Where's the gossip? In Northern Kenya, at the shoat market
Several tribes in Northern Kenya, which mostly does not have mobile phone access or any paved roads, get the majority of their news from a weekly sheep and goat market, when tribesman from afar and buyers from Nairobi meet.
Family groups among the Samburu, Rendille and Borana tribes of Northern Kenya live in one of the most remote places in the world. The nearest neighborhood to a housing cluster of 20 people could be 20 km away, a day's journey. Pastoralism, that is raising and selling sheep and goats ("shoats"), dominates their economy. In a drought year, they could lose easily some 75% of their animals, which is 75% of their wealth, as banking practices are rare.
Young Samburu warriors in Northern Kenya gather at the Lpus sheep and goat market in July 2012. (Ariel Alexovich photo)
I studied these tribes last summer as part of a team of Oxford MBAs assessing the value chain of sheep and goat markets in that area, with the goal of channeling more of that money to the pastoralists. To be clear, our research was not about issues of mass violence. Kenya, of course, is not immune to violent tribal clashes, particularly seen after its presidential elections in 2005, and tensions run high during drought years when grazing land is hard to come by. However, based on my conversations with many tribal people, I'd recommend that journalists, aid workers and any person trying to find out information from these communities visit the local shoat market, usually held once a week, and for which farmers travel hundreds of kilometers with their animals they intend to sell. This is the only time these tribesmen gather in such numbers. There's barely any cell phone reception in Northern Kenya, and few people can afford cell phones anyway, so most communication is done face-to-face. These markets are when news and gossip are traded among tribesman, plus it's usually the only time when they get news from Nairobi, thanks to the buyers that make the weekly long journey over the non-roads to these obscure markets. I found the tribespeople to be open to questions from Westerners about their finances and personal goals and difficulties in achieving them.
If trying to assess whether tribal tensions are running high, you have to gauge the sentiment at the local shoat markets. At markets where only one tribe is present, you'll get straight talk from that tribe about their enemies. At markets where multiple tribes might interact, any tensions are usually clear.