Roads to Nowhere: imagining modernity in the form of heavy equipment
(The Gabra, the Kenyan state, and the multinationals)

This project grows out of a long-standing interest in how Gabra, a camel-herding people in northern Kenya, manage multiple discordant identities, and the implications of these "combined" identities for persons and the groups with which they are associated.

So far, my research has focused largely on gender, specifically on an institution in which Gabra men are said to become women. The change of course is not complete: these men who are women are still men. The combination, in fact, is key; the two identities reshape each other, producing a whole that is somehow greater than the parts.

Out of this interest in gender has grown related interest in combined ethnic identities (Gabra who are also Rendille, say) and combinatory "stances" in the world: Gabra who are at once tied to tradition, or ada, and at the same time active participants in non-Gabra institutions, such as national or regional politics and market economies.

Indeed, I have been wondering more and more about how people make a shift in world view from one that sees the past as template for the present to one that sees an imagined future as the appropriate template. How do people make these changes? How do they juggle them together? In this project, I am beginning the process of answering these questions by studying Gabra understandings of a singular event in recent history.

In the late 1980s, multinational petroleum interests explored for oil in the northern deserts of Kenya. No one seems to know whether they found any. It is all of course a big secret. But the episode, both sudden and brief, must have been for Gabra like a visitation from another planet. The geologists and engineers landed with huge earth-moving equipment, air-conditioned trailers, barbeque pits for steaks and hamburgers, ice-cold drinks, mirrored sunglasses, helicopters and planes, radios and telephones, and lots and lots of money. Then, over the course of several months, they set about clearing absolutely straight roads to nowhere through the desert rubble. The roads were used in making accurate seismic measurements to construct images of the deep underground. They also drilled several exploratory wells.

Then, as suddenly as they arrived, they left, and just as suddenly the flow of money they were paying laborers dried up.

I know from past fieldwork that the event lingers, as you would expect, in people's memories and imaginations. Some, lucky enough to have got jobs, invested their income in livestock and became relatively wealthy. Others became drunks. Most seem to have ignored the whole enterprise as best they could. A number have not known quite what to do with themselves, having touched the metallic substance of modernity and the external world. Lately I've learned that Gabra have begun to explain certain misfortunes, particularly a number of deaths by cancer, to something that the explorers did to the land or left behind in it.

What I want to do, in addition to finding out as much as I can about what the oil companies say they did, is collect from an assortment of Gabra narratives and other discourses about the episode and what has happened since. I want to see what these discourses reveal about how the episode shaped or reshaped Gabra understandings of themselves, what happened to them, and their relationship with the world beyond.  I am keen to explore-following the ideas of Bakhtin, Fabian, and Taussig on dialogic memory, meaning construction, modernity, and mimesis and alterity-how Gabra have re-contextualized this bold and extraordinary visitation, which came suddenly, with little or no warning, and then vanished, but apparently not completely.

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