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Matthew Pflaum

Recent MSc Africa and International Development graduate Matthew Pflaum discusses his research into nomadism and pastoralism, and reflects on a work-based placement in Eastern Cameroon.

Name

Matthew Pflaum

Degree 

MSc Africa and International Development

Year of Graduation 2017

Your time at the University  

matthew pflaum

I was privileged to study Africa and international development at the School of Social and Political Sciences from 2016-2017. Edinburgh has one of the most significant and largest centres of African studies in the world and is brimming with talented and prolific faculty. It was truly an honour to get the experience.

A few years prior to my studies at Edinburgh, I became interested in nomads in Africa. I believe this was provoked by spending a few days with the Hadza in Tanzania, a very small tribe of nomads, over ten years ago when living there. They live with very few material possessions, regularly migrate for water and resources, and have quite high levels of equality and gender parity. Beyond that, my undergraduate degree in physical anthropology (“human ethology”) taught me a lot about the origins and trajectory of human subsistence. Perhaps I suffer from an idealised/romanticised vision of traditional groups that afflicts many people across the world. I found the Hadza (and more recently Mbororo) so warm, friendly, and wonderful.

Regardless of my idealisations, for a few years I’ve felt nomads and pastoralists are perhaps the most marginalised group on Earth. There are still a few hundred million of them throughout the world (even in developed nations – think Sami in Arctic circle, Roma in Europe, or Inuit in Canada) – and they essentially have no rights to land or resources.

I was fortunate to get to do a work-based placement  (WBP) through the Centre of African Studies at the School of Social and Political Sciences during my MSc in Eastern Cameroon (Mandjou/Bertoua) – one of the poorest regions of Earth, and already greatly neglected by the international community. The area is a fascinating one – an abeyance for lorry-drivers traversing the region and carrying vegetables, goods, and particularly huge logs (from Central African Republic). It is a desiccated region neglected both by the Cameroonian government (it is the poorest region) and outside world. I worked with a wonderful ethnic association called MBOSCUDA that strives to improve rights and equality for the Mbororo, who are traditionally pastoralist. Despite their oppression, they remain so positive and gentle. They have worked hard through research, policies, and activism to persuade the government and international community to be receptive.

The rates of traditional subsistence and life patterns (including nomadism, pastoralism) are decreasing at an alarming rate. There is simply no room or tolerance in the world and global economy for these traditional practices. In Cameroon, they have very little access to traditional land that would permit their continued practices (or ID cards). There is particularly strong prejudice against them by many groups. Around the world the story is the same – business, construction, peri-urban regions, and agriculture have all usurped and supplanted nomadic ways.

Your experiences since leaving the University

I’ve been working part-time in a nursing home and also as a consultant for a student education company in China. This is a huge business in China, and it provoked me to learn more about Chinese students abroad. I started writing a book about the history, culture, and significance of Chinese studying abroad (what I term “extrinsic education”). My partner is Chinese and finishing her PhD in marketing at the University of Florida, and together we are researching this. To my knowledge, nobody has written a single book about this subject, despite the ubiquity, long history, and importance of Chinese education in global economy and politics.

I am currently applying for a PhD in geography and international development and hope to raise attention for the extent and magnitude that global “progress” is curtailing and forcing pastoralists into new, difficult, and unfamiliar lives and places. There are so many factors that are contributing to their marginalisation and insecurity – war, climate, migration, population growth, governance, and ethnic conflict. 

Even among the most optimistic of researchers who work with pastoralists, there exists a certain inevitability that the practice will go extinct. In the palimpsest of discussions around extinction of human culture – which is not hyperbole and includes anything from indigenous languages to culture and religion – I strongly believe nomadism represents the largest cultural extinction in human history. The practice represents over 99% of human history and was once universal. As more and more pastoralists shift into settled and sedentary lifestyles, we must both understand their struggles and lifestyles and also conduct research to inform policies that permit and support their practices. They’ve been doing it for a long time, have rights to do it, and indeed negatively impact the environment far less than the rest of us. Finding funding for PhDs anywhere in the world these days isn’t easy, especially for such a neglected subject, but I remain hopeful.

I recommend diversity of experience and pursuing not only classroom based experiences but those of volunteerism, clubs, and organisations. I was able to get some funding to organise a Ghana election event and had a lot of great support and other students to make it possible. That shows a lot of commitment and support for student projects.

Matthew Pflaum

Alumni wisdom

Edinburgh has so many great faculty, projects, and opportunities. I regret not being more involved in the activities of other schools and departments. I also think other students are great resources and my experience was that so many of them are bright and passionate.

I recommend diversity of experience and pursuing not only classroom based experiences but those of volunteerism, clubs, and organisations. I was able to get some funding to organise a Ghana election event and had a lot of great support and other students to make it possible. That shows a lot of commitment and support for student projects.

I also got to volunteer with the Church of Scotland on a refugee project in Edinburgh. I come from a country (USA) where every state in the union voted against taking refugees and has only taken a few thousand. I think Scotland has taken more and done more for such people, and it was inspiring and emotional to realise many people in the world do truly care about this issue.

Related Links

School of Social and Political Sciences

Centre of African Studies