I recently surfed (via StumbleUpon) to another random photo compilation, this time of the inestimable Yves Arthus-Bertrand (he of the amazing Earth from Above photos). His images are always stunning. And the compilation is certainly remarkable. But this one stood out, even though it is by no means one of his more spectacular images. It gave me this weird sense of deja-vu – and I couldn’t place it for a while. (If you’re interested, it’s of some very unusual suburbs in Copenhagen.)
Then it came back to me. But a few years ago, while we were still living in Uganda, I had the chance to go on a day’s flight around Uganda with an old friend, Laurie, a pilot with MAF. Every few years, they need to fly to each of the airstrips in the country to measure them (to make sure they’re not shrinking because of weeds and other growth), to check coordinates are right and other tests. As it was not possible to use this to take passengers, I was able to go along with them.
As we were flying over the remote and underdeveloped region of Karamoja (near Uganda’s border with Kenya), we saw these Karamajong villages far below us. Ring any bells?
The Karamajong are a people group whose lives revolve around cattle. Their wealth is measured in heads of cattle; their diet is built on the staples of cows’ milk, cows’ blood and beef; their lifestyles entirely revolve around the care, protection and health of their herds. And as you can see vividly from the air, their social planning does too. For in the centre of each settlement is an area to keep the family’ herd at night. The reason is simple – one of the other activities they get involved in is cattle rustling. Feuds with the other clans, and with the other people groups across the border like the Turkana, go back decades even centuries. This social phenomenon, probably more than any other factor else, drives this sort of town planning.
It’s especially interesting when placed alongside one I took on that trip in another area of Uganda – this time Busoga, the area around the source of the Nile at Jinja. As you can see, this is a very different arrangement. This time the protective ring is not dwellings around the herd, but trees around the dwellings. This is a fertile area of the country, as you can tell by the greenness, and these are arable farmers.
I’m by no means a social anthropologist nor do I have anything particularly profound to say. But it did provoke some thoughts about how we go about protecting what we value. Are we then to assume from the Danish image that their most important possessions are their cars? Probably not because the innovative plan is not designed to keep outsiders out as an experiment in forming new units for community.
However, what do we invest in protecting? And more to the point, what do we not invest in protecting? Simply looking for clues like what gets locked up most rigourously or protected most assiduously might just reveal something about where our hearts lie…