Suicide in Three East African Pastoralist Communities and the Role of Researcher Outsiders for Positive Transformation: A Case Study


We examine cultural understandings and practices surrounding suicide in Pokot, Samburu, and Turkana pastoralists in north-central Kenya—three geographically overlapping and mutually interacting pastoralist communities. We collected our data in the context of a study of poverty, violence, and distress. In all three communities, stigma associated with suicide circumscribed individual responses to the World Health Organization’s Self-Report Questionnaire, which led to an ethnographic sub-study of suicide building upon our long-standing research in East Africa on distress, violence, and death. As is true for most of sub-Saharan Africa, reliable statistical data are non-existent for these communities. Thus, we deliberately avoid making assertions about generalizable statistical trends. Rather, we take the position that ethnographically nuanced studies like the one we offer here provide a necessary basis for the respectful collection of accurate quantitative data on this important and troubling practice. Moreover, our central point in this paper is that positive transformational work relating to suicide is most likely when researcher outsiders practice ‘deep engagement’ while respectfully restricting their role to (1) iterative, community-driven approaches that contextualize suicide; and (2) sharing contextualized analyses with other practitioners. We contend that situating suicide within a broader cultural framework that includes attitudes and practices surrounding other forms of death is essential to both aspects of anthropological-outsiders’ role.

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  1. 1.

    Our concern in this paper surrounds the taboos that create barriers to documenting and investigating suicide’s prevalence in these communities. We highlight the context of violence and the traumas associated with it as potentially increasing the likelihood of suicide ideation and potentially, completed suicides. At the same time, we note Doka’s (1989) path-breaking sociological work on disenfranchised grief. In Doka’s model, certain contextual factors, including circumstances of death (such as suicide), may truncate or preclude acceptable grieving. In the case we present here, unacceptable grieving may exacerbate the trauma experienced by those losing loved ones to completed suicides.

  2. 2.

    Also see Giddens (1964) for a synthesis of the literature spanning the 1930s–1960s.

  3. 3.

    Three thousand herders and 50,000 cattle are the figures reported in The Daily Nation by Moses Mwathi and Gakuu Mathenge (Daily Nation, November 27, 2007, “Eviction of Herders Winds Up”).

  4. 4.

    The issue of HIV/AIDS was mentioned as a consideration for ending one’s life.

  5. 5.

    Oesterle notes, for example, witnessing a ritual cleansing process in connection with adultery. The case was highly dramatic and—although not directly mentioned—HIV/AIDS was a major factor.

  6. 6.

    Schneider (1953) mentions Pokot wrongdoing as ngoku.

  7. 7.

    On cultural scripts of suicide, see Counts (1991).

  8. 8.

    On suicide and gender, including in relation to methods, see for example Brown (1986), Marecek (2012), Niehaus 2012, Widger 2012.

  9. 9.

    See Konradsen et al. (2006) on the relationship between pesticides and suicides in Sri Lanka.

  10. 10.

    There is a counter-intuitive dimension to the metaphysics relating to gender, however: Samburu say that a man who commits suicide ‘kills his home’ because n’goki only follows the descendants of men who commit suicide—in contrast to Pokot who said that the ‘curse’ follows the descendants of both men and women. This heritable aspect is distinct from the contagious aspect: For Samburu as with Pokot, the contagion of suicide can spread to those who come into direct contact with the deceased, regardless of the deceased’s gender.


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Correspondence to Bilinda Straight.

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Straight, B., Pike, I., Hilton, C. et al. Suicide in Three East African Pastoralist Communities and the Role of Researcher Outsiders for Positive Transformation: A Case Study. Cult Med Psychiatry 39, 557–578 (2015).

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  • Suicide
  • Death
  • Stigma
  • Pastoralists
  • Kenya