MAYA, KENYA // Kiban Tanap nearly lost his uncle last week. He was grazing his cows on a hillside with a group of 10 fellow ethnic Pokot tribesmen when the Samburu attacked. For two hours, the neighbouring tribes exchanged fire. When the fighting stopped, one Samburu tribesman was dead, Mr Tanap's uncle was severely wounded in the leg, and 70 of the Pokots' cows were missing. "We didn't go looking for the cows," Mr Tanap said. "We were too afraid of the enemy."
Long before violence between the country's two main ethnic groups this year shone a spotlight on fragile tribal relations, a feud had been raging between semi-nomadic pastoral communities in this arid corner of northern Kenya. Unlike January's post-election violence, which started as a political dispute before dividing along ethnic lines, the Pokot-Samburu conflict is about land for grazing, an increasingly scarce commodity during this time of drought.
"The drought has made the conflict much worse," said Dinah Nyorsok, a programme co-ordinator for ActionAid, a relief agency. "They are fighting for what little usable land remains." The two tribes have been raiding each other's cattle for 50 years. The raiders once used spears and bows and arrows. But Kenya's lawless northern frontier is close to Sudan and Somalia, and modern weapons easily find their way from the conflicts in those countries to Kenya's warring tribes.
"Northern Kenya is bandit country," said Joachim Ouko of People for Peace in Africa, a group that is trying to bring peace to the area. "Cattle rustling, bloody feuds, combat between neighbouring ethnic groups and heavily armed men is the order of the day. It is a land where even the army and the police fear to tread." Mr Ouko estimated that there were 50,000 illegal guns in the area. The dusty Pokot village of mud huts where Mr Tanap lives is on the front lines of the conflict. A Samburu village is just a few kilometres away on the other side of a hill. The boundaries between the two tribal lands are not clearly defined, and herdsmen carry weathered AK-47 assault rifles for protection.
Northern Kenya has not had a decent rainfall in 11 months, and most of the pasture land has become dry and withered. The Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, an organisation monitoring the drought, said the humanitarian situation was deteriorating. "The distances to water sources and pastures remains far," the organisation said in a report. "As a result, the quality and quantity of forage remains worse due to poor rejuvenation of pasture. Water availability for both human and livestock has generally worsened."
Herders are travelling farther in search of grazing land and are increasingly coming into contact with other tribes. "There is nowhere else to graze," said Mr Tanap, the Pokot herder. "We can't stand to see our animals die." While the government of Kenya exerts little control over the vast northern region, tribes have resorted to traditional methods of settling their differences, according to Practical Action East Africa, an aid organisation that has studied the conflict in northern Kenya.
Tribal elders command authority in the communities and have traditionally mediated conflicts. The elders are thought to have supernatural powers, a conviction reinforced by belief in superstition and witchcraft. The current drought, however, has caused the Pokot herders to abandon any thought of peace with their neighbours and take up arms. "Peace pacts between these communities have largely been hinged on availability of pasture and water and entirely cushioned on a win-win situation," said a report by Practical Action East Africa. "Nevertheless, such peace pacts are flouted as soon as conditions that necessitated the pact cease to hold as they are governed by opportunistic tendencies."
Longoriatepa Netekina is a Pokot elder. Recently, he started carrying a rifle for protection when he takes his cows into the hills on the border of the Samburu land, where the last remaining green grasses in the area are found. He has used his weapon in several battles with his neighbours, he said, but declined to say if he had killed anyone. "We are moving into the hills because we have no other options, even if it means losing life," he said. "Because of this conflict, you have to have a gun to protect yourself and your animals."