Peace in Kenyan Watersheds

mural on bldg.
The juxtaposition of posters in Kenya last month showing movie violence and election candidates mirrors the country’s past pattern of violence during elections.
Pokot woman
This Pokot woman has placed a beaded version of the Kenyan flag on top of her traditional tribal garb to emphasize her wish that Kenyans unite together in peace.

YESTERDAY 70% of Kenya went to the polls to vote for their new governors and next president, undaunted by blazing heat, long lines and nagging memories of the election violence Kenyans suffered 5 years ago. As I write this, only 40% of the votes have been counted and thus the winners are uncertain and violence could still be a sad outcome if results are disputed.

What is certain is that the last 5 years have prompted many efforts by Kenyans to move past their history of ethnic strife and become a country of diversity that honors peace. So many people I’ve met in Kenya over the last 5 years are now calling themselves “Kenyans” first and only later mentioning their tribal affiliation.

flag on tree
New peace effort to bring rivals together over a meal.

One such effort, witnessed in January this year by team members of the NWNL Lake Turkana Expedition, is the opening of a “Kitchen Without Borders” on the boundary of Turkana and Pokot Lands. Kitchen Without Borders, or “Cuisine Sans Frontieres,” is a global effort begun in Switzerland to encourage warring clans to begin the process of peace by simply sitting down together to eat.

cattle herder
A Pokot herder walks his herd towards Marich Pass.

The northern Kenyan Pokot and Turkana tribes, like too many others in Kenya and neighboring Sudan and Ethiopia, have been fighting for generations over grazing lands, livestock, water access and retribution for past offenses. The problem is obvious when one learns that the literal derivation of the word “rival” is “the person who wants access to the same water resource you use.”

checkers game
These Pokot are playing checkers with beer bottle tops.

In Orwa, on the road between Kapenguria (Pokot Country) and Lodwar (Turkana Country), a restaurant called “Calabash” has opened for local travelers, offering local food (much of which comes from their backyard garden), drink, lodging – or just a friendly game of checkers.

Playing fairly with others in games, as in life, is a skill to be learned while young.

At this roadside oasis, elders teach their youngsters how to play the traditional game of “bao,” in which each stone captured on the board represents the acquisition of a cow. Hopefully old animosities will be unknown by these children; just as Kenyans today are hoping the past atrocities that accompanied their elections are now past history.

Shared relaxation between Kenyans of all tribes is a good first step in national unity and progress.

The Orwa peace effort, similar to other Kitchens Without Borders in South America, represents nothing political. Kenya’s Kitchens without Borders offers a low-key opportunity to share the daily basics of life for an afternoon. Sitting down for a meal and sharing some quiet moments offers a break from the dusty road. It’s a chance to relax and meet others who share the same road.

Those visionaries, who have created this roadside respite of camaraderie as an escape from anger and bitterness, cheerfully hand out ripe mangoes to all who pass by – as well as best wishes for one’s journey.

“If people can sit down to eat together, peace will come,” according to Rolf Gloor, our host in Kapenguria and founder of CABESI, a project offering alternative livelihoods to pastoralists who find their old traditions must adapt to future needs and climatic situations.

man with mangoes
The hope is that a welcome gift of mangoes can disarm AK-47s.

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