Development and Local Knowledge: New Approaches to Issues in Natural Resources Management, Conservation, and Agriculture

By Alan Bicker; Paul Sillitoe et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 11

Keeping tradition in good repair

The evolution of indigenous knowledge and the dilemma of development among pastoralists

Paul Spencer

This chapter is concerned with the arid region associated with nomadic non-Islamic pastoralists in East Africa and refers to the period before the penetration of the cash economy and the process of globalisation. The exclusion of Islamic pastoralists living beyond the northern perimeter of this region is significant. Islam spread into Africa along trade routes, and these skirted the region rather than passing through it, because of its rough and arid terrain. It has been suggested that it was the effectiveness of warrior age organization among these pastoralists that checked the spread of Islam. However, a more likely explanation is the sheer absence of long distant trades routes through the region. 1 To this extent, indigenous knowledge was less likely to be infiltrated by ideas that stemmed from expanding civilizations in earlier times.

Among these pastoralists, knowledge of their herds was nurtured within each corporate family. The family was the unit of production, and was normally under the authority of the most senior male. It was through families that wealth accumulated and passed down the generations; and I have argued elsewhere that East African age systems have to be viewed with this in mind. It is no distortion to regard pastoralism in this region as a family enterprise to which all members were committed, or they faced being squeezed out of the pastoral niche. 2

At a more inclusive level than the family, the term ‘tribe’ was particularly apt when applied to pastoralists, for this conjures up the image of a bounded social entity. Nomadism tended to create cultural uniformity over a wider area as families migrated with their stock independently of one another. From the stock-owner’s point of view, his community of reference extended to wherever he happened to be, even if his neighbours changed with every nomadic movement. It follows that it was this transient community who represented the ‘tribe’ as repositors of tribal custom at any local meetings, sharing a much wider experience. This uniformity within each tribe corresponded to sharp intertribal boundaries that separated neighbouring ethnic groups culturally and linguistically. To the extent that intermigration and intermarriage did not occur on any significant scale across these boundaries, indigenous knowledge among the nomads was not shared with these neighbours. In this way, the pastoralists con-

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