Kenya sings and dances – and discusses peace

Marsabit Lake Turkana Cultural Festival is the largest annual event in Kenya. It brings together the tribes of Kenya to exhibit their traditional culture. The festival is absolutely exhausting, but absolutely fascinating as well, with two days full of singing, dancing and bonding.  For a casual onlooker, it might seem that the whole of Marsabit lives in euphoric harmony.  And it does – at least for a moment.

This year, however, getting here has been a long journey – not only through the mountainous desert between Marsabit town and Loiyangalani – but also through the severe communal clashes between the Turkana, Samburu and Rendile that have flared up during the month of May.  For the communities it is clear: the ingredients of this culturally diverse county don’t always taste this good.

For four days leading to the festival, FCA Field Officer, Vincent Omunyin, has been working exceptionally long hours together with the County Commissioner and the National Drought Management Authority of Marsabit County to help the Turkana and Rendile communities to come to an agreement on how to reconcile after recent violent cattle rustling attacks that have claimed the lives of 7 people and injured 9 others.

Around 3,000 heads of cattle still remain in the wrong hands and this has been acknowledged by the communities.  The process of recovering and returning the cattle has been slow and reluctant. The village of Sarima remains empty as the residents are still afraid to go back.  As a first step, the communities decided on the cessation of hostilities, but the issues are far from a sustainable solution. The threat of police intervention hangs in the air. However, both communities agree that this is the right track.  Stealing more cattle or killing more people doesn’t solve anything. Both communities are asking security forces more time to solve the issue peacefully.  “The police interventions rarely bring peace”, the communities agree. “Using external force just brings another layer of grievances to the table.”

Though the situation remains tense, the communities were able to put their grievances aside and dance under the stars, surrounded by curiously strong night winds rising from Lake Turkana. For the small town of Loiyangalani and the modest settlements surrounding it, the cultural festival is the highlight of the year. This year, the festival might have really helped to bring about peace as well.  Time will tell.

Peacebuilding through shared experiences

Ever since last year’s festival, the FCA Kenya Country team had been brewing a plan to bring the key change makers from the communities from the five REGAL-IR counties to this festival.  The REGAL-IR program is relying on livelihoods, natural resource management and good old negotiations as vehicles for pastoral peace, but why not bring the cultural heritage to the table as well?

The plan worked beyond expectations. While bringing five delegations from five counties to the festival was a logistic nightmare, the fruits of the exposure were plenty.

FCA side programme consisted of several sessions of comparing notes, success stories, challenges and lessons from each community. It was clear that the experience was an eye opening one for many delegation members. The concerns that each community had believed to be unique to their own conflict situation ended up being everyday headache for the communities coming from opposite sides of Kenya too.  The participants learned that some communities had actually solved resource based conflicts very similar to theirs which – for the time being – have been seen as unresolvable.  They mapped the root causes of the conflicts, and understood that in the end, all the communities have similar needs. They talked about the needs for alternative livelihoods, education and resource sharing. They shared concerns about political incitement and cattle rustling. They compared notes on opportunities for peace.  They agreed on their own responsibilities as instruments of change.  They compared traditional clothing and jewellery.

The delegations that FCA brought to the festival consisted of members from several tribes, none of which are in conflict with each other. In the end of the two days of intense discussions (and dancing), the group was asked:  “What do you think, if we would have brought all of your ‘enemies’ here instead of you? Do you think that their discussions would have been very different from yours?“ The question was answered with a roar of laughter. However, deep down, this trip might have been a “Eureka!” moment.  Time will tell.

Finn Church Aid (FCA) is implementing the peace component of a larger program “Resilience and Economic Growth in the Arid Lands – Improving Resilience” (REGAL-IR) by the consortium led by Adeso, African Development Solutions and funded by USAID.


Merja Färm