When we watch the thousands of Somalis who have fled their homelands arriving emaciated in the camps in northern Kenya, and see those they have left behind dying of famine, the world sees only despair.
But there is another complex side to this story. To understand it, we need to look at poor Africans everywhere on the continent, and pastoral communities like those in Kenya’s Turkana and Uganda’s Karamoja regions.
A friend, a Ugandan scholar, used to say that the one thing that amazed him the most about Africa was the resilience of its poor peasants. “The African middle class is frequently in crisis, not so the continent’s peasants,” he would say.
The reason for this, he argued, is that because they live on the extreme edge. They grow their food and don’t buy it from markets, so they are not hit hard by food price rises and high inflation.
They recycle heavily, using the pans and tins that the middle classes discard. They don’t worry about refrigerators, because they make the pots that store their cold water.
In that sense, Africa’s poor and marginalised pastoral communities are actually the continent’s most “successful” societies. Because they live on the far edge, they are most vulnerable only to two extreme crises — severe famine, and high environmental degradation.
The global financial crisis does not touch them, and their houses will not be repossessed by banks because they are behind on their mortgages. This is one reason why in some of these societies, if someone commits suicide, the whole village ups and leaves. Fellows here don’t kill themselves.
But with us in the cities, people lose jobs or someone steals their wife or husband, and they go jumping to their deaths off high buildings.
A Kenyan Somali friend tells me he and his best friend used to walk for days to school when they were little. When they returned for holidays, they would find the village had moved 60 kilometres away and they would go looking for their new home. He grew up with a totally different view of “home” and the certainties of life from that of a typical middle-class kid.
It is evident in his temperament. He is very calm and it is almost impossible to upset him. When everyone around him is complaining, he just leans back and smiles. Unless he sees worse than he did as a child going to school in arid northern Kenya, he doesn’t get worked up.
So, imagine the global economy continues going south, the US dollar and euro collapse, and our local currencies also go to hell. There will be many broken marriages, shattered hopes, suicides, murders, humiliating losses of prestige, and many kids dropping out of school.
The pastoralists in Turkana, Moyale, Karamoja, and the poor in our villages, will just get on with life. While many of their kids don’t go to school, they have nevertheless grown wise from traversing hostile lands in search of pasture with their cattle and camels; fighting off lions; and brandishing Kalashnikovs against vicious rustlers.
If we were all to perish, the irony is that Africa’s poor and suffering pastoralists, could well be the last to go.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org