Pastoralists and researchers meet under the University of Bush 

It is one of a kind university, whose setting under acacia trees in Kenya’s North Eastern area and neighboring Ethiopia makes it ideal for its students. There are no exams or assignments and the students together with their lecturers meet after every three months. Yet this university has been credited with gathering landmark findings that are shaping academic discourses and guiding governments in policy making. 

Dubbed ‘The University of the Bush,’ due to the nature of the settings where the trainings and seminars are held, usually under an acacia tree, the university brings together pastoralists, researchers and government officials in understanding the nomadic life of pastoralists while listening to their grievances. 

It was christened so to give a sense of prestige and honor to the participating pastoralists. Its initial classes in 2009 attracted 50 pastoralists from both Kenya and Ethiopia and researchers from Kenya and UK, with the numbers having now grown four fold. It is organized by among others the Pastoralist Shade Initiative, a Kenya based group that has been tasked with fostering peace between the Borana and Gabra communities who have had a long history of resource related conflict that has led to cattle rustling and deaths. The choice of combining Kenya and Ethiopia pastoralists was informed by the close connections, shared lifestyles like markets, fodder and challenges. Researchers are drawn from Future Agricultures Consortium which is funded by Department for International Development, DFID.

Pastoralists’ resilience to climate change

Of great interest among the researchers is the resilience of the pastoral community in the wake of changing weather patterns. Researchers have learnt and documented some of the most prolific innovations embraced by the pastoralists to shield themselves from harsh weather conditions including low cost water collection and harvesting methods, unique birthing kits for women and setting up of organizations that are a focal point for pastoralists in the bush minimizing chances of conflict over limited resources like pasture and water.

The University has also been a platform for the pastoral community to voice their concerns over longstanding injustices meted on them including displacement to pave way for fuel exploration, irrigation schemes and mining activities. 

“It is a great learning experience which has not only allowed us to learn from the scientists and researchers but has also given us a chance to train them. They have always been excited about our way of doing things. We feel part and parcel of the education and research system,” said Halkano Golole one of the pioneer students. 

From concept to action

Researchers agree, arguing that while conventional research has predominantly not taken to account the views of the pastoralists especially on key aspects like climate change, resilience or conflict over resources, their engagement through University of the Bush, is changing the narrative by deepening the influence of new ideas leading to more comprehensive and inclusive researches that attract more interest and funding. The success of the University of Bush concept is now inspiring scientists to roll it out to other pastoral and neglected communities that are key in aiding modern research and policy.

Already the Kenyan government has moved to construct modern abattoirs in pastoral community with a view to accommodating them into mainstream markets after a study by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) titled ‘The contribution of Livestock to the Kenyan economy’ showed that over 80 per cent of the beef consumed in Kenya comes from pastoralists in Northern Kenya or in neighboring countries through informal markets.