Story by Katie Machell

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A swirling sea of colour; arms covered with Rendille beads and waists hanging with Borana gourds dance around each other in joyful motion. Hands clapping a vibrant rhythm, voices raised in harmony, switching between languages but the meaning always the same: ‘God, bless your children with peace. Bless Borana, bless Rendille, cover them with your peace.’ This is a peace meeting, bringing together two tribes who have been trapped in conflict for decades. Women who once held one another in contempt now hold one another’s hands; but the journey that brought them here has not been smooth.

The village of Leyai, south east of Marsabit in northern Kenya, was once home to both Borana and Rendille. Living as neighbours, they cultivated and herded their side by side. But escalating disputes and increasingly violent cattle raiding caused such division that eventually almost all of the villagers left and segregated themselves into separate tribal enclaves. Houses crumbled into disrepair and crops turned to weeds. Over the years, various attempts have been made to re-establish peace, but with little success. However more recently, an innovative approach by development agency Sauti Moja Marsabit (‘one voice’ in Kiswahili) has sparked change and brought new hope to this fractured society.

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With a strong focus on vulnerable and marginalised women, Sauti Moja were already running Community Livestock Banks (CLBs): a ‘loan’ of one donkey and four goats is given to an impoverished woman, and then repaid by giving away the first female offspring of these animals to another needy woman in the community. Sauti Moja had often been approached about undertaking peace work in the area, ‘but everybody was doing peace work out here and I thought, what we are possibly going to do that’s meaningful, that’s different?’ recalls Tim Wright, founder of the organisation and co-director with his wife Lyn. The idea came to use livestock loans as a catalyst for peace: instead of paying on to a widow from their own tribe, the ten Borana and ten Rendille women chosen to participate would pass on the animals to women from the other tribe. These women, traditionally enemies, who considered each other responsible for their own widowhood and destitution, would have to share their most valued and precious resources with each other; the emotional challenge was immense. If the peace CLB succeeded, it would send a powerful message of reconciliation to the warring communities, and hopefully begin paving the way towards lasting peace.

Memories of stability, friendship and life in harmony were distant and faded by the time the project began; already a whole generation of Borana and Rendille had grown up knowing only hatred and bloodshed. ‘During that time when there was no peace, people could not go to get firewood, people could not go to graze, people could not take the livestock to water,’ explains Sube, a Borana widow, ‘It was not safe.’ Against this backdrop, the team realised that while they could manage logistics, facilitate meetings and encourage interaction between the women, the true work of change was an internal process, a choice each of the women had to make, to set aside their history and actively work for peace.

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This was not always easy for the project participants. Gumatho, a Rendille woman who lost her son in an ambush, describes how she felt when she first came face to face with those she had long considered her enemies. ‘The first time I met with them, everything came back to me,’ she remembers, ‘and I couldn’t tolerate it for a long time’. However, determined to overcome these difficulties and encouraged by others in the group, she drew upon the strong conviction that ultimately, peace is better than conflict. With the same resolution and fortitude that is evident of all of these women, she committed to leaving the past behind and working towards a better future.

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The first peace CLB not only succeeded, but far exceeded the hopes of the Sauti Moja staff. Purposefully focussing on similarities rather than differences, the women truly embraced the project, and began to develop and enhance it with their own initiatives. They began another’s visiting each other in their homes; they welcomed one another to participate in weddings, funerals, and other significant events. They have also begun visit other communities in conflict and encourage them towards reconciliation.

There is still a long way to go and much more work to be done. Inter-tribal conflict remains a daily reality for many people in northern Kenya, but the work of Sauti Moja and women of Leyai has shown that hope is not futile and the possibility of peace is very real. ‘Instead of conflict, let us unite and advocate against the war,’ the women sing together. May their voices echo through many generations to come.

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Story by Katie Machell, photos by Jayson Morris

Jayson Morris, Social Entrepreneurship Portfolio Director for the Peery Foundation, was on the second stage of a series of site visits in Africa when he travelled on the MAF shuttle to Marsabit in September. Formerly an Investment Banker, he joined the Peery Foundation, a foundation started by members of the Peery family several decades ago giving grants to social entrepreneurs and organizations both locally and globally.

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Women attend the BOMA training.

In Marsabit, Kenya, BOMA Project is one of those grant recipients, and Jayson flew there to catch up with local staff, participate in some training, and to meet some of the people whose lives have been impacted by the project.

BOMA works with women who meet the description of ‘ultra-poor’, helping groups of three women start small group businesses which provide the means to buy food, pay school fees and cover medical costs for their families. Participants receive business training, including areas such as inventory, savings and re-investment; and then with a micro-grant equivalent to around US$150, they are encouraged to purchase stock and start selling.

There is also the potential to accumulate savings, which gives the women and their families long-term stability, and much more resilience to the challenges their environment presents. Based in Marsabit and Samburu Counties in northern Kenya, the project focuses on this remote, rural area as the climate makes it prone to drought, and residents struggle to survive with the highest poverty rates in the country.

Kathleen Colson, BOMA project founder, had spent time in northern Kenya at the invitation of local Member of Parliament Joseph Lekuton, who wanted her to see first-hand how the lives of pastoral communities were being devastated by climate change. As a result of her extended trips in the region, consulting with and listening to village elders, faith leaders, community development workers and local residents, she came to the conclusion that the most effective way to tackle poverty was through improving the economic potential of women. She also appreciated that any long-term solution must be embraced and led by locals in order to succeed. With these principles at the forefront, the organisation started in 2005, and since then BOMA project has already impacted the lives of more than 44,000 women and children.

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Jayson Morris on the MAF Marsabit shuttle.

On his way back through Nairobi, Jayson shared some highlights of his visit. ‘The trip was fantastic,’ he enthused. ‘After landing, we jumped in an SUV and headed three hours out into the middle of nowhere. Quite literally, aside from a couple of nomadic shepherd boys there wasn’t a site of civilization close or even on the horizon for the entire trip.’

‘Finally,’ he continued, ‘we stumbled into the semi nomadic village of Kargi, where we attended training for approximately 60 women who between them are forming 20 businesses. We spent the next two days visiting villages and seeing how the businesses were developing

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Healed woman now sending her daughter to University.

. The stories of improved livelihoods, increased confidence to the point the women now travel as far as Nairobi to buy goods, and the effects on the health of their family and community came pouring in.’

Jayson was particularly impacted by the testimony he heard from a woman in one of the saving groups that BOMA supports. For a long time, she had struggled with an undiagnosed illness that left her bed ridden and barely able to move. Then the saving group gave her a loan to visit a doctor, and after several consultations, she was healed. She went on to pay back the loan, and is now sending one of her children to university. She has also become one of the leaders in advocating for the education of women in the community.

Jayson expressed his appreciation for the flight to Marsabit. As his time for visiting the project was limited, it was crucial that his journey was as efficient as possible. ‘It’s wonderful,’ he said, ‘I couldn’t do it if I had to drive both ways.’

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Dr Mary McFarland, International Director for Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM) took a MAF Kenya flight when she and eight colleagues flew to Kakuma Refugee Camp. Mary is responsible for implementing the vision and mission of JC:HEM, which is to ensure those ‘at the margins’ of higher education, who would not normally be able to access learning opportunities, can do so. The organization is a collaborative global partnership, made up of many different parts, which combines both on-site and on-line resources to deliver education.

Initially established in 1992 to accommodate southern Sudanese fleeing civil war, the Kakuma Refugee Camp is also home to refugees from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Somalia. Tertiary education for refugees has been available at the camp since 1998, with the first courses being completed through the use of the postal system, facilitated by scholarships from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). Over the years, additional support in the form of IT access, library facilities, examination supervision and the provision of lamps for night-time study has also been made available. Since 2010, when it started in the pilot phase in partnership with JRS, over 1900 students have completed a JC:HEM programme of learning. At present 145 refugees are registered for classes at Kakuma Camp.

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Chief Operations Officer Nick Griffin explains the purpose of this visit. ‘Our trip was focused on doing intake for our next class of graduates. We interviewed 70 candidates, men and women, younger and older, Christian and Muslim, Congolese, Sudanese, Burundian and Ethiopian. We were really, really pleased at the quality of this year’s student pool and look forward to admitting 35 for our liberal studies degree programmes, with concentrations in business, education and social work. The admissions process was assisted by volunteer faculty members from Gonzaga and Creighton universities in the USA, two of our partner institutions.’

Although founded and administrated by Jesuits, JC:HEM does not restrict anyone from joining the programme on the basis of age, race, religion or ethnicity, and is also actively seeks to recruit women into the classes. Many of the students practise religions other than Christianity, and for most, English is not their first language.

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Nick further comments, ‘We departed Kakuma a day before World Refugee Day, and were reminded of the incredible hardships these communities face, every day. The challenges in Kakuma are no less indescribable, and the strengths and patience and insights among those refugees gave us all pause. Our delegation included a Jesuit priest who teaches Philosophy; he remarked at one point that the Kakuma students’ capacity for reflection reminded him why he teaches.’

The group was very pleased to partner with MAF in getting to and from Kakuma. ‘We were all very grateful for Captain Daniel’s skill and professionalism and commitment,’ Nick concludes. ‘Wheels up to wheels down, we knew we were in very good hands, and appreciated MAF’s support.’

The JC:HEM students at Kakuma, and indeed all the refugees who live there, in many ways represent the core of MAF’s vision: isolated peoples. It is a privilege to partner with an organisation also committed to reaching those who have been marginalised, to bring hope for the future.

On the mountains of the Kenya-Tanzania border, a great Maasai celebration filled the air as their new school buildings are opened. On board the MAF plane was a man who helped make it possible: former Olympian and COCO charity founder Steve Cram. Katie Machell reports.

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The Maasai village of Olorte, tucked deep in the southwest of Kenya near the Tanzanian border, may appear unremarkable at first glance. Yet in this small community, God is at work and great things are happening: a partnership between the local primary school, Maasai Academy, and UK charity Comrades of Children Overseas (COCO), is facilitating tangible, sustainable and life-improving change.

I have been offered the opportunity to see this for myself as I have been invited by Hennie and Becca Marais, missionaries with RedTribe, residents of Olorte since 2009, and parents of two children at the school, to join a team from COCO flying down with MAF to attend the opening ceremony of some newly constructed buildings at Maasai Academy.

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To reach Olorte by plane means landing 20km away at the village of Entasekera where an airstrip has been cleared, and then completing the journey by road. This particular strip is classed as ‘marginal’ and is renowned amongst MAF Kenya pilots for its challenging features. Sitting atop a hill, the grass runway lies short and very narrow in places; because of its height and exposure to the elements, crosswinds are significant and any rain quickly makes the surface soft. In fact, it is so marginal that passengers travelling there can only be issued with a one-way ticket: the Cessna 206 that makes the flight cannot take off carrying anything other than the pilot. You have to find your own way back.

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We land with no problems and cheerfully wave farewell to pilot and plane. Our luggage safely stowed in the back of Hennie’s trusty Landrover , we all pile in: Steve Cram, former Olympic and Commonwealth athlete and a founder of COCO; Lucy Philipson, passionate advocate of responsible development and CEO of COCO; Kat Hodgkinson, generous supporter of COCO and independent film maker; and me. There is so much to take in. Hennie’s children Caleb and Taliah, quiet and inquisitive, balanced on visitors’ knees; windows open and dust swirling through the air we bump over dirt roads and dry river beds; smiles and stares from passing pedestrians, always hopeful for a lift; and the way the ground seems to glisten and shimmer, a result of the pinkish quartz embedded in it. Conversation flows as Hennie patiently answers wide-ranging questions from me and Kat, the first-timers. And stories, memories, cries of recognition from Steve and Lucy as they recall their fund-raising cycle ride a year previously, which came through this area and along these tracks.

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Eventually we arrive at the school; those summoned to attend the ceremony are already present and the scene is a riot of colour: parents, staff, church leaders and village elders sit resplendent in traditional Maasai dress, the bright patterns of the cloth and the beads of their distinctive jewellery appearing intensified, magnified by the still air and the heat of the sun. Alongside them, the students are proud and quiet in their uniforms, looking us over, curious and fascinated, taking it all in just as we are. We mill around, greeting the elders and the community leaders, shaking hands over and over as the soft murmur of the Maasai greeting ‘Supa’ and the response, ‘Eepa’ repeats between us.

The children remain seated as Steve is handed a pair of scissors and led to the new kitchen, classrooms and sports field he is to officially open. Each location has been marked with a beautifully-painted COCO logo, and prepared with a ribbon for him to cut. Once this is done, an elder is appointed to pronounce a blessing over the new facilities that they may be used to the glory of God and for the good of the school community.

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These buildings are evidence of not only the practical ways the school is developing but also some more subtle changes. Formal education has not always been embraced by the Maasai as it has seemed at odds with traditional culture; the blossoming of the original group of three children and one teacher at Maasai Academy to the current count of 140 students and 10 staff shows new openness and enthusiasm amongst parents, a willingness to invest in a different future for their children. Steve and Lucy are delighted with the developments to the school since their last visit, and the official ceremony ends with translated speeches in which they warmly congratulate the community on their achievements, while they in turn are thanked for their involvement, and are presented with gifts. All the while Kat moves about with her camera, gathering footage and filming interviews that will be used for marketing and fund-raising in the UK. As evening draws in, we make the short journey to Hennie and Becca’s home where we will spend the night.

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The following day, our time in Olorte is at an end and we must go our separate ways: Steve, Lucy and Kat to the town of Narok and then on to another COCO project; me, home to Nairobi. However Hennie’s vehicle has other plans and only a few miles into our journey, there is a terrible grinding noise, followed by wisps of smoke, and a complete stop. Some rapid reviewing of plans, some quick decisions, some silent prayer. A bike is dispatched to find another vehicle to take the COCO team to Narok, meanwhile they head back on foot to Hennie and Becca’s house in search of a phone signal. Standing beside the stricken Landrover, I am weighing up my options when a car pulls up and four people clamber out to offer assistance. They too are visitors: Tim was a missionary in Entasekera for 10 years and has come back with his daughter Jill to visit old friends; they have been joined by Chase and Audrey, a newly-arrived couple who plan to work in Maasailand, and have been language –learning and looking for a place to live. They are going to spend one more night at Entasekera and then head back to Nairobi tomorrow. I can join them. For the second time in as many days, I throw my baggage in the back of a stranger’s vehicle and take off on an amazing, God-ordained adventure in a place I have never been before but am rapidly growing to love.

The rest of the day is filled with new experiences: clambering over rocks to look across to Tanzania, accompanied by children and goats that seemed to appear from nowhere. Searching for a few bars on my phone to snatch a conversation with my husband and explain why I won’t be home tonight. Sharing sodas with my travelling companions in a tin-roofed shack in a small village, and fending off a local who wants to have me for his wife. Pitching a tent next to a Maasai hut where we will be spending the night; then visiting three different homes for tea, rice, potatoes and goat stew. And at every turn, everywhere we stop and every time Tim steps out of the car, he is recognised, remembered, greeted and delighted over. He clearly poured himself deeply into the lives of those he ministered to, and their joy at seeing him again is a testimony to his commitment and service to the Maasai. It is a truly humbling experience.

Another night under the uninterrupted stars that can only be seen from deep in the bush, another dawn opening up a cloudless sky, and long journey home finally begins. Punctuated with more handshakes, more tea, and more precious glimpses of the kingdom of God here on earth, it takes all day; I would not have chosen to spend it any other way.