Where falling fig trees portend political change

Mugumo

When, after hundreds of years of sustaining life all around it, of providing shade in which prayers were chanted and blood was spilt in sacrifice, of binding communities who claimed it a symbol, when —after all these things — a great mugumo dies and crashes to the ground, its death echoes through both ecology and society.

In the Kikuyu culture of Kenya, the demise of a sacred mugumo fig tree (Ficus natalensis) is more than a local tragedy. It is a portentous event. Now, with two giant mugumos having fallen this year, and another expected to crash down soon, many Kenyans are wondering if some big change is coming.

Mugumo trees are awesome to behold. Some grow upwards from the soil, while others are strangler figs that grow from seeds that fall on other trees. They send down pendant aerial roots that dominate all they touch. In time, these roots coalesce into a solid mass that even an elephant would struggle to topple. To birds, monkeys and fruit bats, a mugumo’s figs offer a lifeline. To people, these titans symbolise strength and power.

Mugumos feature in the Kikuyu people’s origin story. Once consecrated as a shrine, they serve believers as a conduit to god. As such, they must never be cut. As I recount in my book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers), taboos against felling fig trees are not unique to Kenya.

Elsewhere in Africa, as in parts of Central America and much of Asia and the Pacific, many different cultures have developed such bans – often with punishments, both real and imagined, for transgressors.

According to a recent media report, a Kenyan man’s skin turned white after he pruned a sacred fig tree in 1972. Contrast that with the fate of some Kikuyu converts to Christianity who — according to the missionary Constanzo Cagnolo writing in 1933 — were killed for chopping down a mugumo for firewood.

With such strong protections in place, the sacred mugumos have been free to grow into giants. And so, the very notion of one falling has become wrapped up in faith.

Perhaps the most famous of Kenya’s fallen fig trees is one that grew in Thika until 1963, and whose downfall was prophesied more than a century and a half earlier. In the late 1800s, a Kikuyu seer had foreseen the arrival of pale-skinned people toting ‘fire sticks’ — their guns. He saw an iron snake that would eat people and vomit them out – the train. He also predicted that when a huge fig tree in Thika fell, his people would be free.

When representatives of the British Colonial Government heard this story, they reinforced the tree with a metal rail. It did not help. Part of the tree fell in May 1963 and a month later Kenya had gained internal self-rule.

The remainder of the tree fell six months later. Within a month – on 12 December – Kenya became an independent country, with Jomo Kenyatta its first Prime Minister. One of Kenyatta’s first acts as leader of the new nation was to plant a mugumo fig tree where the British Union Flag had fluttered in the wind.

In the years ahead, people would link falling fig trees with the declines of heroes of the struggle for independence. On 2 March 1975, the day after one of these trees fell, a popular politician in Kenyatta’s administration called JM Kariuki was found dead. He had been assassinated, his burnt body dumped on an ant nest. The tumbling-down of another sacred mugumo in 1978 foreshadowed the death of Kenyatta himself, later that year.

Falling fig trees can also signify shifts in power. A giant mugumo in Nyeri County fell shortly before Mwai Kibaki won Kenya’s presidency in 2002, ending nearly 40 years of unbroken rule by Kenyatta’s party KANU.

Another huge mugumo fell just days before the March 2013 general election. As in 1963, this mugumo split in two before it fell. In Kikuyu lore, this signifies ituika — the change of guard from one group to another. Kikuyu elders said it presaged a generational change in Kenya’s leadership. Sure enough, Jomo Kenyatta’s son Uhuru won the presidency – replacing Kibaki and shifting political power from the old to the young.

These mugumo fig trees have played many other curious roles in Kenya, from wartime lookout post to clandestine post office. In the story I tell in my book, they star alongside a queen, a Nobel Prize winner and the most wanted man in the British Empire.

Now, with Kenya’s next general elections taking place on 8 August 2017, the country’s fig trees are again under intense scrutiny. Since the start of the year, dozens of media reports have pondered the significance of an apparent increase in falling fig trees, such as the one that crashed down in Karatina, Nyeri County on 3 May.

Back in March, the body of another sacred mugumo cracked and began tilting toward people’s houses in Kiambu County. A village elder said mugumo trees do this when the society has committed a sin: “God is angry and people need to seek forgiveness,” he said.

Three days earlier, a giant mugumo fell in Kiamigwi village, Nyeri County. Some locals suggested that this symbolised the death of Nyeri’s Governor Nderitu Gachagua, in February. Others said it was because a snake had made its home among the fig’s roots and defiled the holy place.

The Kikuyu elders chanted, sacrificed lambs and sprayed libations of beer to cleanse the shrine and, as one elder put it, to “say goodbye” to the tree. When asked what the mugumo’s demise meant, the elders said there was nothing to fear. On this occasion, it was just a case of old age.

Photo credit: JMK (Wikipedia / Creative Commons)

Pastoralists in the Media: Three ‘E’s please

Once upon a time, not so long ago, we were all mobile. Movement was what enabled our ancestors to track resources that were here today, gone tomorrow. In parts of the world where water, pasture or good hunting are not constantly available, mobility is still the key that unlocks scattered resources. It is the key to resilience. And as the climate changes, this ancient strategy could become more important.

Yet in many countries, governments marginalise mobile pastoralists and would prefer them to settle instead of roaming the land. Dominant policy narratives cast pastoralism as a backwards, unproductive activity that takes place in marginal fragile areas, where unpredictable rainfall leads people to overgraze and damage the land.

New research coordinated by the International Institute for Environment and Development with funding from the Ford Foundation has identified gaps in such policy narratives in the Indian, Chinese, Kenyan and global contexts. These policy narratives overlook both the dynamics of dryland ecosystems and how dryland communities have long learnt how to live with and harness variability to support sustainable and productive economies, societies and ecosystems.

The narratives ignore the ways that mobile herding can increase people’s resilience in a changing climate. They also ignore the three ‘E’s –the economic value of pastoralism, the environmental benefits that herding brings to rangelands and the equity that should be at heart of good policymaking.

The role of the media

Media stories both contribute to and reflect the dominant policy narrative around pastoralism. As part of the project, I analysed media stories on pastoralism from Kenya, China and India and surveyed dozens of journalists in those countries (see the full research paper or a four-page summary). I found significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism.

  • In Kenya, pastoralists feature mostly in ‘bad news’ stories of conflict and drought. They appear vulnerable and lacking in agency. Stories make almost no mention of the benefits that pastoralists bring.
  • In China, the media presented pastoralists as the cause of environmental degradation and as (generally happy) beneficiaries of government investment and settlement projects.
  • In India, newspapers tended to portray pastoralists with more pity, as people whose rights to grazing land had been taken away and whose livelihoods were at risk as pastures dwindle and locally resilient livestock breeds disappear. Overall coverage of pastoralism in India was rare, however, and journalists there stated that pastoralists are ‘invisible’ to editors of national newspapers.

In all three countries, important topics such as climate change, and the links between mobility and resilience were under-reported. While 51% of Kenyan articles mentioned drought, only 3% mentioned climate change.

Very few articles in any of the three countries referred to the economic importance of pastoralism (4% in Kenya, 12% in China and 15% in India) or the fact that meat and milk pastoralists produce contributes to food security outside of pastoralist communities (1% in Kenya, 4% in China and 10% in India). The voices of pastoralists feature in less than half of the articles about them (41% of articles in Kenya, 36% in China and 25% in India). Stories that focused on women and children were even less common.

Towards improved narratives

Incomplete media coverage of pastoralism helps to sustain partial narratives that underpin policymaking and this prevent pastoralists from fulfilling their potential to provide food and sustain resilient livelihoods in a changing climate.

Yet opportunities to reframe pastoralism abound. In Kenya, for instance, an alternative narrative could show how the new constitution could work best for the drylands and their communities. In India, an alternative narrative could show how herding is part of the wider dryland agriculture system that can increase food security in the context of climate change. In China, an alternative narrative can relate how support for pastoralism can increase food security and better manage rangelands for economic benefits.

Journalists and editors can act to create more balanced, nuanced and accurate narratives around pastoralism. This will involve reporting on the economics of pastoralism, as well as on the other values of pastoralism that are harder to price. It will involve a better understanding of mobility and markets, of resilience and vulnerability. It will require journalists and researchers to communicate better together and it will require the media to give more voice to the pastoralists themselves.

Donors and development agencies can act to encourage more accurate, relevant and useful media coverage of pastoralism by supporting training programmes, opportunities for journalists to travel to areas where pastoralists live, and initiatives that bring together journalists, pastoralists, dryland researchers and policy makers.

The test of success will be whether future media reports of pastoralism do more to cover the three ‘E’s – environment, economy and equity.

This post was first published on 13 May 2013 on the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

A changing climate demands change in narratives

Last year I wrote — here and here — about my study of how media portrayals of pastoralists in China, India and Kenya can contribute to policy narratives that limit people’s resilience to climatic variability. IIED has now published my research and a short briefing paper that presents the main findings and recommendations.

Here is a summary of the research paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Resilient food systems depend on appropriate policies that enable people to take advantage of their own adaptive capacity. Pastoralists use their mobility to take advantage of resources – pasture and water – that are patchily distributed in space and time. Pastoralism can make major contributions to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity. However, these benefits often go unacknowledged – by policy makers, donors and the public at large. This is in part because of development and media narratives that paint pastoralism as something bad that needs to change. This paper explores how the media portrays pastoralism. To do so, we analysed the content of newspaper articles about pastoralists in Kenya, China and India, and also invited journalists in these countries to complete an online survey and telephone interview. We identified significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in the media’s portrayal of pastoralists.

And here is a summary of the briefing paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Mobile pastoralism contributes substantially to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity, and can increase resilience to climate change; but policymakers, donors and the public at large tend not to appreciate its benefits. Policy narratives portray pastoralism as an outdated practice, and the media stories that help shape policy processes and public opinion often contribute to these false portrayals. An IIED study analysed the content of stories from media outlets in Kenya, China and India, and surveyed journalists in each country. It identified significant knowledge gaps and inter-country differences in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism. The analysis also found that media outlets in these countries under-report climate change, the economic value of pastoralism and the links between pastoralist mobility and resilience. Journalists, researchers and pastoralist communities need to work together to improve media coverage of pastoralism, and by doing so highlight pastoralism’s potential contribution to sustainable development in a changing climate.

Why following the herd can be good for journalists

Banditry, robberies, infiltration of small arms, poaching in the region’s game reserves and national parks and frequent outbreak of livestock diseases are now being attributed to the uncontrolled movement of pastoralists and their animals.

This sentence, from a 2006 article in Kenya’s The Nation newspaper, encapsulates the way the country’s nomadic herders have been — and continue to be — portrayed in the media there. It echoes the dominant policy narrative, which says pastoralism is a backward system that takes place a harsh, unproductive environment and that when herders move to seek water and pasture they create problems for other people.

But this, say researchers, is a dangerous narrative, one that is blind to the true nature of the lands the pastoralists move across and to the knowledge they draw upon to take advantage of resources that are distributed there in an unpredictable way.

Today, the meat and milk pastoralists provide help to feed a nation. As the climate grows more variable, these people could become even more important cornerstones of Kenya’s economy and food security.

But, in the pages of newspapers there, the herders are not heroes — they are harbingers of conflict and other problems. In short, Kenya’s pastoralists have an image problem. This much became clear when I analysed 100 stories about pastoralists that Kenyan newspapers published between 2000 and 2012.

My study, which will also examine articles from India and China, is part of a larger Ford Foundation funded project. It aims to promote more progressive narratives, and policies that support mobile pastoralism as a rational, productive livelihood in lands where water and vegetation vary in space and time. Some patterns soon emerged:

  • In Kenya, pastoralists tend to feature only in ‘bad-news’ stories – 93% of the media reports referred to conflict or drought.
  • While 51% of stories that mention conflict presented pastoralists as a cause of problems, only 5.7% suggested that pastoralists might be the victims of the actions (or inactions) of others (e.g. farmers or government policies).
  • An astonishing 22% of all articles referred to pastoralists as “invaders” or as having “invaded” land.
  • Pastoralists have little voice. They were quoted in only 41% of the stories journalists wrote about them.

I supplemented my content analysis with an online survey that 42 Kenyan journalists completed. “The media only gives special attention to pastoralists when there is a crisis, like a major drought or famine where large numbers of people and animals have died,” said one. Another said: “Pastoralism is generally ignored. It only makes headlines when there is cattle-rustling and scores of people are killed.”

I asked the journalists to state five words they associated with pastoralists. The figure below shows the words they chose, with word-size reflecting how often a journalist used it.

It’s a problematic portrait. Yet when asked more specific questions, the journalists revealed knowledge and opinions that seem to contradict the dominant media narrative.

Most (91 per cent) of the journalists acknowledge, for instance, the importance of pastoralism to Kenya’s economy, with more than half of them stating that this is major. This surprised me, given that this was invisible in the stories I analysed. Only 4 per cent of them mentioned it, and not one published a figure such as a shilling, dollar or GDP value.

Other things the journalists said suggest that there is an opportunity for a new narrative to emerge in the Kenyan media, one that does not ignore the social, economic and environmental benefits pastoralists provide.

“The media has neglected pastoralism, since its takes place in far flung areas of northern Kenya which the government has neglected for years,” said one journalist. Another noted that: “Pastoralism has a chance to become a key growth sector for Kenya’s economy if supported by media and policy makers alike.”

A 2011 article, by Peter Mutai for China’s Xinhua news agency, shows another narrative is possible. It manages to overturn much of the prevailing one in just its opening sentence:

As hunger spreads among more than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa, a new study finds that investments aimed at increasing the mobility of livestock herders, a way of life often viewed as “backward” despite being the most economical and productive use of Kenya’s drylands, could be the key to averting future food crises in arid lands.

Mobility is the key that pastoralists use to unlock the scattered riches of Kenya’s drylands. The landscape may appear barren, extreme and risky to city-based journalists but the pastoralists have the knowledge and skills to take advantage of the land’s variability and diversity.

The old proverb that says “a fool looks for dung where a cow has never grazed” can perhaps be turned on its head to serve as a reminder of the riches – of stories and more – that a reporter can find if they follow the herd.

[This post was first published on the IIED blog]