are just furthering the capitalist agenda of more accumulation of wealth. So, I am dissatisfied with the place of Africans in conservation generally. I feel like the people who drive the agenda of conservation and environmental protection are organisations who have the say, governments seem to be following what conservation organisations say, and not so much what the communities say although at times the communities can also get support from international organisations against destructive environmental governmental policies.

Kalacha, northern Kenya

GD:  So, is there a dichotomy between international organisations that are pro or against?

GKB: I think it is not that. The point is whichever way you look at it, the international organisations still wield a lot of power even if they are supporting communities the government is going to listen to them more because they wield a lot of power. If they are supporting government against communities, the government would listen to them because they still wield a lot of power. So, it speaks to the asymmetrical nature and matrix of power that exists in our world today.

Ilingwesi community lodge, Laikipia, Kenya

GD: What solutions do you propose or suggest to solve this problem?

GKB: I think, the conservation community, as I said at the beginning, seems to be seeing the light if you could say that, because, if I may use Kenya again as an example, in terms of forest governance there is a new legislation passed in 2005, which now recognizes the role of communities in forest governance because these protected spaces are large protected spaces, hundreds and thousands of hectares surrounded by people and communities. So, historically, you would have people with guns, forest law enforcement officers, how many of those people do you need to man a 100,000-hectare property for 24 hours? People would still infiltrate into these spaces. So, the discourse is changing. Now, you need to work with people who are living outside and around these spaces in creating management regimes where everyone feels like they are benefiting from these landscapes.  I think that is a good thing.

Kalacha, northern Kenya

GD:  In which ways do you think this would help?

GKB: I think it just needs more enforcement and support. And, the other thing in conservation agendas is the recognition of indigenous communities’ conservation areas (ICCAs). These are places managed purely by communities and these are the oldest forms of conservation spaces in the world. Again, it pints to that aspect of communities being taught conservation. These people have been doing conservation thousands of years. So, the  recognition of ICCAs is an endorsement that communities do not need to be formatted, to have their brains formatted so they can be taught conservation. Also, more respectful collaboration between different agencies or players in the conservation industry be it government, non-governmental organisations, or researchers, as I said, those with power and those with less power. So it is more of how do you make that equitable or how do you create spaces where there is mutual exchange and benefit such that it is not only one group benefiting or certain people lording over the other group of people

Ilingwesi, Laikipia, Kenya

GD:  Do you anticipate any challenges in implementation?

GKB: Of course there would be implementation problems, but if people are keen on solving a problem… problems get resolved when people decide to engage and work together and cede power and have common goals and well-thought agendas that are inclusive of everybody. Not that there would not be challenges, but you will find a way of working around them.

Gabbra peoples’ (northern Kenya) architecture

GD: What special considerations would you propose?

GBK007: I would suggest a high degree of inclusivity. Again, as I said, a lot of communities living around these conservation spaces are highly marginalised especially the big conservation landscapes we have on the African continent are still seen as a problem and not an asset and that is because of poor engagement and powerful people  destituting communities.

GD: Thank you very much for your time.

GKB: My pleasure. I hope I was able to answer your questions.

GD: Yes, thank you. I have learnt a lot.

Samburu women, Kenya

Note: The title of this blog post”Saving Africa from Africans” has been borrowed from a a paper by  Robert H. Nelson  on the same subject. You can read the paper here.

See another conversation about conservation in Africa here.

A conversation about conservation in Africa: My perspective

This interview was conducted by a  masters student in a research methods class at the University of British Columbia.  They were required to interview somebody on a topic of their interest. So, we had a conversation about conservation in  Kenya and Africa.


Interviewer – We are going to start off today just to discuss some of your research, to begin with. I know you have quite a few experiences over the years, from your master’s stuff and now with your PhD work. I have read some of your papers on the work that you have done on the rock art sites and I am particularly interested in some of the East African cases you have worked at. So if you would like, discuss some of your research.

Me:  So, on the East African scope,  I worked  with the Trust for African Rock Art(TARA) . Our work was around rock art sites but the more you work with communities, you realize that these sites exist in a landscape setting. So, they are either within forests or on mountain landscapes or in other kind of settings within the larger cultural landscape belonging to that community.  In that sense, you end up not just focusing on the rock art itself as the particular heritage that we were interested in, but  dealing with other things – environmental issues, cultural issues, social issues, economic issues, and dealing with those things within the context of, or through the entry point of rock art heritage.

At Kondo UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kondoa

Interviewer – Yes, definitely – where were these sites located?

Me:   There were sites in Kenya – mainly in northern Kenya, western Kenya, in central Tanzania, and eastern Uganda. We also worked in Malawi.


Interviewer – And how many sites were there in total? How many communities were you working with?

In Kenya we had 4  community projects with the Abasauba people in Mfangano Island, the Iteso in western Kenya, the Turkana in nothern Kenya, and with the Abagusii people in western Kenya. In Tanzania it was the Warangi, in Malawi it was the Chewa, and in Uganda it was the Iteso – who are split in between the Kenya and Uganda boarder. The Kenyan and Ugandan Iteso people are the same people . It is the same landscape historically, but  the people are dissected into two by the colonial boundary which positions them in two different countries.


 So, what were the specific goals that you guys were looking at in terms of the research on the rock art.

Me: The main goal was to, of course,  ensure conservation of this heritage, but we approached it through the communities. That is, if communities understand the importance of this heritage, if communities embrace this heritage, they will be its  best defenders , better than any fence or any kind of infrastructure that you put in place. That was our position.  That is TARA’s strategy with regard to community engagement.   And that always turned out to be the case where there is good community buy-in,  and understanding of the project. And as the projects progressed communities would report other sites  and people began taking a lot of interest in it.

Warangi people in Tanzania

Me continued: So, our approach for community engagement was based on a set of interrelated objectives .What we call community engagement  is not training but rather, creating spaces of communities to share and exchange knowledge among themselves, and other people to contribute to knowledge, knowledge production  in a community setting. Discussions revolve around these kinds of questions: What heritage to you have in this  landscape?  How is it useful to you as a community? What’s your understanding of it? How has it changed? How can we make things better? How can we improve our livelihoods using this heritage? And then, the second part of that was promotion of that heritage, once we know that this is what we have here, then we ask how do we promote it within the community and outside the community. The other aspect is infrastructure development around sites, and then there is improvement of community livelihoods. Ensuring that there is revenue or trying to generate revenue through these kinds of things for community projects or community interests.

Working on signage for placement at sites  in Tanzania

So, in this specific example you have talked about how the conservation goal is around the heritage sites, you have approached this through a community engagement process and a co-production of knowledge. In general, in Kenya, what do you feel, where do you feel the motivation is in conservation. What is the primary goal, generally in Kenya.

Me: I would say,  what we see portrayed is the strong linkage between conservation and tourism. That comes out very strongly – that’s what we see. That, it is important to conserve whatever it is – the natural heritage, or the wildlife or other cultural things because of tourism. So that tourist can come see these things. Historically that creation of conservation spaces in Kenya and I think in the larger African context was associated with the colonial experience. Parks were created so that settlers or tourists could come and enjoy this pristine landscape. That is the origin of these ‘wildernesses’ some of which have been created at the expense of the traditional owners/communities of these territories.The communities are blocked and told : you cannot access it, you cannot hunt, you cannot earn a livelihood. But then we have this very beautiful landscape within a larger degrading landscape when people cannot attain their livelihoods or earn a livelihood.


Me continued: And a lot of resentment  develops around conservation areas with communities that are been locked out of these protected areas.  The creation of this exclusive spaces,   I feel, removes communities, dismantles communities from their landscapes. Not just physical removal, but also the knowledge systems  that are associated with active use of a landscape. If you are not using land, then you are not generating knowledge. That knowledge system  destroyed  it is not regenerated by way of using the land. That is my understanding of the historical context of the creation of conservation spaces as we know them today. That is not to say that indigenous communities or African communities or Kenyan communities have not historically had conservation spaces or protected spaces within their own social and cultural or economic structures of protecting their landscapes. But we don’t hear about that.



Me Continued: The current discourse about conservation in Kenya is about let’s preserve wildlife – especially wildlife, because that is the big thing – so that tourist can come. And this time around they are not shooting them with their guns. They are shooting them with their cameras. In the 20’s and 30’s they were shooting them with their guns – trophy hunting, which is not allowed in Kenyan anymore, but practiced in other African countries. So, really, to me the landscape of conservation hasn’t changed much because the word tourist in Kenya is equivalent to the white person.  So, we are still creating these spaces so white people can come and enjoy them- just like in the 1920’s and 30’s.  But how many people, Kenyan people, can access these spaces? How many people can even access the hotel industry. There is quite a bit of racism in the hotel industry. I hear people complaining about it from time to time. The people who get better treatment are the white people. Africans get poor treatment, in hotels and other tourist related aspects like the guiding industry and all of that.



Me continued: And then people start asking why are Africans or not interested in conservation? They are not interested in conservation because it is a hostile environment. That is one of the reasons I can think of. Also, who owns the tourism industry? If we say it is the main economic driver, who owns the hotel industry? Is the hotel industry owned by Kenyans? I mean, I don’t think so – I don’t have the data or the figures to support the argument but I think, the Kenyan people are the bottom of the tourism industry. They are tour guides, they are porters carrying luggage for tourists, they are chefs, they are not hotel owners, they are not conservancy owners, they are not in positions of power. The tour guides and chefs and waiters and all that, they are necessary positions to support the industry, but my point is that they are not powerful positions. They do not shape policy, they do not change the infrastructure of the tourism industry. They just fall in the line. So are we training our people to own the tourism industry, if we say this is the most important economic driver of our economy?  Are we training them to own the tourism industry or to be employed by people in the tourism industry? And who is it that owns the hotels? I don’t know! Most of them I think are foreign owned. Apart from, maybe, the community conservancies models which would be 100% community owned but I don’t know what the figures there as well.


Well, it sounds like some of these new conservancies are in response to a lot of these challenges. The marginalization, not benefiting from any of the incentives of conservation and as you are saying the connection to the motivation behind conservation and not being acknowledged as their traditionally livelihood strategies as being something that has naturally conserved the environment for many years. I think it would be really interesting to talk more about that because it is related to your research project . Could we could shift to your research?

Me:  Let me say something before we shift…


Me:  I am very dissatisfied with that kind of notion “I am conserving this so the tourist can come and take pictures” or whatever, do whatever. There has to be more to conservation for Kenyan’s, African’s, than just having tourists come to take pictures of things, or enjoy things that you yourself cannot enjoy. I am sure there are many communities that work on their landscapes and have understanding of their landscapes and have been doing things on their landscapes with other intentions of, I don’t know, maybe accessing water or spiritual sites, or sites of sacred significance, or other reasons but that is not dominant discourse. I think that needs to be the dominate discourse. That we are conserving this because it is important to us. I’m not preserving my culture, dance or making of cultural objects just because I want to sell it in the tourism industry. There has got to be more, I would hope,  there have to be more reasons that our cultural, natural heritage is of value, or is important.


 I would be interested to think about specific instances where it is possible to value your system beyond its economic importance within this global economy that is now of the globalized world. I think that when you at an area like the Maasai Mara where that has become a very valuable economic landscape, and there has been a lot of pressures on that landscape, and is it possible for a community member to demonstrate other value? How do we compare these relative values then? In order to have the true value of the connection to the land, and the knowledge of the land, and benefits for livelihoods compete against someone coming up an offering 300,000KES for their title deed. How do those two frames of evaluating a landscape compete?

Yes, that is the main problem. I think that everything is up for sale. Even your own culture is up for sale to the highest bidder. That is where you have people who say for instance they are Maasai when in fact they are not Maasai, and I understand that completely because it is a kind of economic survival strategy. How do you do it? I don’t know, but I think there has to be models out there, and I think they are there, it is just that we don’t know about them, of people who are able to communicate and demonstrate that there is more value to this than just 300,000KES or whatever amount of money. I am sure there are cases like that but you don’t hear about them.


 I imagine a part of it would be to have further recognition and understanding for the local perspective of what they value, what collective knowledge system are created in the local context. If I am understanding what you are saying you are suggesting that is not translating between scales of interactions. So while on a community level they may have an understanding of the value system, those values are not communicated.

Exactly. If there are good value systems within communities, the different ways of viewing things is not recognized, it is not communicated effectively, and it is always someone coming into communities and telling them what they need to do. Never asking what they think about the landscape, what needs to be done about the landscape or what their thoughts about the landscapes are. There is  still a lot of paternalism in engagements in conservation and it is always portrayed that African’s do not know how to conserve. That, they have to be taught conservation. It is really a very colonial type of discipline and space to date. It is very rare that you hear Africans being celebrated for their conservation efforts. I mean who have you heard being celebrated? Apart let’s say Wangari Maathai.


And the reason Wangari Maathai was successful was she demonstrated to communities that you are conserving for yourself. Not so that people can come take pictures of your forest. No! You are conserving this forest, you are protecting this forest so that you don’t have to walk for long distances to fetch water. You are protecting this forest so that you do not have to walk long distances to look for fire wood. You are protecting the indigenous knowledge systems through seed revitalization and indigenous crops so that you have food security. She demonstrated to communities that -this is for you.


Have you seen any practical or tangible effects of this type of empowerment within the forestry communities that you are working in most recently? Is there a sense that indigenous people or local people at that landscape are standing up and saying no, we are taking some sense of ownership here, we want to be involved in decision making process. Where is that at in terms of maybe the grassroots movement of engagement?

Me:  There is a lot of work being done at the community level. With or without the support of the government in some cases, sometimes in partnership with the government. But there are a lot of good people putting a lot of good work. A lot of effort. Conservation is really difficult work, really difficult work. And who bears the brunt of conservation? It falls onto the communities who do not even access some of this landscapes that we are trying to protect. So there are excellent community members doing a lot of work. Most of it voluntary work. To safeguard critical landscapes. I have met some people who work with the Green Belt  Movement, doing fantastic work, difficult work. Scaling up mountains with seedlings! First of all, collecting the seeds from the forest floor, propagating the seeds to get the seedlings, and then transporting the seedlings up the mountains where it is degraded. Planting them, ensuring that they survive, and restoring ecosystems. It is a lot of work! How much compensation can you pay such a person?  How much  payment is commensurate for the kind of benefits will accrue from these landscapes to millions of people who depend on them?


Community members of the Green Belt Movement preparing to carry  tree seedlings to the mountain for planting

So, why don’t we look for those kinds of stories and speak about them? I am tired of conservationists being portrayed as tourists or researchers or someone who is not from, I don’t want to use the word foreigners, but it is always portrayed that conservationists  are the ones who have saved whatever it is, elephants, lions. Conservationists are never  the local communities who have to bear the brunt of having their crops destroyed by elephants but conservationists are people who have the money, the influence, the exposure. Those are the conservationist or the saviors of African heritage. What about the people who put in  who put in the work everyday?  Put your hands in the ground, plant the tree or do something else, ensure that tree survives,  and to me you are an excellent conservationist. But that is not the way it is. People do a lot of work with conservation and in the end they do not get the recognition that they deserve.

This is a conservationist.

The other thing about conservation in the African context is that the continent is portrayed in terms of conservation attractions and tourism is portrayed as being emptied of human presence. That the only human beings who will be featured in conservation discourses in the massai jumping up and down for tourists. Showcasing their skill or other communities who have preserved their culture – but that is a very small segment of African who are engaged in conservation.  And then you hear case of say Cecil the lion, who was killed in Zimbabwe. It is huge uproar internationally, and Africans are wondering how a lion came to be known as CECIL.  Is it named  after Cecil Rhodes the imperial magnate who has done untold damage and destruction to African people, the effects of which are still felt today? If you do not believe conservation is a colonized discipline look no further than the names of these animals. You might also want to ask who is it who gives them these names.

Cecil’s goal was to colonize Africa from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt. He achieved his goal.


Me continued: So back to Cecil the lion. You have this discussion globally about how a lion has been killed, and the world(read white people) is outraged. The lion is even displayed on the empire state building in New York. I have never heard of anyone complaining that a guide or other person has been killed by an elephant. I have never heard of anyone saying the lion has eaten someone’s livestock or eaten somebody for that matter! So people don’t matter ? African people don’t seem to matter in the larger conservation discourse globally. Yet, they are the ones that bear the brunt of conservation. They do all the  the back-breaking work of ensuring that all of these spaces exist so that other people can enjoy them.

Cecil the lion on the empire state building

Me continued: There is then also the aspect of who makes decision about conservation. I just saw Judy Wakhungu(Current cabinet secretary for environment) post a few weeks ago  that they were trying to get the African elephant into appendix one of CITES,  hence granting it higher protection. But lo and behold, this move was strongly opposed by the EU. More on  that here. So, who is making decisions about conservation? Is it the people have the heritage or people who enjoy the heritage? There are huge issues around poaching and stuff, and I don’t know,  I just don’t understand. It just seems like it still very much related to the asymmetrical power relations that exist in the world. I don’t know how I got into that? What was your question?

 I think it is a strong point because to me it is a real disconnect between the scales of understanding of what is going on at the grassroots level to the county government, to the national government of Kenya to various NGO’s who are working on all of those levels to then, this international community who is  making these global decisions as you say about how important an elephant is without strongly determining if the context of where that elephant exists is going to determine where is should sit in conservation priority. Instead, they are asking the people who are perceived to benefit from it who are not the custodians of that land that the elephant lives on. From my personal interests I am really interested to know where research is going in this area specifically around the recognition around indigenous knowledge in these systems and I think a lot of your work touches on those aspects. How can an outside researcher can begin to engage in that process of genuinely acknowledging, representing and discussing local and indigenous knowledge in the context of emerging conservancies which I believe are a response to the marginalization, lack of benefit sharing, lack of ownership. How can the research community perhaps offer some validation of these systems? Offers some kind of platform to look at and recognize that these systems are participating in conservation. What do you see as the biggest limitations of that kind of research work that is going on in Kenya? Is it limitations of weather it is communicated well, is the research asking the right questions, working with the right people? Is it the fact that it is mainly outside researchers, that it is not coming from within the Kenyan community itself? I wonder whether the biggest issues today in research being able to validate some of these knowledge systems in the context of conservation.

Me: Well, I don’t think there is much research on that, on the conservancy model. I haven’t looked keenly, but I don’t think there is a lot of research on that, the community conservation is pretty new and if at all there is research conducted around that area it might not be necessarily around indigenous knowledge systems. It might be around other issues of the conservancy model because there are other issues. I don’t know if there are people working on indigenous knowledge systems.


Do you think that is part of the problem?

There are too few people doing this kind of work. Or who are interested in this kind of work. Indigenous knowledge is still pretty, very severely marginalized across the continent, and everywhere, globally. So, people who are working on indigenous knowledge systems are struggling to push this knowledge system out there. And then there is a lot of push back in terms of what is considered valid scientific knowledge. I don’t know who has to validate and who doesn’t have to validate. The point is, people have lived in landscapes for  millenia- forever-as far back as we can go.  You cannot tell me that if you are living in the landscape for 1000s and 1000s of years you have not developed a knowledge system on how to cope with this landscape, how to use this landscape. If you are an agricultural community you have to know science. You have to be the best scientist. You have to know the soil, you have to know the weather patterns, you have to know the crops, you have to know how to select seeds. To me that is science. If you are a pastoralist, you have to do the same. If you are a hunter and gatherer you have to have a knowledge system with which you engage with the land. If you are engaged in fishing you have to have an intricate knowledge of the waterscape in which you operate. We have to stop bastardazing people.  The whole question about validation speaks also about the marginalization of indigenous knowledge. First of all, we have to prove that we have knowledge. After we prove we have knowledge then that knowledge has to be validated. What gives them the right, or the moral authority to validate, when in most instances the so called “validators” are the ones that have contributed to the marginalization and the weakening of the indigenous knowledge systems?

Iteso people in western Kenya

But I hope there are good cooperation out there between people who work in these kinds of issues. If there are people of good will working with communities – I mean, it is just about respect. Creating an atmosphere where people can really make contributions and try and achieve something, instead of contestations of which knowledge is better, or who is better. Who is teaching who? I think anyone can learn something from anyone. No one  has monopoly on knowledge. So if that is the kind of attitude we have I think we can move further than saying this is valid, and this is invalid. Rather than having to prove you are right. That kind of contestation does not get us very far. Collaboration and seeking solutions and creating mutual respect and interdependencies I think, can move people forward.

Iteso children in western Kenya

Changing how the conversation is happening in this context?

Me: Yes!

 I think we can find evidence of this happening on a local scale, I struggle to see how that is going to move up the scale when you have the complexity of international donor funding, and national government agendas, all of the politics of these systems. I think that will be the next challenge.

Me: I think it is really worthwhile to consolidate the strong base with communities. I mean things happen because people make them happen. They just don’t happen if we sit back and say the international donors and the government and etc are so powerful and anti-change and anti-that. If we take that position then nothing happens. But, if people work towards something  then its good!  What is the goal of the international donors? What do they want to achieve? What does the government want to achieve? If it is tourism that is the driver of your economy as we say, then you want spaces that are dynamic that are well protected, in which people are supportive, not where there is contestation. When people are benefiting! So how do you achieve that by locking people out of knowledge production first of all, and out of participating in conservation spaces? Legislations are changing. Why are legislations changing? Because people have been pushing for it for years. The IUCN now recognizes ICCAs, Indigenous Community Conservation Areas, which are older than national parks and national reserves and all of these other conservation spaces. So that didn’t just happen. People have been pushing,  there are people working out there to make right the wrongs of conservation. Because conservation has also been unjust to communities. People have to keep doing what is right. People have to keep fighting injustice because all of this is tied to injustice.

 I think that is a great place to sum up our interview here.

Me: Thank you.