#14 movement
Uli Schwarz / Petra Dilthey

The Real Digital Nomads

Pastoralists in Kenya combine their traditional nomadic life with modern technologies. E-learning bridges disadvantages while preserving their lifestyle.

Adorned young warriors with knives and guns, bare-breasted women with colourful necklaces, and Europeans in SUVs with vaccination equipment in a hurry to save the world yet again – our first encounter (February 2012) with the nomads of the Rendille in Marsabit County, Northern Kenya seemed to fulfil every stereotype supposedly “inherent” to Africa. Just a minute though, what was that? A handy solar cell draped over thorn bush, and connected to a mobile phone while a young warrior, Lekuren, checks to see how much it has charged.

Lekuren checks to see how much his cell phone has charged

It was exactly this juxtaposition of tradition and the modern, of movement and tenacity that awakened our curiosity. In numerous conversations with Lekuren, his family and friends in Sarkdala, Laisamis and with the women’s group in Loiyangalani on Lake Turkan and a clan chief in Arapal on Mount Kulal, we dove deeper and deeper into the nomadic culture over the past three years, documenting their lives as ethnologists and filmmakers. Our conclusion: Given the adverse climate conditions, no “modern” production method is as efficient, environmentally friendly and sustainable as that of the nomadic pastoralists of North Kenya.

The mobile, the new “jungle telegraph”

Lekuren was out with his herd searching for a new pasture when he received a call on his mobile about a free vaccine program from the Ministry of Livestock Development and the GIZ. The pest was running rampant among the little ruminants in the area. There was no cure for the viral infection similar to the rinderpest, and the village elders were at a loss as well. So government assistance was welcome and the only way to quickly reach the warriors with their widely scattered herds was by mobile. A road junction at a dried-up riverbed was set as the meet location.

The herders are rounding up their animals in an improvised compound for vaccination

Motion is life

Over the past century, among the Rendille it was customary for the entire village community to move around with their herds looking for water and pastureland. Today the villages are often close to towns because missionaries drilled deep wells there, making it no longer necessary for women and children, the old and the sick, to move around all the time. For the young warriors, this means that they are separated from their families more often and for longer periods of time. The herds travel for months and only return with their warriors in tow if enough rain has fallen on their home villages during the rainy season. The landscape is hardly recognisable then: Everything turns green, and grass, bushes and trees sprout everywhere. The animals are well-fed, lack is suddenly overabundance. Now is the time people come together to celebrate weddings. Lekuren got married too in December 2013.

Lekuren on his wedding day, dancing men and Lekuren's wife after the wedding

Instead of an arranged marriage, as is customary for the nomads, it was a love match for Lekuren and his bride. This is evidence of the flexibility of nomadic cultures.

The rain lottery and climate change

If the rains do not come or fall elsewhere, as they so often do, sometimes 50, sometimes 200 kilometres away, then all the herds move there. Thousands of animals gather at the few watering holes. This is the time to fight and this is the time to die.

Thousands of animals gather at the few watering holes

“Our family needs more than hundred animals to survive. When drought comes you can sell half of them and drought can kill some of them.” (Lekuren)

Because the Rendille and other nomadic groups are familiar with this gruesome rain lottery, they have developed a large-herd strategy over the centuries, as Lekuren explains: “Our family needs more than hundred animals to survive. When drought comes you can sell half of them and drought can kill some of them.”

In recent decades, the long dry periods have become more frequent. Annual rainfall has dropped and gotten more irregular: the consequences of climate change. The nomads, who have not contributed to climate change, are the first to dramatically feel its negative impact. Their decimated herds are more susceptible to pestilence and disease. When prices for animals fall, but the cost of rice, corn and beans goes up, the pastoralists’ business model is pushed to the limit. To this day, these nomadic pastoralists have successfully lived at the edge of our modern money-based economy with some measure of security. Now they are being forced to recognise that it would be better to know more about money, banks, and MPesa. For someone like Lekuren though, who can’t read, even filling out a form for MPesa, the Kenyan mobile payment system, is an insurmountable obstacle. This Kenyan invention has simplified money transactions, by the way, and made them accessible to anyone, assuming they can read and write. A success story from the digital economy.

“Technology is definitely the way to go in terms of bridging years of disadvantage”. (Sara Ruto)

As observers and chroniclers of nomadic societies, at some point we had to ask ourselves: How should we respond to clearly formulated requests from the pastoralists? They understand that they are falling increasingly further behind societal development, which is endangering their way of life. They want to learn to do mathematics, read and write, speak English, and know more about the diseases that affect animals and people. For Kenyan educationalist Dr Sara Ruto, the key lies in using technical progress: “Technology is definitely the way to go in terms of bridging years of disadvantage”. Now we are on the move as well, changing our role from observer to active participant. We began as collectors of moving images, and these are just what we need as the foundation for our tablet-based e-learning programme: Ethno E- Empowerment.

The video-based e-learning program introduces reading, writing and maths

We document the nomad’s everyday lives in short video sequences, entering their world in the village (Manyatta), out in the pastures (Fora), in the city and at the markets to develop exercises for reading, writing and arithmetic, all in English, Kenya’s second official language.

Because the nomadic pastoralists are always on the move with their herds, the digital mobile approach is what we want to try…

We chose the video-based approach because familiar stories from their culture help them feel more comfortable. The nomads do not have a written language, theirs is an oral tradition that transmits information through stories and pictures. This is what we want to use to playfully introduce reading, writing and maths. Because the nomadic pastoralists are always on the move with their herds, the digital mobile approach is what we want to try, especially since they are already very comfortable with their mobile phones. Attempts to employ travelling teachers have all failed so far and the government school system in North Kenya offers no services for illiterate adults. In December 2014, we tested the beta version of our e-learning programme with the multi-ethnic women’s group (Rendille, Samburu, Turkana) in the village of Kiwanja on Lake Turkan. A 15-year-old girl, Robby, whose continuing education is being paid for by our charity, up4change, helps us out. As the first step, we taught Robby how to use a computer and the program so she could in turn teach the group of women.

Robby teaches the group how to use a computer and work with the e-learning program

The learning programme begins with life in the village (Manyatta), more concretely with the story of Danila and her daughter who was suffering from malaria and typhoid.

The practically self-sustaining nomadic culture, which neither the British colonialists nor the Kenyan government have ever really cared about, does not at first glance seem like good candidate for taking the step into the digital, mobile future. But our initial experience has shown how surprisingly easy computers, tablets and digital teaching and learning content were accepted. We feel like our premise has been validated: E-learning cannot just be a privilege for the educated. It should be an opportunity for strengthening the marginalised segments of society.

Photos: Copyright Petra Dilthey, up4change

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