Contesting the commons: privatizing pastoral lands in Kenya

Controversial election of the Olgulului group ranch officials of September 6 2018 where Daniel Leturesh was elected against the will of the majority members.
Kajiado News Update

Kajiado News Update

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BOOK REVIEW:       AUTHOR – Lesorogol, Carolyn K. 

Reviewed By Lotte Hughes

The process of ‘reform’ of customary land tenure in Kenya began during the British colonial era and has intensified under successive independent governments. 

The move from communal landholding to privatization has long been regarded by the state as a means of providing incentives for increased agricultural production, but over the past two decades, many pastoralists – once contemptuous of farming – have also embraced privatization with enthusiasm, and diversified their economic livelihoods.

What factors determine the choices individual pastoralists make, either to seek private land or to retain and defend traditional communal norms? What are the socio-economic outcomes and policy implications, and has individualization of landholding led to more selfish behaviour and the erosion of moral norms? Are people any better off when they own land individually?

These are some of the questions Lesorogol explores in her fascinating study of land and social transformation among the Samburu. Through comparative micro-level case studies of the Siambu and Mbaringon communities, she sets out to understand ‘how individual choices and actions, conditioned as they are by the normative frameworks and habits of culture, mediate and shape the contours of social change processes’ (p.2).

Siambu is the only area in the Samburu district that has been completely privatized (though land use is a hybridized mix of individual and common use despite privatization), while the land remains communally owned in Mbaringon. 

Lesorogol examines the push and pulls factors, internal and external, that determine why and how people behave as they do, and which shape institutional change. An anthropologist, her methods and analysis are refreshingly different and include experimental economics and game theory.

Chapter 8 gives an entertaining account of Samburu playing games, with small sums of money, that tested hypotheses about how behaviour may have changed since privatization. 

The result? Contrary to expectation, privatization has not undermined fair-minded and trusting behaviour; in fact, those favouring privatization were less selfish than the other group.

The author thinks outside the box of traditional ethnography, moving beyond kinship-centred structural-functionalist models to seek broader explanations for how society ticks and, most importantly, changes over time. She challenges the perception, commonly held by non-pastoralist Kenyans and outsiders, that Samburu culture is unchanging; in fact, change is happening fast and modernity is increasingly embraced, both in this area and among other Maa-speakers. 

On her evidence, earlier gerontocratic models no longer apply; younger men and some women are using new sources of power to shift the balance between generations, and between men and women. 

For those seeking private land and other freedoms, this often involves violating social norms, and deciding it is worthwhile (as Kenyan citizens linked to wider networks, rather than primarily Samburu) refusing to conform to certain social expectations; for this and other reasons, male elders’ authority has waned. 

Lesorogol’s work complements a range of existing literature, including that on the subdivision of Maasai group ranches in Kajiado county, and gendered analyses of pastoralism in Africa, and brings a welcome richness of personalized detail that is often lacking elsewhere. 

The strengths of this book include the light-touch self-reflexivity, detailed household-level data and informant profiles, and the use of lengthy verbatim quotes from named informants, though an appended list of oral sources with brief background information on each person would have been a useful addition.

 However, the downside of micro-level studies is that broader arguments and contextualization can be neglected. While the author provides some historical background (chap. 3) and mentions some continuities in postcolonial policy and practice, more could have been made of this, drawing on the historiography of the Maasai in British East Africa, to explain where these ideas came from and how pervasive they are. 

There are, for example, clear legacies in colonial betterment schemes, environmental controls, and the notion of the deserving poor. I could see no mention of leasing land for wildlife tourism, and only passing reference to community-based natural resource management, which is an increasingly important feature of the Kenyan landscape.

The moral economy theory could also have been developed since much of this study is about changes in the ‘traditional’ moral economy. On balance, however, this is a rich work that will appeal to a wide range of scholars and students.

REVIEWER: Lotte Hughes is a historian of Africa and empire, with a Kenya specialism. I was formerly a Senior Research Fellow at The Open University (OU), UK.


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