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.