Breaking the cycles of revenge one by one

John Bongei is building peace on the savannahs of northwest Kenya. It’s a work that requires time and trust.

We saved human lives in this forest, says 45-year-old John Bongei and points to the left, where a vast savannah spreads out as far as the eye can see.

No signs of human settlement can be seen. But that’s the idea. People in these parts prefer to live in hiding. We are at the border between the Pokot and Markwet tribes in northwest Kenya. The tribes have turbulent relationships and occasionally tensions escalate into violent conflicts. At such times it is safest to flee into “the bush”, and live in hiding somewhere on the vast savannah.

This is what happened last summer. Cattle rustling between the two tribes lead to fighting that in just one month claimed the lives of 26 people. John Bongei was needed once again.

Bongei, a Kenyan native, has worked as Finn Church Aid Programme Coordinator for Peacework here for two years.

“We went around these woods, day and night for two weeks with a representative of the local government in order to break the cycle of revenge. We met very young boys carrying weapons ready to go to battle”, Bongei recalls.

“We managed to get all the local chiefs together, and in the presence of witnesses they signed a treaty to end the fighting.”

News travel slowly round the savannah. Bongei and his partners helped take the message of peace to even the most remote hideouts. Further victims were avoided.

Building peace is long-term work

Bongei is proud of the achievement. Still, he emphasises that peacework requires patience as building trust takes a long time.

“The most difficult thing about peacework is opening communication right after people have been killed. I meet mothers, whose sons are dead, and the bodies have not yet been buried. And I have to ask them to give dialogue a chance. When the men are getting ready for battle, it is my job to offer them an alternative to revenge.”

John Bongei has had a major role in brokering peace between the Pokot and their neighbours the Turkana and the Markwet. The last battle resulting in death here was almost a year ago, and it’s been almost two years since the last killings on the Turkana border.

It is impossible to estimate how many lives have been saved.

Text: Satu Helin
Photo: Ville Palonen