Roaming the Forests of Embobut: Mapping the Past in the Present

By Sam Lunn-Rockliffe

*****

As we stooped through the twisted doorway into the cramped room, smoke flooded my nostrils and stung my eyes. Two maize cobs sat smouldering near the entrance, forming an oppressive ceiling that swirled under the thatch roof above. To the right stood a bed, the bare slats of which supported the frail man  who Joseph, my research assistant, and I had come to interview as a part of my fieldwork in Embobut. He peeped from under a fraying blanket, chin resting in his hands and skin hugging his bones tightly as he turned and glared blankly through the gloom. Joseph knelt down next to him and conversed in the local Sengwer dialect, asking him if he had time for us to interview him about his past, before turning back to me and saying it was no use. The elderly man was delusional, suffering from dementia and insisting he was going to the forest glades to attend to his beehives. We thanked him before backing out quietly into the blinding sunshine and walking off down the hill to continue with our work for the day.

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Sketch of elderly man in hut

I have been in the Cherangani Hills for nearly three months now, having just passed the half way mark of my first stint of fieldwork in Elgeyo Marakwet County, western Kenya. My doctoral research aims to document the relationship that the Sengwer and Marakwet communities have had with their environment through time by focusing on local narratives of historical change. This work comes in light of a long series of evictions that have been carried out by the Kenyan Forestry Service (KFS) since the 1980s in order to bring a halt to deforestation. Given that the highland forests exist as an integral part of the Cherangani ecosystem, which itself is labelled as one of Kenya’s five water towers and acts as an important water catchment area, the intentions of the KFS are not without merit. However, with the emergence of local reports of houses being burnt as people were forcefully and violently evicted, debates have arisen on a local, national and international level surrounding the concepts of conservation and community rights to land.

Instead of becoming too entrenched in existing political and activist rhetoric, I have been aiming to contextualise these debates by examining how people have actually lived on a day to day basis through time. A primary research method for analysing this has involved focusing on the material remains of people’s livelihoods as gleaned through a number of participant mapping sessions and archaeological surveys. These have included hiking with community members through the landscape in order to explore how people have constructed and interacted with their surroundings since the early twentieth century. From these sessions, maps have been created using a GPS that focus on a multitude of sites, including abandoned homesteads, old road, ceremonial grounds and clan forest boundaries, in order to help paint a picture of how community history and identity is rooted within the landscape itself.

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Participant mapping session in the Cherangani Hills

Walking through the now quiet hills that fold into one another like a giant blanket crumpled on the western edge of the Kerio valley, it is tempting to view the scars of small field boundaries and terraces etched into the hillside as the remains of random and reckless destruction. However, after several weeks of participant mapping sessions complimented by formal interviews, it has become clear that a hundred years of changing livelihoods are inscribed in a landscape that has been physically and socially organised in an intricate manner. From existing as small scale livestock and beekeeping communities living in historic forest glades, to post-independence farming communities responding to former president Jomo Kenyatta’s call to end poverty by producing food, to a recently displaced population still using their former home to graze cattle, the relationship people have with the forest is anything but haphazard destruction. Whilst my fieldwork is so far only scratching the surface of this relationship, it is hoped that the continued exploration of nuanced histories and their material correlates will create a more rigorous understanding of how people engage with their physical world.

That is, in essence, the crux of my research in Embobut. But whilst the employment of these different methods and theories has been informative, it is often the small, unplanned moments of fieldwork that bring the researcher back down to earth. Such was the significance of my encounter with the elderly man.

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An old abandoned beehive

Going to the forest glades to attend to his beehives. In his condition it was unlikely he could have lifted himself from the bed, let alone amble across the undulating hills to the place where his beehives once were. But his words still lingered a week later when we were sadly informed of his death, existing as a quiet voice that humanised all of the discursive debates that surround the evictions and the academic theorising that has so far defined my PhD. That small encounter offered a poignant glimpse of daily life as expressed through the embedded memories of an elderly man who once roamed the forests of Embobut.

*****

10th October 2016

Sam Lunn-Rockliffe is a DPhil student at St Hughs College and the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. He is a member of the Marakwet Research Team.

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