Children Taking the Lead to Counter Inter-Tribal Conflict in Northern Kenya
By Gabriel Maisonnave
“My grandson died of pneumonia,” Esther explained as she wiped the tears from her eyes.
The conflict between the Pokot and Samburu tribes of Northern Kenya has forced Esther, as it has many families, to keep moving further from danger. Sometimes this meant sleeping under a bush for nights at a time until they found more stable shelter. It was during one of these nights that her grandson became sick. Making a fire to keep warm at night was out of the question; enemies would be able to spot the flame.
Stories like Esther’s are not uncommon among the Pokot and Samburu tribes of Northern Kenya. The conflict, which has been going on for generations, has left thousands dead and even more displaced.
On the surface, cattle and land are at the epicenter of the conflict. As the main source of livelihood for both communities, the constant quest for increasing the number of cows has given way to raids and thefts; while the proliferation of small guns have contributed to the escalation of violence and deaths.
However, identity, tradition, and plain misinformation play a big role in the conflict.
Samburu and Pokot children grow up learning to fear each other, blame each other, and hate each other, sometimes without even having met. The stories they hear are enough to perpetuate the cycle of violence.
“I used to hear that there was a Pokot whose hand was chopped off by a Samburu,” Nicholas Silale, a pupil at Plesian primary school, member of the Pokot tribe, explained.
Nicholas was able to talk with a Samburu for the first time two years ago at an event organized by Children’s Peace Initiative – Kenya, a non-profit working in the area to improve communication and interaction among the communities. At first, the two boys didn’t have much to talk about.
“He asked me for my name and I wouldn’t say my name to an enemy. But he was persistent. He kept saying ‘Why won’t you tell me your name? I want to be your friend,’” said Tanapa Leshorono, a student at Logorate Primary School and a member of the Samburu community.
For Tanapa, the memories of constant moving because of Pokot warriors were still fresh. He explained how he grew up in perpetual fear of being attacked by Pokots, not because of something his family had done, but because when a tribe retaliates, they don’t necessarily go after those who did them wrong, but instead they attack anyone who belongs to the rival tribe. You are attacked because of who you are, not because of what you’ve done.
Neither Nicholas nor Tanapa ever thought about having a friend from the other tribe. As they kept on talking, visiting each other’s houses and families, and learning from each other through programs organized by Children’s Peace Initiative – Kenya, they started to realize they had more in common than what they first thought.
“Both communities have wronged each other. When we came here we realized that Pokots blame the Samburu and Samburu blame the Pokots,” Tanapa explained.
Tanapa is only fifteen-years old, and yet he seems to have figured out something that many adults fail to: how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Both the Samburu and Pokot are aware they would benefit more from living in peace than from conflict, and the tribes share a common goal for their children to grow up in a more peaceful world. The struggle then, lies in how to break the cycle of violence they are trapped in.
It is often said that empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight; that we cannot understand what we have never experienced. Nicholas and Tanapa, like many other kids who have participated in community building initiatives, have started to slowly expand their horizons. Going beyond given truths, they are experiencing things on their own. By visiting each other, they expose their families, and the entire town, to each other’s tribes and culture, thus expanding their line of sight.
They have become friends. Their families have become friends. They are able to understand each other. Just as you would do with any friend, they protect and care for each other.
There is still a long road ahead for both the Pokot and Samburu communities in their journey towards living in peace, and giving kids such as Nicholas and Tanapa the chance to become friends is a step in the right direction. Children’s Peace Initiative - Kenya will continue to support the mission of peace through friendship, and will strive to provide a pathway to peace to families of Northern Kenya.
About the Author: Gabriel Maisonnave is a young professional in the field of communications for development; he holds a BA in International Relations from the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires. His first exposure to conflict transformation came from the Rotary Youth Exchange program in Grand Canyon, AZ in 2005. This experience motivated him to work towards a more culturally aware world, thus he joined the Association Internationale des Etudiants en Sciences Economiques et Commerciales (AIESEC), a global platform for young people to explore and develop their leadership potential. He spent three years working with the exchange program, and was responsible for over 300 university students who traveled abroad for either a social or professional exchange in 40 different countries.
Gabriel’s work at Search for Common Ground in Washington DC ignited his interest in the role of media in conflict situations and he has since continued working in this area with several non-profits such as the Centre for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Soliya Program, and the International Facilitators Community of Practice for Business and Human Rights.
Gabriel is currently working on ways audio and video can be used in the transformation of protracted conflicts.