Changing face of African pastoralism is seen at CU

Maasai pastoralists of Kenya and Tanzania, seen here wearing a mixture of traditional and contemporary garb, have been the subject of three decades of study by J. Terrence McCabe, are the subject of an exhibit called “Maintaining Pastoral Identity in a Changing World: The Turkana and Maasai People of East Africa.” Photo by J. Terrence McCabe.

J. Terrence McCabe has spent more than three decades studying and becoming a noted expert on East Africa’s pastoral people, particularly the Turkana and Maasai pastoralists.

The public can easily survey that work in the main hallway of the Institute of Behavioral Science building on the University of Colorado Boulder campus. One side of the corridor features a photographic depiction of McCabe’s research on Turkana, while the other focuses the viewer’s gaze on the Maasai.

McCabe, an anthropology professor and IBS research associate, studies the livelihood strategies and decisions relating to land use among the pastoral peoples of Eastern Africa. His work is mostly focused on the Turkana of northern Kenya and the Maasai of northern Tanzania.  

A Turkana woman is surrounded by dust indicative of the drought-prone area of northwest Kenya. Photo by J. Terrence McCabe.

A casual observer might believe that Turkana and Maasai pastoralists are more similar than they are, given that both live with cows and other livestock and wear distinctive, colorful garb. But they live in different environments and have divergent cultural traditions.

Beginning in 1980, McCabe and Paul W. Leslie of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were two of the primary researchers on the South Turkana Ecosystem Project, a multidisplinary study of human-environment relations in northwest Kenya. The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, has been called one of the most detailed studies of a human population within an ecosystems framework.

Most recently he’s researched the process of livelihood diversification among the Maasai, including the adoption of cultivation and rural-urban migration.

In the new IBS building, McCabe erected the exhibit with Judith McCabe, his wife and a research grants coordinator at IBS. The display includes a selection of his photos from Africa and explanatory text.

“They are his photographs, and they tell a story,” Judith McCabe said, adding: “It’s really hard to communicate social-science research in a graphic or visual way, so it is challenging, but we certainly think it’s worth doing.”

“Terry’s been working in these areas that have changed so much over the course of the last 30 years, and we just thought that was an important story.”

On a recent summer day, Terrence and Judith McCabe narrated the exhibit, starting with a display case containing items typically seen among Turkana pastoralists. “Turkana are also at war with every group around them,” McCabe said.

“What I wanted to have in (the case) but we couldn’t was an AK-47 (assault rifle), because that is actually an important component of Turkana life these days.”

Most westerners have no exposure to Turkana, who, unlike Maasai, do not live adjacent to frequently visited wildlife refuges. “There’s almost zero tourism up there,” he said of Turkana territory.

“And it’s such a harsh, harsh environment,” added Judith McCabe. “It’s just blisteringly hot and dry.”

“And lots of people have machine guns,” Terrence McCabe said, adding that the Turkana word for “stranger” and “enemy” is the same and carries one implication: A stranger/enemy should be killed.

Maasailand, by comparison, is wetter, and Maasai areas are generally more accustomed to tourists.

Maasai are organized into “age sets.” After circumcision, boys are called warriors. Warriors later become junior elders, then senior elders and finally retired elders.

Now, McCabe is looking at the transformation of rangeland to land for crops. “It’s happening rapidly, and it’s happening in a very unusual way,” he said. Pointing to a photograph of cultivated land with lines of crops plowed by Maasai, he added, “For people who know Maasailand, to look at that picture and to say that’s Maasai agriculture is incomprehensible.”

Such agricultural practices could disrupt traditional patterns of animal migration and range use. Additionally, crops like maize can attract wild animals such as wildebeest and zebra. With consumption by wildlife and a relatively harsh climate, Maasai farmers can lose money, he said.

McCabe is principal investigator on a project comparing the social, economic, and ecological impact of parks on adjacent communities with field sites in Tanzania, Uganda, Namibia and Botswana.

His book “Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies: Turkana Ecology, History and Raiding in a Disequilibrium System” won the 2005 Julian Steward award for the best book written in the previous year in ecological and environmental anthropology.

The exhibit can be viewed weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. while the IBS building is open. The McCabes credit Christina McClellan and Danielle Forte, graduate students in museum and field studies, and Charles Counter, senior exhibits coordinator, “for their fine work on the vitrine.”

Judith McCabe added: “We see this exhibit as a way to invite the university and the larger community to learn about the work being done at IBS.”

The Institute of Behavioral Science building is at 1440 15th St. in Boulder, north of University Avenue and west of Broadway.

—Clint Talbott

August 2013

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