Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Pesky Rustlers

Having previously written that living in rural Kenya often feels like being stuck in the middle of a Thomas Hardy/Charles Dickens novel I think I will have to extend the literary frame of reference to include westerns, (the cowboys, indians and rustlers variety). Westerns are a genre of literature that I really enjoyed when I was a teenager. If you've never read anything by JT Edson or Zane Grey novel you should give them a try.

Not very far from our place, (but far enough away not to worry), a small scale battle seems to have broken out between members of the Kalenjin and Luo tribes. Kenya is a very tribal country so it is not unusual for this type of confrontation to flare up – especially on tribal boundaries. It is slightly unusual for conflict to occur in our part of the country. It normally happens in the north up on the border with Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Cross border skirmishes and clashes between villages are commonplace on these wild, porous borders. In times past the 'battles' would have been fought with traditional weapons like bows and arrows, machetes and spears. Nowadays the fighting is more likely to be in the form of a shoot out – the trusty AK47 being a favourite weapon.

The violence in our area started out, as nearly all such incidents do, as a simple case of cattle rustling. According to The Standard, (one of the main daily papers in Kenya):

“Skirmishes set off by cattle thefts along the borders of Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces have escalated hostilities between two neighbouring communities, and it is feared the situation could worsen if it gets a political dimension.

One person was killed and five others seriously injured as the violence escalated along Nandi South-Muhoroni border, despite political leaders dashing there to make passionate appeals for calm in a series of meetings through the day. What started as a disagreement over theft of a herd of 44 cattle last week led to wanton destruction of life and property. Hundreds of people were still fleeing the area last evening after hundreds of acres of sugar cane plantations were set on fire, stoking the bad memories of the inter-ethnic clashes that have in the past rocked the area.”

As a westerner it is very hard to imagine the kind of history and culture that lies behind this kind of conflict. It is particularly worrying at this time in Kenya because of the imminent presidential election. The presidential election held in December 2007 turned into a very nasty blood bath in January 2008 as tribal rivalries flared into major violence. Two of the current 'contenders' for the presidential title this year have been called to the ICC in the Hague to face charges linked to the atrocities of the 2007/8 election. The political atmosphere in Kenya is currently very tense, so it is easy to see why the conflict over cattle rustling is being analysed through a political lens.

One of our teachers, who lived in the affected area as a child, dismisses the political angle. In her experience there has always been mistrust and conflict between the two communities in question. The current flare up is, from this point of view, regrettable but easily understandable. It is, however, equally easy to understand the view that this week's problem on the borders of Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces does not bode well for the election later in the year, (most probably in December).

I would like to believe that Kenya learned its lesson as it teetered on the edge of major internal conflict in 2007/8. I'm sure that this is a widely held view. In the mean time I hope a suitably constituted posse is heading for the afflicted area to round up the 'pesky rustlers' and restore law and order before heading off into the Kenyan sunset.

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