Posted by: Matthew Davies | January 7, 2014

From the first field workshop

by Matthew Davies

In this first of many posts from the first field workshop (December 2013), I want to provide a brief overview of the workshop itinerary. This will be followed by further posts from individual participants summarising specific personal and intellectual experiences.

Following a two day journey to Tot in Marakwet, via Baringo in Central Kenya, the first day of the workshop proper began on the 8th of December. On the first day we undertook an introduction to the study region by following the spatial extent of a single farming household from the domestic compound on the foothills, through to semi-permanent fields at the foot of the escarpment, river-side fields along the Embobut River and shifting communal fields and goat kraals in the valley bottom. Mr Atomic(!) the farmer we followed, provided a wealth of knowledge about the physical geography, soils, vegetation and crops, as well and the process of cultivation and patiently put up with the barrage of questions from the workshop participants.

On the second day we took a longer more detailed look at the process and technology of Marakwet irrigation. We explored the intakes and courses of a pre-colonial irrigation channel (commonly referred to as a furrow) and discussed its technical construction, the social management and allocation of water, and the broader distribution and technology of irrigation. We also explored the intake and course of a new ‘modern Red-Cross developed irrigation scheme which partially mirrors, yet modifies, some of the pre-colonial practices and management systems. Later in the day we visited the local agro-forestry center and discussed new tree and crop varieties, especially the grafting of mangoes and developing plans for commercial fruit production.

On day three the team split into three constituent parts to explore a range of more specific topics – throughout the day these teams were ably supported by the local Marakwet research team who facilitated their information gathering and provided a wealth of local knowledge. One team led by Charly French from Cambridge and assisted by Emuobosa Orijemie from Ibadan explored the Embobut River to analyse soil profiles and take samples for soil micromophology (more to come from Charly, so watch this post). A second team led by Martin Jones from Cambridge and Helena Chepto of the Marakwet team explored local crop varieties especially finger millet, sorghum and various legumes. These included more modern hybrids as well as multiple land-races (more to come from Martin on this). The third team led by Freda Nkirote of the National Museums of Kenya explored Marakwet material culture at the local cultural center and at an ongoing church ceremony. In the afternoon, each sub-team reported back on its activities to the group resulting in spirited debate throughout the evening. In particular a range of possibilities were discussed in terms of relating analysis in Marakwet to analysis of similar aspects of the partner projects in Bokoni (South Africa) and Tiv (Nigeria). Overlapping crop histories seemed one major area of intersection, as did soil and vegetation histories and the variety of means (archaeogenetics, phytoliths, pollen analysis, soil micro-morphology) to reconstruct these.

On day four the whole team visited Kobirir Hill to the north of Tot. This small hill sits in the valley bottom and is associated with a range of oral histories, most notably the migration histories of a number of clans in Tot-Sibou. The trek up the hill allowed for discussion of possible archaeological survey strategies and the cross referencing of archaeological data with oral historical information. During the trek we were able to view a wide range of archaeological remains including scatters of lithics and ceramics, as well as abandoned house platforms with associated hearth-stones of as yet indeterminate age. At the top of the hill we were treated to a presentation of some of the oral historical records by the local team, led by Helena Chepto. The hill top also provided an excellent view of the Marakwet field system, allowing us to contextualise some of the previous discussions within the broader landscape. During the afternoon the workshop participants each gave short presentations on what they had learned so far and on what topics they would ideally like to focus during the remainder of the workshop. Alongside scientific analysis of soils, vegetation and crops, much interest was expressed in the complimentary use of oral histories, material culture studies and archaeological settlement data. The possibility of using each of these techniques in the partner-projects and developing a cross-Africa based body of experience and expertise, perhaps with students working across the three projects, seemed particularly important outcome (more to follow on this and future plans).

On day five the whole team visited a local market at Koloa. This market is especially interesting as it is frequented both by Marakwet farmers and Pokot herders; the market thus provides an idea of the extent of regional trade/exchange systems and allowed the workshop participants to discuss the exchange of various products across ecological zones and to consider the range of traditional exchange friendships (between both men and women) often referred to as Tilia. From the vantage point of the market it becomes increasingly clear that Marakwet farming does not exist in isolation but rather forms part of a much broader production system. Time at the market also allowed for further examination of the crops produced and the possibilities for exploring the histories of these further – especially land-races of finger millet and sorghum.

On day six of the workshop we focused on settlement layouts and patterns. Drawing on Henrietta Moore’s original ethnographic research, we began with a discussion of the traditional Marakwet homestead and its evolution through time from a singe house to a larger compound followed by regression back to a single structure. This pattern develops from the social life-cycle of the household itself and has interesting archaeological resonances – for example that sites have a life-cycle and site forms can correlate to this cycle rather than reflecting function or status. This household life-cycle was then related to similar lineage and clan life-cycles and this the history of both farming and the broader temporal and spatial landscape. In the afternoon, broader settlement and land-use patterns were explored further through the conduct of a basic archaeological transect survey which identified numerous abandoned homesteads, as well as a rock-shelter and other archaeological remains which demonstrate the great potential to reconstruct  histories of settlement patterns and demography. This data can then be fed-back into broader environmental and landscape scale processes. The discussions on settlement layouts and patters were particularly relevant within the Tiv partner project since Co-PI Professor Adebayo Folorunso has worked extensively on settlement layouts in Tiv, Nigeria and the possibility of applying complimentary techniques in both projects seemed a great opportunity.

On day seven of the workshop we were fortunate enough to be invited to a major Marakwet wedding were we were able to see colorful aspects of material culture, ceremony and kinship in practice. The event provided a excellent demonstration of the embededness of Marakwet farming into a rich and thriving social and cultural context. Following a rest day, on day nine of the workshop we focused on soils and local farmers knowledge of them, especially local understandings of the range and variety of soil types, process of erosion and depletion and how farmers assess, improve and mange fertility through fallowing and inter-cropping. We were given a wonderful tour de force of soil properties by our local team members William and Florence as well as by workshop participant Willie Ostberg who has spent considerable time exploring anthropological understandings of soil fertility, both in Marakwet and elsewhere in Eastern Africa (more from Willie to come!). Local understandings of soils were particularly interesting to the South African participants, led by Alex Schoeman who has been experimenting with assessments of historic soil fertility in Bokoni. As we discussed soils, Emuobosa Orijemie from Ibandan Nigeria, also followed up Charly French’s soil sampling by collecting complementary soil samples for pollen analysis which we hope to process shortly.

The afternoon of day nine was given over exclusively to a final seminar and planning meeting attended by all international participants, the local research team and other interested locals. Each partner project gave a short presentation on what they had learned/gained from the Marakwet experience, what they will carry over into their own projects and how we might further develop collaborative and comparative analyses. A major area of intersection was the fact that complimentary scientific and anthropological methods could be employed in each partner-project and that each area could act as a training ground for students and capacity building across the continent with the potential for multiple student exchanges and training schemes. The workshop participants were all excited by the idea of building knowledge and capacity within Africa, for Africa. Also extensively commented on was the way in which the Marakwet project makes use of an extensive local research team who are not only integrated into the research, but who take the lead in many ways. In particular, at the workshop progressed, it was the local Marakwet team members who increasingly led the sessions and eloquently  conveyed local knowledge. All participants were impressed by this interaction and the value to be gained by taking the lead of locals. Finally, this concluding seminar resulted in concrete plans for the coming year and visits to both Nigeria and South Africa.

Further details on a range of activities from various participants and a report on the final seminar will be posted in due course so please watch this space!



  1. […] By clicking here you can read my brief account of the first field workshop in Tot, Marakwet in Decem… […]

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