Youth moving to town: a major cause of uncertainty among the pastoralists of Isiolo, Kenya

Young people amongst the Waso Borana play an important role in their community through herding, digging wells, protecting cattle from raids and guarding their territories. Waves of change have invaded Isiolo, and this has caused the youth to be swept away from their traditional roles in their pastoral communities. Instead, they are joining many other young people who have migrated to urban areas without a plan for employment once there.

The pastoral elders are not passive actors in the shifting role of young people within their communities.  Rather, they often adopt a possessive mentality that “all livestock are mine”. This can contribute to youth alienation and frustration, thus weakening their roles as herders. During a recent visit with the PASTRES team in Isiolo, I noticed fewer young men involved in herding compared to only a few years before.

Further contributing to a decline in youth herding, transnational corporations posing as ‘community-based’ organisations have acquired increasing quantities of land in the name of ‘community development’ in pastoral areas such as Isiolo. Businessmen in particular are fencing off community land, which has caused the shrinking of grazing areas in conjunction with reduced livestock numbers. Such small herds lead the youth to view livestock keeping negatively, arguing that it can be left to elderly women and children to manage. As a result, youth have migrated en masse to towns, taking jobs like ‘boda-boda’ motorcycle drivers, for example. Quick bucks in town can however lead to increasing uncertainty around pastoralism as a livelihood strategy in their home areas.

Market uncertainties are also a growing concern as herders are frustrated by reduced livestock prices, despite years of herding, long travel distances to marketplaces, higher transaction costs (including security during transit), personal expenses en route, bribes that must be paid on their way to selling livestock and money given to intermediaries. Given these obstacles, many youth feel that it is more desirable to opt out of pastoralism as a way of supporting their families in favour of urban living and employment.

Infrastructure investment in pastoral areas has attracted many herding youth to seek unskilled manual labour. Many claim that receiving a wage after each day of work – perhaps building a new road – is not so bad compared to years of herding under difficult conditions. Road development is increasing massively throughout northern Kenya, as part of corridor investments, including the huge North and North Eastern Development Initiative which aims to connect the northern counties.  Such moves may help to increase non-pastoral employment for youth living in the northern regions, at least temporarily.

Money from jobs – whether as a labourer or as a ‘boda-boda’ driver – is not always spent well, however. Drug addiction among pastoral youth is a silent cause of uncertainty for the young people of Isiolo.  “Miraa” or khat is the most commonly abused drug, which has caused many young Borana to abandon their herding responsibilities and shift to towns.  A growing concern is a new dangerous drug known as “kete”, which is akin to poor-quality cocaine, and is having major psychological effects on young people. Unless specifically addressed, drug abuse will seriously threaten the livelihoods of Waso Borana youth.

Piecing together these puzzle pieces is crucial to view the larger picture of what uncertainty looks like among pastoralist youth of Isiolo. If pastoralism is to survive into the next generation, then perspectives from young people are essential to bring the larger picture into focus.

Author: Mohamed Noor. Mohamed is an Affiliate Researcher of the PASTRES project. 

Image credit: Maquin’s Photography

5 thoughts on “Youth moving to town: a major cause of uncertainty among the pastoralists of Isiolo, Kenya

  1. thank you Mohamed for this illuminating piece, about trans-generation changes in Isiolo. One question I would have – based on your experience when young herders end up living in towns and urban areas, how and how much remains of their pastoral background and culture, and how is that displaied ?

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    1. How and how much of their pastoral background and culture remains is comparative ,again it goes back to socialization in their early days.If the parent is strict with instilling traditional pastoral norms and values then the young man will take it with him and keep it even as he stays in town.If an average level of behaviour and development or achievement is not met due to issues around parenting in their early days then going to town will mean they will sever ties with pastoralism.on culture,the young herders have taken up urban culture mannerism and dress code,ones they step foot in town they learn “sheng” is a Swahili and English-based cant, perhaps a mixed language or creole, originating among the urban underclass of Nairobi, Kenya, and influenced by many of the languages spoken there.It has now spread all over Kenya,It can be assumed to be the first language of many Kenyans in urban areas.On a positive note though,young herders have taken the social aspects of pastoralism, networking and communal based support system to town and it is helping them cope in town.A case in point is when a young man from kinna comes to Isiolo town he will be hosted by the young herders from Kinna who have made it in town on alternate days.

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