Tracking Nomads

By Bonnie Harvey, MA, Senior Consultant, Booz | Allen | Hamilton


I remember Kenya as the centerpiece of my African history courses. A rebellion in the mid-twentieth century freed it from colonial rule and its first president, Jomo Kenyatta, became one of the forefathers for African Independence. Because of strong early leadership and its position between the Arab and Africa worlds, Kenya is now the richest country in Central Africa. Further, a green revolution preserved its lush landscape, allowing parks and protected forests to remain while other countries struggle to maintain even a semblance of green space. It is known globally due to its exports of coffee and tea shops, and Kenyan athletes on sports channels leading the pack in marathons and on rugby pitches.

(Free images: By Dan Sudermann from Pixabay)

For a while, Kenya was a peaceful, quiet nation, but recent questionable elections and a refugee influx fueled instability and insecurity. It is hard to tell what will happen to Kenya in the coming years, but I must say my first impression is that it currently stands leaps and bounds above the development levels of other African countries I have seen. It is a country with potential and hope, but with some challenging years to come.

The author at the Taj Mahal, India

I came to Kenya because polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) are coming into the country from Somalia – like other African nations, Kenya’s borders were formed by colonialism, but the clans that live along its eastern edge do not recognize formal political boundaries. I helped facilitate a focus group training for Kenyans to interview Somali migrants who cross into Kenya, with the goal being to understand where we should target immunization campaigns. We printed large maps for focus group participants to show migration routes, where nomadic people cross the border and where they access healthcare.

Data collectors practicing participatory community mapping

We asked our trainees “Where are Somali communities settling in Kenya?,” but the question created confusion. They explained “We are all Somali,” and that Somali are a people, not a country. They helped me understand that people move freely across eastern Kenya and southern Somalia as they follow the seasons with their cattle in the search for greener pasture and water. In more recent years, their movement has increased as they escape the effects of global warming and terrorist attacks in Somalia; but the fact is they have always moved in the region and therefore cannot be placed on either side of a political border.


Lesson One: The people we needed to focus on do not define themselves based on a nationality, but rather a way of life. Our question should be reframed ‘Somali’ to ‘nomad.’


We asked our trainees to submit their photographs, maps, and reports through the Internet, as they all have smartphones and email addresses. To make sure it would be feasible, we enquired if there were ever network problems and if they could they submit electronically as we asked. Their response: “The tower was bombed three months ago.” A fact stated so casually that I had to double-check to make sure I heard them correctly! The more I listened, the more I became lost in the complexities of their reality: “Do not send us in nice vehicles, that’s what ‘they’ target”; “We should not invite security people to our meetings – the community is afraid of them.” Al-Shahaab, the regional terrorist group, is mostly focused in southern Somalia, but the porous borders allow it to also focus some attacks on the Kenyan side. They, like the other terrorist groups of our era, attack anything which does not fall within their idea of ‘correct’ and use bombings as a visible way to create fear.


Lesson Two: Our community partners could collect all the data in the world, but I will never truly understand their lives because my reality is nothing like theirs.


My attempts to understand the region as I spent more time with the data collectors sent me into the spiral of conversations and evening research which showed just how little we knew. We had not considered how a Somali nomad would not want to disclose their nationality for fear of being forced back across the border, or that they would go to refugee camps to trade their cattle and visit relatives. In my short tenure working in public health, I have learned that I am in the minority. My colleagues are Scientists with a capital “S.” If the sample is not large enough, the correlations are not sufficiently proven, or if the study is not under enough control; then the research is unnecessary. This perspective makes it very challenging when studying people because each person can make a choice. Unlike mice, our choices are intertwined with our realities, which are the direct result of our social, economic, and cultural backgrounds. This is where those trained in the hard sciences stumble. We cannot implement a program in a community and say with exact certainty what will or will not work. This is where I come in, the only anthropologist in my entire division. We need to train our data collectors to not think like epidemiologists, who begin with the idea “people live in village A.” We need to train them to think like anthropologists and start with “people live in village A because…”

Lesson 3: Our method of study needs to include qualitative methods because ordinal values do not exist in the gray areas of human society and we need to help those trained in the hard sciences think outside of Excel boxes.


We sent our trained data collectors into the field to collect what they could considering the regional circumstances of conflict, time, inaccessibility; and they came back with very rich qualitative and geospatial data. We used this data to create targeted vaccination campaigns in the region and successfully vaccinate children who have never received vaccines before. Thanks to the rich knowledge that local communities hold on nomadic movements, we were able to assure at least one more child will not get Polio. I believe this was a good start, but that more anthropological research is needed in this region, more understanding of who these nomadic communities are, where they are, and how we can better track them to provide public health services.


The full research and study conclusions are currently going through the clearance process at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and will likely be published in early 2020.


To read more about the author's research and blogs, please visit Anthropology with a Hint of Wanderlust

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