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AAAS Fellow Terrence McCabe Keeps Pace with Africa’s Wandering Tribes

Terrence McCabe
Terrence McCabe. Credit: Bert Covert.

When locals started showing up with machine guns, AAAS Member and newly elected 2020 AAAS Fellow Dr. Terrence McCabe decided that it became too dangerous to continue exploring communities in Kenya’s Turkana county. Instead, he turned his career on the Badlands of northern Kenya and went south, where he would be "happier to be more worried about lions than the guys with machine guns,” he says.

For 31 years now, McCabe – who is the Director of Environment and Society Program of the Institute of Behavioral Science and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder – has been working in northern Tanzania on several projects in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Simanjiro plains to the east of Tarangire National Park. This is a lush landscape where the Maasai, a pastoralist community, grazes their livestock alongside lions, elephants and rhinos.

Recently, McCabe studied Africa’s catastrophic drought that decimated two-thirds of cattle and shriveled crops from 2008 to 2009. Additionally, the extreme event changed a centuries-old way of life in the local community. “Any Maasai is supposed to be able to go into the territory of other Maasai’s when there is stress,” he says. “But this overwhelmed the whole system and all the villages that I was working in. It changed their rules of access and they all started making laws. So, the question was, why did that drought precipitate such large-scale changes?”

This month, he submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to study multiple extreme events that are happening simultaneously in the Maasai community. “What has been happening is that they have had drought, floods and then droughts. And right now, they have got the collapse of the tourist industry because of COVID-19,” he says.

It was in 1970 that McCabe first came to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone. Since then, he has worked on and off every year until travel restrictions brought about by the pandemic put a stop to his 2020 visit. “I am going nuts for not traveling to East Africa,” he says.

Why McCabe has been continuously drawn to Africa's diverse environments can be demystified by his mother who says that, as a child, McCabe was always watching wildlife shows. He says he knew, “When I grow up, I am going to be doing things there. I never had any real thoughts about doing anything else.”

Trained as a cultural anthropologist McCabe – who supported himself in graduate school by doing archeology – ventured into northern Kenya for his first research project on the continent in 1980 as part of the South Turkana Ecosystem Project on a research mission sponsored by the National Science Foundation in conjunction with the National Museum of Kenya (NMK). As part of his research on the continent, McCabe and a colleague conducted a three-week walking safari with donkeys. During this trip, he made contact with four Turkana families that would later be the subject of his book, “Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies: Turkana Ecology, Politics, and Raiding in a Disequilibrium System (Human-Environment Interactions).”

In the book, McCabe says, “I tried to address what I thought was a flaw in human ecology studies that reduced people to numbers and data,” he says. “I wanted to bring a deep and detailed ethnographic study to human/ecological studies.” He delved into not only the Turkana people, but also northern Kenya’s ecology, history and politics. These families that were featured in the book shed light on how the Turkana people live and travel on this particular African land, which can be plagued with a lack of resources and violence.

His work as a cultural anthropologist required him to fully integrate into the communities he worked, which were within some of the toughest places in Africa. This came with both risks and rewards. “It took a long time for people to really accept me,” he says. “I got to know each family very well, with two families naming one of their children after me one a and the other a girl.

In addition to becoming a AAAS Fellow, McCabe recently won an Alexander von Humboldt Research Award for lifetime achievements in research; it is only recently that he has felt a sense of recognition by the non-anthropological scientific community. “Most anthropologists who get recognized as AAAS Fellows are either physical anthropologists or archeologists, it is much rarer for cultural anthropologists to become AAAS Fellows,” he says. “I have spent most of my research career working as part of multidisciplinary teams … being able to communicate across disciplines is very important to me.”

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Owen Kibenge