Running with Reindeer: my first hand experience with Arctic pastoralism in Finnmark

“If I have time on my hands, I would try and get myself onto the spring migration of reindeer – 1 to 2 months from inland winter pasture to summer areas at the coast… People have strong views about pastoralists and pastoralism but how many have first hand experience of moving with them?  And movement is the essence of pastoralism worldwide….Not very wise, I am afraid, but it is at least an idea :)” -Nicholas Tyler

I received this email from a professor of reindeer biology and Sami studies that I had met in Tromsø back in 2018 while I was on fellowship in the Arctic. I aimed to study  the impacts of climate change on traditional reindeer herding culture in Finland and Norway, but as independent projects tend to go, the fieldwork quickly took a life of its own. I became drawn to the migration aspect of reindeer herding, and technology’s role in redefining Sami herding. I spent time learning about reindeer herding– both in theory and in practice– through a series of participatory home-stays in Lapland Finland. I soon found myself in Tromsø after a January stint in Lapland, Finland. Both places have reputations as being gateways to the Arctic and home to vital reindeer herding communities. In Tromsø, I attended a public lecture on Arctic pastoralism that focused on community tensions and responses to Sami herding communities. It was here at this lecture where I met Professor Nicholas Tyler. We kept in touch and he soon became an important mentor to me, a relationship spurred by his curiosity in what exactly I was trying to learn and accomplish. I kept him informed about the progression of my fellowship, and later on, my whereabouts and encounters with herders in Xinjiang

As I prepared to make a cold move to Nairobi, Kenya by the end of the summer of 2018, I expressed my desire to remain engaged in this fascinatingly niche world of reindeer herding. Professor Tyler must have sensed my interest and relayed me dangerously tempting ideas. Even now, I wonder what he saw in me– did he perceive me as the type to take on such projects, daring yet nebulous in a way that most people would never seriously consider.

But ruminate I did. In fact, I planned a whole section of 2019 around witnessing biannual reindeer migrations with my own eyes. I had been living in Nairobi for about half a year, learning the ropes about life in East Africa while working as a freelance photojournalist. I was figuring out how to set down roots in a new place, build a community, and actualize my own plans. It was a difficult and gritty and intoxicating time. But quite suddenly, through Professor Tyler’s logistical magic and sheer force of will, I found myself setting a leave-date to go home and exchange my shorts for boots and a parka. It seemed possible that I would be able to stay with a Sami herding family, the Smuks, up in a place called Varanger, Finnmark.

I self-funded this trip because that’s how much I believed in it. It was as Nick said– there is no substitute for fieldwork. To really learn about reindeer herding, I would have to be there. The Arctic is visceral in a way that’s difficult for me to describe; the desolation and peace there is unparalleled. Life there, although strongly connected to the rest of the world, somehow draws definite boundaries in such a way where the culture is practically tangible. 

I stayed with the Smuks from March until early May. In that time, I witnessed the spring migration, learned how to cook blood pancakes, made endless trips up to the mountains on snowmobiles to herd and watch over the reindeers with my host brother and his cousin. I left feeling like part of the family. Varanger is a place I think about all the time. I can’t help it, you always want to return to what you love. 


I’m writing this long overdue little piece mostly for myself. And from Nairobi, Kenya of all places. The way things come full circle. I’ve spent the past few months trying to get a handle on how fast events spin and trying to keep myself from being washed up altogether. Even now, I can barely admit how difficult it’s been. Only after some forced introspection (Kingsley, I am eternally grateful) do I realize how I’ve really been failing to push myself in the way I know I can, in the direction right for me. I’ve been fooling myself into thinking that survival mode is fine. But why resist this world? Is that even possible? Being back in East Africa has reminded me that there is so much more I could be doing with my life. I can’t help but regret the past three months and all the ways I’ve failed to mentally commit to my own life. The reassuring thing is that even now, it’s not too late.

Sometimes I Don’t Know When to be Strong

Sustained active resistance is really not possible in the long run. I’m realizing my reluctance to acknowledge the long-lasting extent of the pandemic over the past few months, due to lags in emotional processing, really hindered my decision making capacity. In retrospect, this can be boiled down to a couple of things: overcomplicating clear-cut situations, forgetting that I am always the one responsible for myself, and holding on to a deluded idea of returning to normalcy. 

I’ve been under lockdown in Nairobi, Kenya since mid-March. Initially, I thought I would stay for two weeks, no more than a month. Even as the lockdowns were extended every 3 weeks, I maintained a useless hope that I could fly back to the States in the near future, maybe next week. The weirdness of this pandemic housed in me an unfounded, unprecedented desire to return home, even though I’ve lived a rather itinerant life over the past three years and have never felt such an urge. There are no pressing matters back at my parents’ house– everyone is well– but nevertheless I fought an inexplicable wish to leave. Probably because I couldn’t. I felt incapacitated, caught in limbo, unable to make decisions in the now. It wasn’t even homesickness, it was more like a nebulous anxiety paired with an unplaceable longing. Perhaps, it was a way of mourning for a past life. Unless I’m willing to pay $2k+ for a flight home, I would likely be in Kenya for the remainder of the year. It took me a long time to accept that fact and start building a life, setting goals, making plans. I didn’t realize how unsettled I was until a friend sat me down to say that I seemed like a different person than I was last time in Nairobi, that I’m less decisive and relaxed having been stuck in the in-between place for far too long.

As I write this, there are 2 days left in June. Where has the time gone? I can’t help but regret the weeks I’ve wasted– not necessarily in terms of rote productivity. I plug away at my remote project manager job, have been sending out numerous photojournalism pitches and assist queries, and even landed a few writing/audio production gigs. I’ve been trying my best to keep fit as an aspiring climber, taken up yoga, journal more regularly than I normally do. But I realized that I’ve fooled myself into thinking that this survival mode is the best I can do. I had accepted strains on my psyche in a way that one never should. It’s like a personal version of American exceptionalism, believing that one is better off than one actually is. And this allowed myself to stay in a house of low-energy people for so long that I seemed practically normal and downright ambitious in comparison. The mental barrier of failing to commit to staying in Nairobi prevented me from attaining peace. But I’m capable of putting on a good show, as many people are. Only those who care enough, have the perceptiveness to see through another person, and have known me through different periods could understand that the early pandemic days took a toll on me. If you ask me, I would say that I am more confident and decisive than I was back then. 

Being in Nairobi is a rarity in itself. I love living in this city– it’s strange, complicated, and disparate for so many different reasons– but just how easily and quickly I allowed my world to fold into itself scares me. What does that say about what I think I deserve? How can I prevent this from happening again in the future? I can’t always count on other people to shift my perspective for me.

The mistakes I made would not have been possible without my resilience, my capacity for just putting up with shit. And this time I’ve learned that adaptivity, when wielded without discernment, can sometimes look like settling. I catch myself committing this type of passive self-destruction every so often, always when I least expect it. I find myself believing that I’ve grown in experience, confidence, and worldliness and am not liable to such rookie errors anymore, only to come out of a period of extended struggle wondering at my own opaqueness and inability to self-assess. Only after some forced introspection do I realize just how much I’ve been flailing. Is it my ego that gets in the way? 

What has kept me going through these dark times? Even though my perception of the world and myself in it was blindsided, I still held on this ever-present appreciation for the world. Noticed the quality of light throughout the day, how perfect a ripe papaya looks when you slice it open. Felt grateful for kinship even though most of it was distorted by pixels and came from halfway around the world. And even if some days made me feel a bit too much like a caged animal, the reminder that feeling blood pulsing through my veins is somewhat of a miracle in itself. Even if these joys were confined to the bougainvillea hedges in Karen and a small corner of my mind, the hope that this wasn’t going to last forever helped me navigate the continual onslaught of news about destruction and loneliness. 

I reread my favourite book, Cutting for Stone, prose and plot that makes me feel more alive than I’ve ever been. I cried far more than I did the first time. I think about how much influence our fate has over us. How we are defined by our physical geography, human environment, and whether it is ever possible to truly break from those threads. I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the energy I put out into the universe and how desires are reflected back at me. 

I always want every time to be different. I feel like I’m translating my own experiences to myself. It reminds me of how Maroz, a Swiss guy, had to translate my American English to a differently accented English that our Tunisian couch-surf host could understand. A bit silly, but somehow necessary. I’m not sure it’s the right time or place to make any calls on my critical thinking skills, since this slow slow realization has offered its share of growing pains. I want my old energy back, whatever that means. Let’s just say that I’m really trying to move forward now. In a way where no one can suggest that I’m not doing enough. It’s one of the few comforts I can count on when it seems like everything else has dissolved

Kajiado Roadtrip

Last weekend, Kingsley, Ngosa and I went to Kajiado for a road trip. Never mind how we got wrongfully pulled over on Mombasa road by a couple of predictably corrupt cops for absolutely no reason. Never mind how Kingsley could have kept on driving to evade that bullshit. I was accused of trash-talking the police, by pointing out how they were not social distancing by leaning in our windows and trying to sit in the backseat– only making Kingsley’s job of negotiating more difficult. After paying the bribe, we were back on our way- this is just life here, they were telling me, you can’t let this ruin your day. 

We arrived in Kajiado at last, drinking beers from noon, to hang out in the fields there. Barely feeling bad about being such degenerates because when was the last time we’d been alone out here, away from surveillance? Feels like never. We passed a good number of sheep on the way there, turned left at a plot of private land of which Kingsley knows the owner. We went to go hang by a nearly-dried riverbed, enjoying the sun and peacefulness. The stone wall dividing private land and the rest had been knocked down in many sections. A Maasai boy saw us coming and frantically started gathering his sheep off the private land, obviously keen on not running into us. In his haste, he even left 3 or 4 sheep on the wrong side to fend for themselves. We shooed them back over. 

The problem is that it is terribly difficult to speak about indigenous people in a negative light– it simply feels wrong. There’s too much existing emotions and historic crimes surrounding the complex geopolitical and historic controversies, which are almost always centered around land-ownership, to speak of them without impunity. The Maasai are a traditionally nomadic pastoralist tribe in East Africa, made famous by successful tourism campaigns. They have managed to retain some ancient customs despite laws that often go against them in Kenya and Tanzania. Gender roles carry immense significance; Maasai society is strongly patriarchal and most major decisions involving the tribe are still decided by village elders. East African governments are opposed to the Maasai and other indigenous peoples’ sovereignty claims, which are considered subversive.

Kingsley said that when he was first introduced to this land, he held a moderate and conservative stance about Maasai in the context of property ownership. But the lack of respect the Maasai have for private lands, mostly commonly seen in repeated illegal grazing– I understand how this can be a great cause for anger. There is so much open land in a place such as Kajiado. The herders don’t have to insist on grazing their animals on land that is no longer theirs without permission. I see the problem, of course– the Maasai likely believe the land was always theirs and has been stolen, so they should have the right to do as they please. Not exactly behavior or a mindset that cultivates grounds for coexistence.

The perspective of private landowners is valid– knocking down those stone walls is property destruction while grazing animals illegally counts as trespassing. I’m sure a number of landowners would be open to discussing grazing needs, but it sounds like the herders rarely ask. Moreover, they are fattening their animals on the land without compensating landowners for that fodder. Nothing in life is free, even if those fields may make it seem otherwise.

We stopped by a local restaurant on the way back, hoping to get some nyama choma. That joint was very local– no Whitecap, only warm Tusker. You get what you get. Also no nyama choma (the beloved grilled goat dish of Kenya), just wet fry. We ate what we got. Only afterwards did I wonder if the goat had been Maasai raised. It probably was.

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