No country for nomads: The hard life of a Somali shepherd

No country for nomads: The hard life of a Somali shepherd

BARUUD ABOKOR has lived in Baligubadle for the past four decades. Before settling in this remote Somali town abutting the border with Ethiopia, he roamed widely. “I was master of myself,” he says. “The economy was good and I had many animals.” But over the years successive droughts, and war between the breakaway region of Somaliland that he inhabits and the central government down south in Mogadishu, have taken their toll. His herd of more than 100 sheep has shrunk to a dozen. Somaliland, like elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, has this year suffered from the worst drought in living memory. But Mr Abokor is staying put.

This makes sense. Since Baligubadle is only a couple of hours’ drive south of Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, food aid reaches the town without too much difficulty. His herd was too weak to travel elsewhere in search of grazing when, earlier this year, the drought was most severe. Baligubadle has man-made boreholes, which keep them alive even as the sun beats the dusty, parched streets. The town is a blessing for once-nomadic pastoralists like Mr Abokor. But its existence also helps to explain why pastoralism here is in the grip of a crisis that runs much deeper than drought.

Pastoral nomads—the animal herders who dwell in large numbers in the Horn of Africa—are hardy in times of water shortage. Being able to pack up and move livestock to fresh pastures gives them an advantage over sedentary farmers. But that mobility has shrunk. Two decades ago a nomadic pastoralist like Mr Abokor might have travelled as far as 500km (300 miles) each season, sometimes deep into neighbouring Ethiopia, says Ahmed Ibrahim of Candelight, a local NGO. Today most rarely move farther than 50km, except perhaps in times of emergency.

The spread of small towns like Baligubadle, with a school and a health clinic, is one important factor. So is restricted access to land. The vast rangelands stretching across Somalia are governed by a communal system of ownership known as the xeer. But the xeer was weakened in the 1990s with the collapse of the state during the country’s civil war. Tracts of land which were once open for roaming have been fenced off by unscrupulous town-dwellers and wealthier herders.

The remaining land has been degraded by overgrazing. Somaliland now has almost no seasonal reserves, which are crucial for allowing pastures to lie fallow and recover, and which in the past were protected by guards. Vegetation is in desperate condition: the land that surrounds Baligubadle is all thorn bush and acacia trees. Much of the vitamin-rich grass that once covered it disappeared years ago.

These are problems felt by many of the roughly 23m pastoralists scattered across the Horn of Africa and Kenya. Soaring population growth in pastoral areas is putting ever more pressure on already dwindling resources. Rich commercial herders, some with animals numbering in the thousands, monopolise the best land. Mushrooming towns encroach on the ranges.

Attempts to address this have been half-hearted at best. Communal land rights are weak across the region. And governments tend to look unfavourably on mobility: social services, especially schools, are rarely designed to cope with it. Baligubadle’s school is closed because its teachers have moved elsewhere, along with their animals. Pastoralist children are generally less educated than their sedentary peers, making it harder for them to find other jobs. Those who do settle in towns often find themselves destitute.

Pastoralism in the east African drylands persists despite such Malthusian pressures. In a harsh environment, many see it as the only way of staying alive. Repeated attempts to settle populations and introduce large-scale irrigated farming have a history of failure in the region, not least because they have often involved coercion.

In Somaliland less than a tenth of the land is reckoned to be suited to agriculture. So the choice is between carrying on as nomads, or getting educated and doing something completely different. Of his children’s future, Mr Abokor says he hopes “their life will change”.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Staying put”