Story by Katie Machell
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.
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.
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.
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.