Professor Carolyn Lesorogol’s profound understanding of pastoralists in northern Kenya informs her research on property ownership and its effects on community and well-being
by Rick Skwiot
After serving in the Kenyan army, Regiton Lenentirim returned to his Siambu herding community with an idea. He had tasted maize in distant Kenyan locales and saw people digging in the earth to produce food — an anomaly to the Samburu, who lived off the milk of their cows and goats. So when his newly independent nation began offering private ownership of formerly communal lands, Lenentirim was among the first to apply — despite opposition from community elders. Ultimately, he won a parcel of 23 acres, which helped him prosper as a farmer, expand his livestock, and take four wives.
Conversely, the nearby Mbaringon community, who held joint title to a group ranch, eschewed privatization. They continued to manage their lands communally as they had for hundreds of years.
Questions regarding private versus communal ownership continue to serve as fodder for debate in this part of the world and others. For Washington University anthropologist Carolyn Kornfeld Lesorogol, PhD, these questions so intrigued her that she has spent decades researching the realities of both scenarios and their influences on society, families and people’s well-being. To her surprise, privatized Kenyan communities, such as Siambu’s, and those that remained communal, such as Mbaringon’s, looked “pretty similar” economically and socially over time. Further, what Lesorogol, associate professor at the Brown School, has learned working with Kenyan herders for more than 25 years could help countries in a changing world cooperate to address common interests — like the global environment — while retaining autonomy.
Study abroad influences academic arc
Since first falling in love with Kenya as an undergraduate student, Lesorogol has devoted herself to helping, studying and living among pastoralists in the semiarid Samburu district, where, she complains, hungry elephants devour her attempts at vegetable gardening.
“Pastoral mobility makes sense. It’s not an irrational system as it has been portrayed by national governments and donor-sponsored projects that have tried to destroy it.” —Carolyn Lesorogol, PhD
More fruitful has been her work digging into the effects of government-sponsored privatization of historical communal lands, “a system that had worked really well,” she says, by allowing mobile livestock herders to seek water and sustenance for their goats and other animals. “Pastoral mobility makes sense. It’s not an irrational system as it has been portrayed by national governments and donor-sponsored projects that have tried to destroy it.”
After Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963, it launched a broad “land adjudication” program to move state-owned communal lands to private ownership nationwide. Lesorogol says that many observers thought “privatization would be a disaster for pastoralists.” But there was little empirical data to support that view. “I tried to find out what really happened,” she says, launching a longitudinal study that has encompassed the last 15 years.
“Economically, the privatized community actually looked a bit better in terms of wealth and income. Part of the reason was that they diversified more — into farming, wage labor and trade — and did better in the 2000 drought than those dependent on livestock,” she says.
However, underlying the relative success of the privatized communities was the fact that communal imperatives and norms often remained in place and coexisted with private land-ownership. Her 2008 book Contesting the Commons: Privatizing Pastoral Lands in Kenya (University of Michigan Press) examines the effects of land privatization beyond economics — on household well-being, individual behavior and social relations. She continues to study these issues.
In short, in communal systems, elders made the rules. Now, no one can tell landowners what to do with their land, and they do not have to obey the elders, Lesorogol says. Landowners gain autonomy and independence. But during a drought, they need to let others use their land for grazing livestock in order to get access to other lands themselves.
“You see a strong individualistic thrust in Samburu culture, particularly for men,” she says. “They need to develop their family and their herd, but they can’t succeed all on their own. They need others’ permission to marry their daughters, and they need other people to help build their herd. And they need access to other people’s land during drought. So it’s contradictory.”
This tension between the private and the communal suggests implications for Lesorogol’s work far beyond rural Kenya. It expands on that of Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for her studies showing how communal resource-management often works successfully.
“The basic principles of collective action apply everywhere to avoid the ‘tragedy of the commons,’” Lesorogol, says “where without regulation people overuse the resource, risking destroying the commons. Ostrom posits it’s not a question of individual control versus public takeover, but rather that groups of people can effectively manage common resources under the right conditions.
“Pastoralists are an example of that, thanks to a particular set of rules that enable them to avoid the tragedy of the commons — it’s not a free-for-all,” Lesorogol says. “But then my work comes along and says it’s not a static system either, but one that is changing itself.”
Lesorogol says this approach has implications for global issues. “How do you get global cooperation on climate change? You can think about that through this theoretical lens,” she says
The value of Lesorogol’s work comes from a potent mix of scientific thoroughness and personal experience, says Jean Ensminger, PhD, the Edie and Lew Wasserman Professor of Social Science at the California Institute of Technology.
“Carolyn’s comparative advantage as a social scientist stems in part from her decades-long knowledge of one African society. She has a powerful perspective on socioeconomic change in Africa because she has lived it,” Ensminger says. “Methodologically, it is the marriage of this qualitative texture with the rigor of quantitative methods that results in the high impact we see in her work.”
Edward F. Lawlor, PhD, dean of the Brown School, concurs: “Carolyn brings the best of social science, a commitment to social justice and generosity to all of her work. She exemplifies what we mean by interdisciplinary, as she deftly applies ideas from anthropology, economics, experimental psychology, game theory, institutional social science and sociology in her research and teaching.”
Fieldwork serves as bedrock for career choices
Kenya has profoundly affected Carolyn Lesorogol’s professional and personal life ever since she first visited the country as a Harvard study-abroad student in 1986: her life’s work, her husband and her second-home — all Kenyan.
Coming from a family of teachers and researchers — several who are affiliated with Washington University — Lesorogol early on decided, “I didn’t want to spend my life in a lab.”
Her grandfather, Max Kornfeld, taught at the university’s School of Dental Medicine; her father, Stuart Kornfeld, MD, is the David C. and Betty Farrell Distinguished Professor of Medicine; her late mother, Rosalind Hauk Kornfeld, MD, was professor emerita of biochemistry in medicine; her brother, Kerry Kornfeld, MD, is professor of developmental biology in the medical school.
“I wanted to do service and research in a different setting, out in the world,” Lesorogol says.
“I was drawn to working with them and admired their social connections — their strong ties to community. And, of course, Kenya is a beautiful country. I love the rural areas.” —Carolyn Lesorogol
She found her larger laboratory in Kenya.
“As an undergraduate working among pastoralists, I was impressed and fascinated by their ability to survive the 1984 drought through their organization and by helping each other,” she says.
“I was drawn to working with them and admired their social connections — their strong ties to community. And, of course, Kenya is a beautiful country. I love the rural areas.”
After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1987, she returned to Kenya for two years to teach English and history. Then, she continued her studies at UCLA, improving her Swahili and earning a master’s degree in African studies. That led her back to Kenya and work with a bilateral development organization, designing and implementing rural development programs for seven years. Ultimately, she returned to St. Louis and Washington University, earning a master’s degree (2000) and doctorate (2002) in anthropology.
Along the way, Lesorogol has won numerous academic awards, fellowships and grant support, including an ongoing NSF-funded study that combines ethnography and computer simulation models of the Samburu environment. She has published extensively in academic journals and is a frequent reviewer and conference speaker.
Her deep experience in the field informs her interdisciplinary teaching at the Brown School as well.
“I teach international development practice and theory, and try to bring in an anthropological and an economic perspective while addressing critical questions,” Lesorogol says.
Rick Skwiot is a freelance writer based in Key West, Fla. His latest novel is Key West Story (Antaeus Books, January 2012). Visit www.KeyWestStory.com.