WE often speak of climate change as an academic discourse. But for the small-scale farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe, the impact of climate change has come home in the form of food security and whole livelihoods.
In Kenya, for instance, the last native speaker of the Elmolo language reportedly died sometime in the 1970s.
By then, only a few hundred Elmolo remained, eking out a living on Kenya’s southern waters of Lake Turkana as they always had, drinking its brackish waters and fishing for catfish, tilapia, and Nile perch.
Thanks to intermarriage with other tribes and adopting the Samburu language, the number of Elmolo has today increased to a few thousand. But their longterm survival remains far from certain, thanks to a new threat.
Lake Turkana is the largest desert lake in the world and has existed in some form for nearly four million years.
Ancient hominids, like the contemporaries of Turkana Boy – the nearly complete skeleton of homo erectus discovered in nearby Nariokotome – fished and lived along its shores.
Now, the lake itself, along with the populations that depend on it, are increasingly vulnerable. Nearly 90 per cent of its freshwater inflow comes from the Omo River across the border in Ethiopia.
Last year, the government in Addis Ababa unveiled Africa’s tallest hydroelectric dam and announced plans to build a series of water-hungry plantations along the Omo. Nearly 30,000 hectares have since been cleared in the Lower Omo for sugar plantation.
Those projects threaten to strangle Turkana’s water supply, and have the potential to devastate the livelihoods of nearly 30,000 people in Kenya who rely on the lake for food.
Because of this – and the largely manmade nature of the potential crisis – Lake Turkana is now being referred to as an East African Aral Sea Counting almost 50 million people, Tanzania has about 120 tribes, among them the small tribes such as the Barbaig.
Once upon tribal hostilities, the Barbaig tribesmen seemed lined up for extinction; even now, their numbers have shrunk so badly that demographers seem to have stopped counting – for fear of the inevitable -- extinction.
In those days, we often treated the Barbaig as a people apart; they were different, even primitive and blood-thirsty.
So any Barbaig staying late among the neighbouring Wanyaturu, Wagogo, Warangi or Wanyiramba was as good as dead because, they believed that if they didn’t kill the fellow, he would certainly kill one of their own – some day.
Then came a far-sighted man called Charles Kileo, who Mwalimu Julius Nyerere appointed regional commissioner for Singida at the height of inter-tribal killings between the mainly sedentary tribes and the itinerant Barbaig; if any killed a sedentary farmer, the rest would rise against poor Barbaig in huge numbers, normally awaiting their revenge till the next cattle market day. Kileo’s argument was that the Barbaig weren’t inherently brutal or blood-thirsty, but that they were always acting in selfdefence.
“You see, all the surrounding tribes have representative in parliament and local government … the Barbaig have no one to speak for them … so when they get killed they suffer in silence … and also take revenge silently,” the RC once told me.
That’s the first time I began understanding the Barbaig – and their plight – from a different perspective; so my people were the aggressors, in the first place!
One, they were taking prime pastures once open to the Barbaig alone; but as their population rose and demand for agricultural land grew, conflicts escalated.
Two, livestock numbers among farmers also increased, and herders started to venture into Barbaigheld pastures. Back then, I thought the RC was out to defend ‘pathological’ killed, people whose killing instinct is lodged in their blood veins; now I know better – even as the Barbaig now live among their erstwhile ‘enemies’ in peace, thanks to government efforts to reunite these once isolated guys.
It’s perhaps the lot of human folly that we’re more tempted to seeking separation rather than unity; it was a coincidence that even the Church of Christ had divided itself 35,000 times by 1983; to date, I’ve since lost count as more and more churches and ‘fellowships’ crop up.
May be, we’re living a prophesy – that God’s Word will have reached all corners of Planet Earth before the Lord comes back to claim His own. But we digress.
The point we’re driving is that all people, in small or big tribal groupings, white or coloured, matter before God. As Pope Francis puts it: “How nice,” he says, “that brothers are united, that brothers pray together.
How nice to see that nobody negotiates their history on the path of faith – that we are diverse but that we want to be, and are already beginning to be, a reconciled diversity.”
In his native Argentina, he once dropped to his knees and called out to God: “Father, we are divided. Unite us!” In the same spirit, please work for the future of small tribes.
I have in mind my Hadzabe neighbours in Singida, whose numbers are decreasing – as the rest of us increase.
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