Consider nomadic people: Not all ‘least-reached’ peoples are nomads, but virtually all nomads are amongst the ‘least-reached’. Perhaps we think of typical nomads as pastoralists—those that herd sheep, cattle, camels, yak, reindeer or other animals. Bedouin in the Middle East, Kyrgys in the High Pamirs or the Samburu in East Africa are good examples. There are other types of nomads, however. The smallest grouping is hunter-gatherers; and sea-nomads would be considered a subset of hunter-gatherers. The third key group is peripatetics or ‘service’ nomads: those with certain skills that traditionally they would offer in a symbiotic relationship to communities near where they settle for a season or longer. They may be horse-traders, artisans, coppersmiths, or have a whole range of other skills and services. Traveller communities in Europe are historically a good example of service nomads.
There are hundreds of nomadic peoples around the world and, while their nomadism may vary, as will the environments in which they live, they share a way of looking at the world. Ironically, you can be a settled nomad, which seems a contradiction, because it is all to do with worldview. This explains why millions of other people on the move, from refugees to migrant workers, are not nomads in this sense. A number of us may already be serving amongst nomads, unaware of their presence or the implications.
Nomads belong to a clan or tribe and do not stand as individuals. Their identity and security is tied to their clan, their allegiance to that clan and its moral codes. It will be a clan that has either presently, or has in the recent past, survived in an environment insufficient to support them and their chosen livelihoods over a period of years or seasons. The nature of their economic activity necessitates the need to be mobile, or at least for that to remain an option. It may be that some members of a tribe are mobile and others are settled, which better serves the tribe overall. The key is not whether they are mobile at present, but whether their immediate ancestors were and whether a mobile lifestyle remains an option.
The independence of nomads is a high value. A nomadic tribe values its ability to make its own decisions vis-a-vis the nation state and surrounding communities. In fact, they often have very little loyalty to a nation state. Ultimately, nomads see themselves as different from non-nomads, even if on the surface they appear similar. They don’t see themselves as part of a settled system, hierarchy or class. They don’t see themselves as part of that continuum, but standing outside it, even when living in the midst of it.
Nearly all nomads are amongst the ‘least-reached’, perhaps because they are often amongst the hardest to reach, whether a question of the tough environments in which they live, or whether we may need to radically re-think our strategies and approaches. We may see nomads as an extension to the urban-rural continuum, but if that is not how they see themselves, what does that mean for us as we long to see ‘vibrant communities of Jesus-followers’ amongst the nomadic peoples of the world?
Stephan Bauer has worked for many years among nomadic and other people groups in the Middle East.