Animal In Mind: People, Cattle and Shared Nature on the African Savannah

Professor Vigdis Broch-Due

Professor Vigdis Broch-Due

It is a commonplace that East African pastoralists like Turkana of Northern Kenya identify themselves with their animals. However it really goes far beyond that. To grasp not just the emotional intensity of Turkana bonds with their cattle but the ways in which their life projects are intertwined, is to feel the boundaries of our categories of the human and the animal stretching. This is my theme and the story of Emong and his bull perfectly illustrates it.

A year ago while I was visiting my good Turkana friend, Emong, his bull, Lokorimeyen approached us. The animal was gorgeous: huge with beautifully curved horns which had an unusual brown and white hue. His hide was dramatically patterned like a giraffe’s and had been carefully tattooed with concentric circles etched in black. Emong immediately began to stroke and fondle the bull with the loving, almost erotic, intensity that Turkana reserve for their most prized animals. When I remarked on Lokoromeyen’s beauty Emong proudly told me how he had saved him from a recent drought that had killed most of his herd.

Any long dry season will leave cattle thin and weak but when rains failed for the second season in a row, Emong’s cattle became so weak they could no longer stand. Because of his salaried job in a tourist lodge, Emong was initially in a position to buy grass from farmers in the highlands. However, his savings steadily dwindled and it become evident the grass he was buying was of poor quality anyway. His cows and bull were fading. He was desperate. “I just could not stand their suffering,” he told me, “the way they looked at me, the sounds they made. My bull was begging me, my cows were reminding me how they had sustained my family with their milk. I felt I was going mad. I could not think of anything except how to keep them alive — I was crazy, I watched them every night, I spent everything I had on them. I even forgot to feed my own children!”

Despite all his efforts Emong’s animals dropped one by one. Finally, the day came when Lokorimeyen too was so weak, Emong could no longer get him on his feet. In a panic, Emong withdrew the last of his savings from the Co-Op, rented a pickup and, with the help of his friends hoisted Lokorimeyen on to the back of it. He set off for the highlands and greener pastures.

He spent two weeks in the highlands, nursing his bull back to life, hand feeding him grass, giving him multivitamins, covering his shivering body with a blanket. “I comforted him,” he told me, “I stroked him and sang to him all day long.” Gradually the bull grew stronger. Soon Emong saw signs that rain had fallen in the lowlands and fresh grass was sprouting. They drove back home. Yet even now, Emong could not stop worrying about Lokorimeyen. Would he get ill again because of the chilly rain? At one point he even moved the bull into the house and sent his children to go and sleep at their grandmother’s compound.

Lokorimeyen, however, had regained his former vigour and was now roaming the neighbourhood impregnating whichever cows he came across. This made Emong very happy because he knew that now his name and the bull’s would live on and be permanently associated with these offspring.

Emong finished the story by singing the songs that he had composed for Lokorimeyen. They were about how their two lives were so deeply interwoven and the many pathways they had travelled together. It all ended with my taking the photograph of the happy couple together.

Yet this was not the end of the saga. When I went back to visit Emong a year later with a taped version of the song and the photo framed, Lokorimeyen was nowhere in sight. When I expressed my surprise, Emong told me with a look of deepest desperation that signs of yet another drought had appeared. He simply could not go through it all again. He had decided to sell Lokorimeyen at the local market. I later learnt from his wife that she had pushed him mercilessly to get rid of the bull because she simply could not bear his obsession any more and they needed the money for the children.

The Turkana world is full of epic, poignant and heart-stirring tales such as this of the shared lives of people and cattle. To further illustrate my theme, I want to contrast these with a Western tale of the human and the animal. It is contained in J.M. Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals. His fictional heroine Elizabeth Costello is haunted by how  animals are wounded by “the industrialization of animal lives and the commodification of animal flesh.” What she shares with Emong is a raw perception of animal suffering and the deep empathy it evokes. They both feel acutely the intense pain (and pleasure) that humans and animals can share. But while Emong actively tried, in a very practical way, as long as he was able, to appease his animal’s suffering, Costello, like a good Westerner, can do little except feel guilt. Addressing a college campus in the US, she declares, “I am not a philosopher of mind but an animal exhibiting, yet not exhibiting, to a gathering of scholars, a wound, which I cover up under my clothes but touch on in every word I speak.”

This scholarly blend of angst and alienation is exemplary of Western philosophy that has, through a long lineage of thinkers from Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Heidegger and Koehler, distanced itself from the animal. Lacking as the animal does, the human faculty of language and reason, how could it be anything but an “other”? Through his character Costello, Coetzee dramatically evokes this alienation, a sort of “apartheid” which has paved the way for factory farming and mechanized killing practices that resemble nothing so much as a Holocaust “…in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world.” Speaking with an “opened heart” to a disinterested audience who clearly find her both rude and ridiculous, Elisabeth Costello explicitly links the West’s treatments of animals to its treatments of indigenous peoples in the colonial encounters of Africa and beyond. It is strong stuff but deeply apposite.

It is precisely this Western concept and treatment of “nature” and “the animal”, so helplessly railed-against by Coetzee’s fictional heroine, which has dramatically reconfigured the landscape of Northern Kenya, making it increasingly difficult for people like Emong to keep his livestock alive and thriving.

At first sight the dry expanses might seem as remote, primordial and untouched as anywhere on earth. They are not. The vast semi-arid savannahs which herders like Turkana and their cattle traverse is in fact a landscape sculpted by the western ideas of “nature” and “the animal” contained in the development projects of recent history. Northern Kenya can easily be seen as a vast open-air museum of failed development schemes, cluttered with the rusting remains of long forgotten “infrastructure” projects propelled by the core ideas of “development”: irrigation agriculture, fishery and forestry.

These projects were designed to wean pastoralists off their reliance on livestock and their nomadic ways which, since early colonial times, have been seen as signs of poverty and primitivism. To become sedentary and agricultural, on the other hand, was a sign of “progress”. It is a bitter twist of fate that the flip-side of that pragmatic colonizing vision was the romantic dream of the pastoral nomad as the noble savage of a “wild, untamed” Africa. As real herders like Emong are now reduced to rural poverty, this romance now drives a world of game parks from which they are excluded.

Large swathes of Africa are being privatised and carved up into reserves for wildlife, an altogether more attractive and “natural” spectacle than herds of cattle. European settlers, having appropriated huge tracts of pastoralist land during the colonial era, have now turned their ranches into private conservancies that market themselves globally as friends of the earth, elephants and exotic peoples. The multi-million-dollar safari industry brings in vast tourist revenues, ring-fenced by hard-to-argue-with discourses of ecology and conservationism.

For the pastoralists of northern Kenya all this is a disaster. Turkana, Samburu and Borana are being shut out of their pasturelands and reduced to sellers of tourist trinkets. The lives of people like my friend Emong remind us that behind the soft, smiling, eco-friendly face of East African safaris and tourist lodges lurk the feral forces of neo-liberal capital and its history of violence and dislocation. The ancient network of savannah pathways along which livestock and people used to travel alongside wild animals and which served as the metaphor for their intertwined lives, is gradually being erased.

It is exactly against this double violation of animals and subjugated peoples that Costello articulates her “anti-ecological” stance — anti-ecological because she realizes how so much of the environmental movement and its associated businesses are premised on this profound alienation from the animal. But she is also keenly aware that this alienation is so deeply entrenched in the everyday of most Westerners that there is no position left from which to counteract it in a reasoned and ethically consistent way. At dinner after her public lecture Elizabeth is asked by the university president whether her vegetarianism “comes out of moral conviction,” to which she replies, “no, I don’t think so… It comes out of a desire to save my soul.” And when the bureaucrat civilly rejoins, “Well, I have a great respect for it,” she retorts tersely, “I’m wearing leather shoes. I’m carrying a leather purse. I wouldn’t have overmuch respect if I were you.”

Here again we have an interesting parallel with Emong’s story for he too was drawn into an impossible conundrum: sacrifice the wellbeing of his family for his bull or resign himself to the new social realities? In both characters, intense emotions are produced by their predicament. Elisabeth Costello feels rage, anger and bewilderment while Emong feels shame at betraying Lokorimeyen by selling him on; but there, as we shall learn, the similarity ends.

Coetzee’s narrative is brilliant in the ways it seeks to unsettle the ground of Western rationality, which has driven a wedge between the human and the animal, while at the same time acknowledging the difficulties, perhaps even impossibility, of overcoming it. Hence the swirl of ‘madness’ and ambiguity that both his character Elizabeth and my friend Emong feel they are caught up in.

I think, however, we can take the reflections inspired by these contrasting narratives of the human and animal even further. For another fault line of Western philosophy is that even when one entertains the idea that there is a common ground of feeling shared by the human and animal (a position voiced, for instance, by Nietzsche, Bentham, Derrida and Deleuze), philosophers still claim to speak a universal truth when devising solutions to mitigate that shared suffering. This is the point where Western and Turkana ontologies clearly diverge on the subject of the animal and the human.

Vegetarianism and saving animal life are typical responses among animal activists who build their advocacy on the premise, first formulated in a footnote by Bentham, that the animal’s capacity for suffering should qualify it for ethical treatment. This appreciation of animal feelings runs through all the seminal works on animal justice and dignity by, for instance, Singer, Regan, Rawls and Nussbaum who all make it the ethical basis for animals’ having “interests” and elevating them to “rights-holders” legitimately included within the “social contract”. Phrases such as these remind us, parenthetically, that these discourses on animal welfare  arise from a distinctively Euro-American economic and political history. There is also, within them, an appeal to a shared embodiment, the recognition that the human being too, in Nussbaum’s words, “is not just a moral and political being, but one who has an animal body, and whose human dignity, rather than being opposed to this animal nature, inheres in it, and in its temporal trajectory.” Here we have to remind ourselves that these discourses, admirable as they are, inevitably uphold the firm species barrier between the human and the animal: the animal remains definitely and completely “other”.

Here is the great gap separating Western discourses from Turkana, who systematically blur that boundary. The animal and the human are viscerally and cognitively intertwined to a much greater extent than even the most radical, animal-rights discourse would allow. Turkana see them intimately woven together in a shared existence and experiential world. Here I can only give a summary overview of the ways in which this is so.

Turkana cosmology posits a world made up of a series of bodies nested one in the other — humans, animals, grass, trees and  the landscape itself — all connected by very real and tangible flows, processes and energies. The connective tissue, as it were, between these forms of vibrant matter and energy is a filigree of “pathways”.

In this nomadic world, path, motion and exchange are the keys to everything. The iconography of pathways permeates the outer world, where Turkana spend much of their lives travelling this network that covers their landscape and speak much of the “pathways” to wealth  and well being. It also permeates their perception of the inner worlds of anatomy and physiology. Bodies too are comprised of pathways along which energies, food, blood and milk flow. These pathways intimately link the human and the animal. The core ideas of Turkana natural relatedness almost perfectly resemble the ecological idea of elements being constantly reconfigured as they pass though a vast food-chain. Humans and cattle are both sustained and related to each other by the grass and water which emerge from the land, pass through animal bodies and are incorporated into human bodies by the constant sharing of milk, meat and blood. Children and calves are in a very real sense kindred, their kinship expressed in the identical tattoos etched on the skins of both humans and animals. In this world there is simply no fixed opposition between “nature” and “culture”. Wild animals too are incorporated into a sort of grand universal physiology of matter, form, flows and processes.

This interweaving of person, animal and world is not simply a metaphor. It is a lived reality of vital flows charged with bodily and sensory power, weaving together self and group, the human and the animal. When Turkana treat their cattle as social beings they are not being metaphoric but acknowledging the deep, participatory, metonymic, and material involvement in each others’ lives. The intimate emotional bonds between people and animals starts in childhood and continues as an everyday, sensory, practical relationship throughout life — animals are enjoyed, trained, conversed with, sung to, respected when alive and mourned when dead.

This does not prevent Turkana from exchanging animals or killing and eating them. In the grand, universal physiology of the Turkana world, this passage of the animal into the human is mirrored by a reverse passage achieved through the medium of goats. Human bodily residues such as nail trimmings, tufts of hair and placentas are all thrown into the goat pen to be eagerly devoured by the goats, as are worn out pieces of leather from skirts, sacks, charms and decorated containers. Through the digestive systems of goats passes the fertile detritus of the entire Turkana world, from the physical leftovers of the human world and its highly potent bodily substances to elements of the natural world: the twigs, saplings, pods and seeds on which the goats browse every day. It is for this reason that the goat’s belly becomes the perfect medium for divination because these multiple, nested and intertwined worlds are perfectly  represented in the curled guts of a goat. When Turkana read  the opened belly of a goat to gain information about events in their world it is because goats bear in their bodies a complete cartography of everything Turkana — a visceral mapping of the stuff that  binds together humans, animals and plants.

I hope that even this condensed account of human-animal interrelatedness makes it clear just how far even the most “pro-animal” Western discourses are from the Turkanas’. Just as Elizabeth Costello lamented, most Westerners live alienated from the intimate lives of animals even if they are unhappy about it. Animal lives remain emotionally and experientially distant. They are viewed through the virtual media of texts and TV documentaries or through the glass or bars of tourist vehicles and zoos. Most of us can never really experience the sort of emotional and cognitive intimacy that my friend Emong had with his beloved bull Lokorimiyen. Through his story, however, we can perhaps grasp it and the very different experience of the animal it contains.

This is why I would like to conclude by stressing the importance of anthropology in any discussion of the human and animal. Anthropology is, among other things, a vast compendium of diverse experiences from around the globe of the human and the animal. It deserves to be paid much more attention by both philosophers and animal activists who all too often blithely universalize their very culture-bound propositions, unaware that there is a vast world out there of thought, experience and meditation that has existed for millennia on what binds humans and animals.

9 comments to Animal In Mind: People, Cattle and Shared Nature on the African Savannah

  • Adamson Lanyasunya

    This is a a good essay that describes not just the pastoralist value for livestock but how much the pastoralists have an inner attachment, liking, love for the livestock — including that of minding their life and not just taking them as mere economic commodities. The pastoralists take pride in their livestock in terms of colour, style of horns, the products they provide, and their role in various ceremonies and rituals.
    Adamson Lanyasunya- researcher

  • Broch-Due has surely made the case that anthropology “deserves to be paid much more attention by both philosophers and animal activists.” This essay is emotionally gripping and intellectually profound. No doubt even my sympathetic reading has been somewhat offset by my own philosophical and activist biases, but in dialogue there is hope of mutual progress in understanding.

    I am not convinced, however, that the gap of which Broch-Due speaks is as great as is made out in the essay. That there are great gaps among human beings in their conceptualizations (and resultant treatments) of other animals is surely true. But is it necessarily an East/West divide? The particular comparison that jumped to mind as I read the essay was between Emong’s caring for Lokorimeyen and the way many Americans care for, and think about, their pets. The “backgrounds” are utterly different, of course; but in terms of respect, empathy, solicitousness, and so forth, is there really that much difference?

    By the same token, remember that the story is about Emong. Meanwhile, his wife “had pushed him mercilessly to get rid of the bull because she simply could not bear his obsession any more and they needed the money for the children.” So is this really a story about Turkana as such?

    Furthermore, the essay takes for granted the identity of the bull and cows as “cattle.” According to my dictionary, that term derives from a word for “property.” The article acknowledges that these animals (or is it goats alone?) are also killed: both for meat, albeit “only in important ceremonies,” and for divination. So even the contradictoriness that is a hallmark of Western human attitudes towards animals is apparently to be found among Turkana.

    My perhaps cynical view of the matter is that human beings will always use other animals (and for that matter other humans) as they want (and/or need) to, and at the same time conceptualize the animals in whatever local (and sometimes individual) ways will most facilitate that use. How could it be otherwise? But perhaps some of these ways are more true to the sensibilities of the animals and hence more conducive to their welfare and autonomy as they themselves would conceive it. I think insights from both East and West could help us here.

    Yet even that observation may be somewhat beside the point (or perhaps illustrative of the point!) of Broch-Due’s essay, which seems to be primarily concerned with the ill effects of Western conceptualizations on human beings, and specifically, on nonWesterners whom Westerners are attempting to aid (by Western lights).

  • Barbara A. Worley

    I really enjoyed reading this article!

    I was having a similar conversation (about Tuareg men and camels) with one of my Tuareg friends just a couple of weeks ago, trying to confirm information I had collected in my earlier field work in Niger. The Tuaregs in rural areas of northern Niger have been pretty much off-limits since I left there in 1986, when the first shots of the rebellions rang out in a small town near my research area. Since then there have been several rebellions, and now al Qaeda has infiltrated, targeting Europeans and Americans in the heart of my research area.

    I am lucky to have Tuaregs from my research area who have emigrated to the U.S. and live nearby in New York and New Hampshire. And so I was at a Tuareg wedding just a few weeks ago, in New Hampshire, and nearly all of the Tuaregs from northern Niger who live in Canada and the north-eastern U.S. were on hand for the celebration. There was a lull between the ceremony and the feasting, and my friends took me aside to exchange the news. I wanted to ask them whether Tuareg men dream about their camels, as I was told back in the 1980s. There was some discussion among them, and the consensus was yes, Tuareg men do sometimes have dreams about their camels, and they provided some examples. I needed this information for a lecture I was asked to give by a colleague here at the University of Massachusetts, Boston where I teach, for a class on “Dreams and Dreaming,” in the Anthropology Department.

    Not only do Tuareg men sometimes dream about their camels (for example, their camels saving them by fleeing from desert djinns at night, or riders falling off their camels and being trampled), but Tuareg men also compose songs about them, like the Turkana. For example, in one song I collected, a young man’s camel “knows where his sweetheart is,” and navigates there under a new moon, without any guidance from the rider, who is unable to see familiar landmarks due to the lack of light. From the Tuaregs’ perspective, the camels understand their owners; they are psychic, and connected with the supernatural. Not all Tuaregs would agree with this, but I would not expect unilateral agreement on every issue, and I feel that this is normal. The fact that some Tuaregs think this way is of great interest, and opens a door to understanding Tuareg values.

    Tuareg men, of course, take all pains to treat their camels well, and decorate them with the most expensive and lavish of neck ornaments, bridle dressings, saddles and saddle bags. Some will spend hours training their camels to “dance” to the women’s drumming and singing in community gatherings. They will even spend large amounts of money on magical amulets for their camels (worn about the neck) to protect them from danger, illness, and the mischievous djinns.

    It is the supernatural aspects of the man-camel relationship that I find interesting, and I wonder if Vigdis Broch-Due might have more to say about Turkana and their spiritual beliefs in connection with the livestock? There may also be a gender difference in the way that Turkana feel about their bulls.

    People’s feelings for animals varies enormously, not only from culture to culture but within the same culture.

    I believe that Vigdis Broch-Due’s story about Emong illustrates some important truths about the Turkana. It was pointed out that his wife did not share Emong’s enthusiasm for the bull, and badgered him until he sold it when they couldn’t afford it any more. But in every culture there are differences between individuals, often between genders, and I would not expect a unilateral adoration of bulls among the Turkana. Hearing just this one story might raise some doubt, but from my own experience among Tuaregs, I sense that it is probably representative of the feelings of many Turkana men.

    It is true also that Americans really don’t have any feelings about cows; and for lack of experience with any cows, why should they? Most Americans do not really associate cows with the packaged meat that we buy at the store, and know practically nothing about commercial cattle or the treatment of cows in the process of butchering. For Americans, cows are an icon of a way of life – the small family farm – that has now pretty much entered the realm of folklore and a bygone day.

    The animal rights people have selectively chosen certain animals to “save” with their projects and media – and to save them primarily for the viewing pleasure of non-native tourists. Vigdis Broch-Due has rightly brought attention to the paradox that Turkana lands were taken from them by do-gooders to save selected animals, without regard for the livelihood and feelings of the people who have inhabited these lands for millennia.

    Barbara A. Worley
    Anthropologist

  • Benjamin Campbell

    Vigdis Broch-Due starts her piece stating that the Turkana’s relationship with their animals stretches our understanding of the categories human and animal. Having worked in Turkana myself I can attest to a similar experience. At my initial entry into Turkana I was struck with how unusual it was to see people and camels walking single file down the highway, the camels with their swaying gait and the people wrapped in wool blankets in the 90 degree heat. Two weeks later the same sight no longer struck me as unusual. My sense of the human animal boundary had been stretched, indeed.

    But the theme that Broch-Due ends with, that anthropology has an important role to play in challenging Western notions of a universal human experience of animals, is, in my opinion, even more important. I would like to take it to its logical conclusion by arguing that if there is a universal human animal relationship it is the one which exists in most of the world, i.e. the non-western non-industrialized societies. In contrast to members of industrialized societies, who have very little contact with wild or farm animals, members of agricultural and subsistence cultures have regular contact with animals during childhood, the period during which humans develop empathy and identification with others. If we are alienated from animals it is because we do not grow up with them, not because our philosophers told us so.

    In this light the U.S. experience with pets looks very similar to that of Emong and his prized bull. Pet owners will go to great lengths to keep their animals alive, including costly medical treatments that may do little to prolong life. As with Emong, for those animals with which we associate closely our empathy leads us to consider them as almost human and act accordingly.

  • Dorothy Hodgson

    As a long time friend and colleague of Vigdis’, I am once again struck by her enviable capacity to so beautifully capture and express the peculiar rhythms, reasons and rites of pastoralist lives and pathways. Having lived and worked among Maasai pastoralists in Tanzania for over 25 years, I have witnessed numerous stories like that of Emong and his bull that speak to the intensely affective and even sensual relationship between certain men and certain cattle.

    I would suggest, however, that her story raises two issues that seem central to her argument but, perhaps because of space, are underexplored. The first is the role of the sacred and divine as a source for the interweaving of animal and human lives. Turkana, like Maasai, believe in an omnipotent divinity who is ever present in humans and nature and expresses pleasure and anger through natural events like rain and thunderstorms. While the Divine works through humans, and certain humans are viewed by others as being especially saintly or holy because of their actions and ideals, I wonder if Turkana believe that the Divine also works through or is reflected in the beauty or power of certain livestock? (We know that other kinds of animals – like chickens and fish – have historically elicited feelings of disgust, if not loathing, among many pastoralist groups.) Perhaps rather than a dyad of humans and animals, we should consider the relationship as part of a triangle including, if not encompassed by, the Divine?

    Second, the brief mention of Emong’s wife speaks to the centrality and complexity of gender – of both humans and animals – to this story. A man’s pride in the handsomeness and virility of his bull, a woman’s fierce effort to protect her children, the power of a wife to influence her husband – these gendered interactions all shape the shared lives of Turkana and their cattle in the present and the possible pathways of those lives in the future.

    Dorothy Hodgson
    Professor & Chair
    Department of Anthropology
    Rutgers University

  • Jacqueline Solway

    Many thanks to Broch-Due for her compelling and evocative essay. I have worked amongst pastoralists in Botswana and while many aspects of the pastoral system have been dismantled, enough was there in the late 1970’s for me to have observed numerous analogous phenomena. Cattle refracted the lives and social linkages of people and vice versa. All important life cycles transitions required cattle exchange and/or slaughter; the art of cattle naming reflected social relations, imagination and, often, delicious irony; chiefs’ meetings would stop while men discussed and admired a passing herd. But despite the enormous empathy, mutual nourishment and symbiosis described so beautifully in Evans Pritchard’s oecology of the Nuer, by Broch-Due in her invocation of shared pathways between animals and humans and by many others, I think Broch-Due may be taking matters too far by suggesting that the dualism of humans and others, animals included in the latter category, may be an occidental particularity and not shared by all, especially the Turkana. Ultimately, dualism is an ontological and epistemological problem for which we may have no absolute answer (see Descola for analysis of the variations in animal/human relations). However, I suspect it is the homologies – for instance cattle and humans have the same gestation period, both give milk – and mutual dependencies of people and animals, especially cattle, that enable animals as an other, to powerfully represent and mediate relations amongst humans. The emotional, material and spiritual interweaving of cattle and humans does not obviate the notion of animals as others; perhaps it strengthens it.

    Pastoralists and cattle are intertwined but not kin; indeed as a projection of kin relations they serve to reinforce, to sanctify and to provide an external point of reference for the world of kin and social relations. And this they do by being alien, by being the other, perhaps an intimate other with whom there is mutual embodiment and for whom there is empathy and affection. But as Broch-Due acknowledges, cattle are killed, sacrificed, consumed, and castrated, and rocks are thrown at them in herding. They may be dreamed about, sung to, praised in poems or prose, but are they revered in their afterlife, as ancestors? In addition, as other commentators have mentioned, as Ferguson elaborated in his notion of the Bovine Mystique, and with male-owned cattle being theorized as the first form of private property by Engels–wrong but not to be dismissed–love and affinity for cattle is differentiated along gender lines.

  • Peter Little

    I found Vigdis Broch-Due’s essay on the plight of her Turkana friend, Emong, and his prized bull to nicely capture the paper’s key point about flawed conceptualizations of human (‘culture’) and animal (‘nature) relations in Western philosophy (and, I might add, ecological science!). For many of us who have worked in pastoral cultures of East Africa the blurred distinctions between humans and animals, especially cattle and camels, that Broch-Due describes are accurately on target. Only recently during a visit to Baringo District, Kenya, which borders the Turkana area to the south, was I struck by the care provided three young calves by a local herder. The young animals were tied by rope to a shade tree where they were hand fed a mix of maize porridge, milk, and local forage from metal bowls—the same kind of maize meal and bowls that are used by the herder’s children. I have thought about whether this is culturally and cognitively analogous to how we treat pets in the US and Europe, and have come to the conclusion that they are not comparable, which may explain why Broch-Due does not make the analogy. The very notion of having a domestic pet and ‘anthropomorphizing’ it reflects a division of nature and culture not too different from a wealthy US land owner or corporation that creates a private nature reserve that excludes humans as if a landscape devoid of people is ‘natural’. For Broch-Due’s Turkana friend, animals and the landscapes that sustain them are so intricately woven into his culture and identity that dissecting ‘nature’ from ‘culture’ is a misplaced effort. Had Broch-Due’s main point been to emphasize the desperate plight of Emong and his community, greater attention to the exclusion of people (‘culture’) from savanna landscapes (‘nature’), by conservation advocates and their allies, would have been more informative. That is where their flawed thinking about nature and culture probably has done the most harm for pastoralists of East Africa.

  • Teferi Abate

    Emong’s dilemmas with his bull Lokorimeyen in this essay reminds me an equally “heart-stirring” popular Amharic song retrospectively praising a highland Ethiopian father who chose to be “the first” victim of a painful death from starvation during the 1984/85 famine. Like Emong, the Ethiopian man in this song used all the resources at his disposal to feed his starving children, together with a pair of dependable plough oxen still in the house. He was amazingly successful in doing this for a good part those hard days. With all strategies exhausted and painful death from starvation still looming, the song goes, the man chose to be the first to die by starving himself but still feeding the kids, together with the oxen. He did not slaughter the oxen to make it to the next day. He did not sell them either, because he wanted his surviving children to live a life worth living. Thank you for this excellent essay and many good comments.

  • Vigdis Broch-Due’s reading of the “emotional intensity” and profound “cognitive intertwining’” that bonds “animals” and “humans” is profoundly resonant with my ethnographic experiences in rainforest New Guinea, where inhabitants live a close ecological and cosmological life in relation to birds, and well as in pastoral Europe, where shepherds display precisely the kind of sensibility and concern with their flocks that Turkana display with their herds. What is so grounded, significant, and poignant here is the way Broch-Due speaks to the deep reaches of co-evolution, environmental and aesthetic, that is locally not taken to be extraordinary at all, but a fact of life, variously a necessity and pleasure. This is both the everyday background or foreground to the sensibilities and practices of many people who deeply co-habit with “animals,” or, in Donna Haraway’s phrase, “companion species.” The ethnographic and eco-historical details are, of course, different in the global here vs. there, the now vs. then, but the bottom line is often the same: animals are central to how many humans know and imagine their humanity, and humans are central not just to how animals live and die, but how they too know themselves. I can’t agree more with Broch-Due’s riff on the “great gap separating Western discourses from” not just Turkana but from many local human philosophies of co-habitation. And reading her reminded me of a story about a Western ornithologist visiting highlands New Guinea. When he watched a local dance, with cleared ground, elaborately positioned maypole, objects, and feathered dancers, the naturalist quipped to a local headman: “I see you’ve copied the bowerbird and birds of paradise here.” The response was quick, dead-pan, and matter-of-fact: “No, they copied us.” It indeed takes one to know one.