Academics learn from 'bush universities'

A pilot project connecting academics and pastoralists in a combination of learning and research is now set to be extended, as a way of linking formal initiatives to the innovations and needs of the country’s pastoralist community. Known as the University of the Bush, the program has combined some 50 University lecturers and top researchers from Kenya

and the UK, in seminars held under acacia trees in Kenya and Ethiopia.


Held in the bush where pastoralists feel at ease to meet the researchers, the University has sought to document some of the innovative ways in which pastoral communities are mitigating the consequences of climate change.

"The University is an innovation in itself, drawing on tradition, but enriching research," said Jeremy Lind, a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and researcher who is among the trainers in the University.

The program’s name was chosen to give the pastoralists a sense of prestige as they participate, and although there are no exams or assignments, the students are highly educated and respected for their
understanding and knowledge within the traditional system. The University itself has a faculty of some 50 members, including the researchers.

At the pilot stage, it took a combined focus on Ethiopia and Kenya, due to the close connections, similar lifestyles and shared challenges in the pastoralist communities of the two countries. The University’s last sitting was in Isiolo, organised by the Pastoralist Shade Initiative, the Kenya pastoralist group responsible for nurturing peace among the Borana and Gabra who have traditionally
suffered incessant cattle rustling, and included researchers from the DFID-funded Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC).

The sittings have happened every three months. Scientists involved in the program argue that conventional research systems do not often provide opportunity for pastoralists to engage in
its definition, analysis or its use. But the University of the Bush seminars give pastoralists an opportunity to hear and debate current research findings.

The results have been better research and better use of research, increasing the reach of scholarship and expanding the influence of new ideas. Pastoralists in the sittings, now held twice in Kenya, have shared their own innovations, which include special birthing kits for women, new ways of storing and catching water, the gathering together of different pastoralist communities to share ideas to initiate
innovation, and the building of new organisations to act as a conduit between pastoralists in the bush and organisations and government departments in the city.

The first two seminars were hosted in Ethiopia by the Oromia Pastoralists Association and were attended by around 50 pastoralists from different pastoralist communities of Kenya and Ethiopia. They
took place in the Gujji rangeland of Borana Zone, Ethiopia.

The University has also seen pastoralists outline issues that have affected their lands, while the lecturers document them. Issues that have come up include the loss of huge tracts of pasture land owned by pastoralists in Tana River District in the post-1963 period after the establishment of the Bura Irrigation Scheme, designed to help settle landless families.

Recently, thousands of hectares of land within the Tana River Delta have been leased for food, fuel and mining activities, and the pastoralists say human settlement, plantations and land divisions had
resulted in loss of pasture and watering points.

Professor Katherine Homewood who led the first seminar on mobility and land tenure systems, in the session of the University held late last year, discussed the ways western scientists and observers understood what pastoralists do, and how this had changed over the past 50 years.

The pastoralists themselves cite a strong sense of being unheard, and unconsidered in policy roll-outs and delivery. But scientists and policy makers from the Government now intend to promote the University of the Bush Concept to other areas where pastoralists are found believe as a way of helping shape future research and investments in pastoralism related activities.

Hosted far from urban conference centres, the participants hope similar dialogues will enable pastoralists to engage in more dynamic and productive ways of interacting with future development decision
making. However the biggest challenge for the organizers still remains getting pastoralists into the university owing to their constant movement in search of pasture and water for their livestock.

Written By Bob Koigi for African Laughter