We all need to distinguish fantasy from fact. We need to test hypotheses before we make conclusions, and this involves gathering evidence to prove an idea true or false.
For example, I worked among the remote, nomadic pastoralist Turkana people in Northwestern Kenya for my M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. For my Master’s Degree, my specialty was medical geography at the University of Minnesota, and in Kenya, I worked with the African Medical and Research Foundation (http://www.amref.org/flying-doctors/). Disease ecology is a subfield of medical geography, and I studied hydatid disease, a tapeworm that causes cysts in people and livestock (Echinococcus granulosis).
The hydatid tapeworm grows to adulthood in dog intestines, and people in Nairobi assumed the Turkana had pet-like relationships and caught the disease by petting their dogs. This was based on our “western” perception of pets, projected onto the Turkana people.
To try to understand how hydatid disease was actually spreading, I framed hypotheses by comparing high-incidence (Lokichoggio in the NW) and low-incidence areas (Lokori and Lotubai in the South). I hypothesized that the numbers of and the relationships with the dogs were different, the people’s perceptions of the disease and their dogs, and also looked at other environmental factors that contributed to disease transmission, such as their housing structure, water carrying, slaughtering and selling of the meat, etc.
What I found is that Turkana keep dogs “to bark” as watchdogs, against hyenas, jackals, and livestock bandits, because the animals stay in a fenced enclosure near their homes. (In Lokori, many people sleep outside their huts because it’s so hot.) The dogs also ate garbage, and were not cuddled as pets at all.
The significant differences between the high and low incidence areas were
1) families in the Northwest had fenced-in homesteads (ngawi, “manyattas”), and
2) numbers of dogs in the high-incidence Northwest were higher per compound; so dog feces were contaminating the home environment inside fences.
In the lower-incidence area, homesteads were more open, and fewer dogs were running in and out, so fewer people caught the disease. Transmission was also occurring at the daily meat market, because cysts were cut out and allowed to break, full of tapeworm heads, and dogs came and lapped up the fluid. The butcher needed deeper pits to bury or incinerate the cysts.
Once the people understood how the tapeworm and cysts were spread, they wanted to have the diseased dogs removed at once. That is why I am so passionate about education: let people decide, but give them accurate information. People in Nairobi thought of Turkana as “primitive” and not very smart, but I found them to be very intelligent, especially about their environments, “geography” and animals, and also about reading people’s faces and intent, which most Africans I’ve met are much better at than most Americans.
My Ph.D. research at UCLA looked at sedentarization in Turkana: they settle when their livestock die because of droughts, as there is no longer a need to be nomadic. The long-term theoretical framework was “cultural evolution”: in human history, we went from being nomadic hunters and gatherers to sedentary farmers, which is a concentration of human population density. Some of my hypotheses turned out to be false, e.g., their lopae friendship networks survived the shift in livelihood: they just exchanged other things besides animals as symbols of their friendships.
My points are two:
1) Don’t assume things until you test out your hunches, gather facts and evaluate; and
2) If you are honest and there is somehow a misunderstanding, people will eventually trust you if you tell the truth…if they are honest. In any case, it’s worth trying to communicate for the value of it.
These are some of my friends there, who gave me goats:
I try to think carefully and not be crippled with fears. If we test them out, often our fears are not based on reality but on some past trauma.