Arid Lands

"We're not here because it's easy. We're here out of love."-Member of Watu ya Amani ("People of Peace"), a group composed of people from both the warring Turkana and Samburu tribes living together in an abandoned church in a remote part of Kenya.

"We believe in the need to know principle." -District Commissioner of Mandera, Northeastern Kenya, when asked about public participation in improving local security.

"This traditionally despotic African way of keeping security out of the hands of the people can't last in a democracy." -Field worker (Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia), Advancement for Small Enterprise Programme.

Standard penalty in blood money for killing a man in Northeastern Kenya: 100 camels Penalty for killing a woman: 50 camels Penalty for raping an unmarried woman: 5 camels and a new dress for the victim Penalty for raping a married woman: 1 camel, new dress negotiable


Destiny The Arid Lands American Patriotism in Africa What's Ahead


Sitting on a bus at a station in Western Kenya recently, an Ace of Bass song from the early 1990's started blasting on the radio. Although my spine already ached from other long rides over bumpy roads, the beginnings of a smile pierced my travel-hard exterior. In this odd linking of worlds--the cheesy pop groove and the smell of stale bus seats--I felt a familiar, nostalgic love for the start of a journey. Riding high in the huge bus, I looked down at the chaotic flow of people and goods in the market below. I knew what the placard up front listed as the destination, but had no idea what really lay ahead. Moments ago I had jumped out of a nice 4 x 4: the kindness of some friendly European tourists had gotten me this far from the capital city. Stepping out of the air-conditioned vehicle and onto the sweaty public bus was a determined choice. I seem to repeat this act of travelling the grittier road again and again: maybe I haven't yet learned the lesson it is supposed to teach me.

The Arid Lands

Last week I returned from just over two months in some of the most marginalized parts of Africa. Kenya is a well-known tourist destination (more recently in the news for potentially terrorist-related bombings in the coastal city of Mombasa), but its vast reaches extend to the borders of Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. It was these borderlands that drew me north from the relative comfort of Johannesburg, on a project commissioned by the Institute for Security Studies to study the effects of local peace-building activities on the thriving East African gun trade.

As a field researcher, it was my job not only to tap into new networks in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities, but also to find partner organisations whose staff could help me locate the grassroots groups doing real work on peace in places most people will never see. In that regard, I succeeded. With many thanks to the Kenyan National Council of Churches, the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, Oxfam, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, and a local politician and peace builder named Ahmed Sheikh Mohammed (a great teller of Hajj stories) I found my way in the arid lands.

My travels took me as far as Lokichoggio in Northwestern Kenya, the base of operations for the United Nation's Operation Lifeline Sudan and home to over 200 aid workers for Southern Sudan on any given night. I made it as far Northeast as the Mandera district, where Kenya's often unmarked and unpoliced border blends into Southern Somalia. Somali is the language of conversation here, and assault rifles the preferred instrument of personal security. I spent a night on an empty beach on the Indian Ocean, so close to the Somali border that a nearby island was rumoured to belong to the infamous warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed.

I talked about peace, conflict, and guns with herdsmen armed to the teeth with grenades and G3 rifles, tired church workers, Muslim clerics, orphaned children, warlords, childless war widows, government officials, international donors, and local peace groups. The results are a work in progress, to be published by early 2004. In short, people in the most unlikely circumstances strive for peace in their communities against all odds. For no pay and sometimes no visible reward, these local peace builders form small community-based organisations, walk for miles to facilitate inter-tribal dialogue among conflict-ridden clans, and are the first to rush in to hot zones when conflict breaks out. Largely unrecognised at the policy-making level, they have made a huge impact in increasing security and lowering the demand for small arms in places where the government is so far away, people don't know which country they live in.

While I managed to stay healthy, no work I have done in Africa has made me more tired than this project. At times I was so sleep deprived I felt like I was on some strange drug, with the world moving by in slow motion like a movie montage. Elders waved canes at each other during cease-fire negotiations, assistant chiefs waved loaded assault rifles at perceived rivals, and yet another meal of goat stew and maize meal found its way to me for nourishment, day after day. Goats were ubiquitous and sometimes tasty: boiled, stewed, grilled, fried, hollowed out and stuffed with illegal AK-47 parts for shipment to Nairobi. In meetings with various people under trees and in urban, sewage-infested slum shacks, I was alternately blessed, cursed, begged, argued with, chased away, and welcomed, depending on the day.

At night I slept with a knife in my hand, consciousness always close to the surface, never quite sinking into dreams. I dug deep to find coping mechanisms for fear, overcrowded buses, and hunger for food other than goat. On one particular trip at the back of a dangerously packed bus, a large Kikuyu woman stood in the aisle over my seat, swaying with the potholes. Her enormous belly kept mashing directly into my face like a horribly re-inflating airbag. Naturally tending towards claustrophobia, I closed my eyes and somehow managed a meditative trance: a sleepy, relaxed, distant place where even the smell of small children peeing on the floor (and probably my bag) couldn't reach me.

The presence of easily available guns in places where resources are scarce and government security is almost non-existent (in the Somali case completely non-existent) produces constant skirmishing and a steady death rate that is nonetheless too remote to make it onto the international media radar. An entire aid industry thrives in some of these places, with fully-fledged and funded refugee camps, food programs, and public initiatives. In other, less fashionable areas the dead are quietly buried, raids on other tribes' cattle and settlements continue to be planned and executed, and the arms trade stretches its flexible tentacles into the unlikeliest of markets. Hand grenades are often piled beside mangos and oranges like some bizarre military fruit.

An example of a thriving aid industry and its effects is the war that has been raging in Southern Sudan since the early 1980's. Refugees from that conflict have been living in camps on the Kenyan side of the border for at least that long, with no immediate alternatives for the future. At the UN camp, over 70,000 stateless people wait for something to change while food rations get smaller, children are born, and marriages arranged. However, the Kenyan Turkana people living in the semi-desert area where the camp is located, are much worse off. They don't have 25 free primary schools, as those in the camp do. They don't have piped water, vocational schools, or relief food rations. The conflict over resources between the refugees and local people is the biggest challenge facing the UN-headed aid mission. The United Nations and international donors are looking after the refugees; the Kenyan government has built almost nothing for its Turkana citizens since independence in 1963.

Most Turkana are illiterate and, as herders of cattle and camels, they are heavily armed to protect their animals against raids from other tribes (including groups from inside the refugee camp). Peace initiatives among Turkana people range from adult literacy drives to women's groups who proselytise about the evils of guns. "Literacy opens people up to a worldview that is knowledgeable," says the director of the Turkana Literacy Bureau. "People are able to see what is good in other cultures. If people get basic literacy, they will have freedom: they can apply a new understanding to farming and beekeeping so they are not only dependent on grazing animals. They can be involved in decision making about their own communities. This is what will eventually bring peace."

In Lokichoggio on the Sudanese border, I was confronted with direct evidence of what ranges from "low-level inter-tribal warfare" to "meso-level civil conflict". The International Committee of the Red Cross maintains one of its biggest hospitals for war wounded in "Loki". A visit revealed a well-organised, well-stocked oasis with 1,000 beds. There are war wounded from Turkana on the Kenyan side as well as from Southern Sudan and even Southern Ethiopia, where the Oromo Liberation Front is engaged in hostilities with its own government and Kenyan tribes.

A sign outside read "No cameras, no guns" with crude drawings of a camera and an AK-47, lines drawn through them in forbiddance. Inside, tourniquets made with heavy wire and cork secured landmine amputations. Nearly all injuries were either from mines or gunshot wounds. A woman with one leg washed her own clothes outside in a bucket, bare breasts sagging over a wrinkled belly. Men slept outside on the ground, clutching disembodied prosthetic legs like teddy bears. Children as young as 8 or 9, many who had been fighters in the Sudanese war, stared at me from their beds, some smiling slowly with a strange mixture of hope and sadness. There was no better way to be forced into awareness of the results of war--and the inevitable unsung architects of peace that war always produces.

While ICRC airplanes took off and landed almost every 15 minutes carrying wounded and dying soldiers, youth summits were taking place across the border and between hostile groups. The Lokichoggio Youth Association Society finds and meets with like-minded counterparts in Sudan: their goal is to "make people aware that the world is changing. Peace is development, and development is peace." The Tuposa Development Association, made up of Sudanese youth, has the same goals. Both groups confirm that "our counterparts on the other side speak the same language: we even have relatives there." Peace is not a new idea, but with AK-47s available for 15,000 Kenyan Shillings (about US$200 or two bulls), the challenge is building secure relationships that make assault rifles, no matter how cheap, simply unnecessary.

American Patriotism in Africa

In a town called Wajir on the Somali border, I got out of a hired car only to be pelted with stones by local youth. I later discovered that a permanent American military base is on the way to being finished there, and the Muslims of Somali descent in Wajir feel very threatened by its presence. While they are Kenyan citizens, they have been informed that they are about to live under close and constant scrutiny by an army that doesn't serve their own government. It was not a good time to be white.

In Mombasa, American operatives have been mounting dawn raids on Muslim residential neighbourhoods, pulling both men and women out of their homes half clothed into the streets searching for illegal weapons and evidence of Al Qaeda's presence in the city. Meanwhile, warlords on the Somali side are adamant that there are Americans involved in the supply of weapons (against the UN embargo) to favoured groups in the area. My passport burned a hot and constant hole in my mind as I prayed for no one to question my identity as a white South African researcher. It was definitely, definitely, not a good time to be American.

On the other hand, I endured a severe apartheid between men and women strictly enforced in public Somali culture. At restaurants, there were times my translator ate at large outdoor tables in a cool breeze discussing politics and the weather, while I was forced into a small windowless cubicle near the latrines with ten or more other women and babies to eat in cramped and near-inhuman conditions. Koranic suras blaring in the background, I would unwrap my head covering and try to stuff down a few pieces of the goat du jour while furiously swatting flies and cursing my fate. Outside, dust would flare on the streets in the orange sunsets as overloaded trucks and the silhouettes of camels ambled towards wherever they were going. It was not a good time to be American, but there were also plenty of reasons not to forget the freedoms underlying my struggling patriotism.

What's Ahead

In mid-November I will be flying to Chicago for the annual American Anthropology Association meeting, where I will present a paper on my fieldwork called "Dialogues with Power: African Local Peace-building". I will then be in Boston to spend Thanksgiving with my family, especially my father, who last week bravely endured successful quadruple bypass surgery. I will be in the US until after the holidays, while I sort out various visa-related matters and try to make good progress on my writing. After that I will return as soon as I can to South Africa, to put everything I can into making the IMPACT self-defence and empowerment project a solid reality.

Anyone out there in Chicago or on the East Coast who will be around in November-December, drop me an email and be in touch!