Valley rifts: building peace out of Kenya's tribal conflicts
Date: Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Kenya’s Rift Valley runs from the country’s northern edges in Turkana and down to Nairobi. The region contains 14 counties, over 10 million people, across two hundred thousand square kilometers. Its fertile highlands produce world-renowned tea and its vibrant agriculture sector earns it the title of the country’s ‘breadbasket.’ But it is also a region that experiences complex cycle of violent conflict, dominated by land disputes and political power struggles between tribes. Rosemary Cheptai and Esther Kangogo are two women who have witnessed conflict and helped bring peace.
“We’ve seen violence erupt in 1992, 1997 and 2005. The main conflict here is over land, which has never been fully resolved,” explains Rosemary Cheptai from the valley’s Mount Elgon region.
“A lasting solution to the conflict requires bringing all communities together and finding common ground. At present we have relative peace, but this deteriorates, and we have to repeat our peace building efforts every time. As a mother, I feel so pained because families suffer every five years or ten years. The conflict has led to a loss of lives. Husbands have gone to fight and never returned. It has stopped children from going to school and we have also seen increased rape and defilement of women and girls.”
Cheptai, 50, has been a member of her district’s local peace committee (LPC) since 2009. Her introduction into the LPC initially raised eyebrows due to a patriarchal perception that women are weak with a tendency to “leak secrets.” But Rosemary has offered a fresh perspective to issues of conflict. Rather than leaking the community’s information, she has strengthened it.
“The amount of information I was able to bring to the committee, as a woman, ensured my inclusion. I was able to give early warnings on conflicts because women are often the first to acquire information through word of mouth. The men in the committee valued me because I was able to gather information that enabled the resolution of conflicts before they erupted into full blown violence,” she said.
Rosemary’s work in local peacebuilding made her an opinion leader in her region and she now works for Rural Women’s Peace Link, an NGO that builds capacity of women and communities to de-escalate conflict.
South of Mount Elgon lies Burnt Forest, another area of the Rift Valley where there is a fine line between peace and conflict. While land disputes exist, the area suffers acutely from tribal clashes that emanate from political elections. Esther Kangogo and her family were victims of the violence but she has used the experience to promote peace.
“After the violence, I did not plan for revenge, nor did I hold any hatred. I went on a mission to promote peace because I knew with peace my property would not have been destroyed. I began speaking with women because I knew they could influence the men and the youth inside the family home,” she said.
Often, the simplest message is most effective. Esther advocates at local and national forums and highlights that peace should not be sought as a result of conflict but rather, “before conflicts happen, we need to build peace with our families, our children, and our community. There is a feeling among the men that avoiding conflict is a sign of submission, or a sign of weakness.”
She has been able to bring a human rights-based approach to her community’s conflicts, as she believes it is a lack of knowledge that can lead to violence.
“Communities need to know their rights. The major problem is the lack of awareness because communities do not have information on the issues. Sometimes, people give up and resort to attacking one another, even killing one another, because they are not aware of what the constitution stipulates on their rights regarding land, life, and other issues. When they are educated, they will know that there are services … bodies that can assist them,” she said.
LPCs were institutionalized in Kenya during the mid-90s following fierce clashes in its volatile northeast region at the Kenya-Somalia border. These structures exist throughout Kenya’s local, county and national administration. They combine traditional and modern conflict resolution mechanisms by maintaining civic participation but infusing state actors and security stakeholders.
LPCs are present across the country and have been gaining traction in neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia. Milka Chepkirui, from Kenya’s National Steering Committee on Peace and Security, explains how valuable these mechanisms are to peacekeeping in Kenya:
“The LPC structure forms a critical part of the National Conflict Early Warning and Early Response System (NCEWERS). It is a system for collecting information from multiple sources on early warning for early response that relies on modern technology and Geographical Information System (GIS). Information is gathered from across the country and relayed to the Situation Room at the NSC offices”
At the grassroots level, women are typically overlooked in heavily patriarchal communities. But there are many more women like Rosemary and Esther in Kenya who having a meaningful impact on their communities. Data from UN Women Kenya shows that between 2013 – 2018 female participation in peace committees doubled. More needs to be done to combat norms and ensure that women are represented in national and global peace and security conversations.
Rosemary and Esther are members of Rural Women Peace Link (RWPL), a community-led organisation that provides training on peace building at the grassroots level. With the support of the Government of Japan and UN Women, RWPL are strengthening the Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in Turkana County to counter communal conflict and pastoral violence fuelled by a competition for resources in Kenya’s Arid and semi-Arid Lands.