Women taking the lead in ending the conflict in Kenya’s Kerio Valley

Women from the Endo Chamkalya women's group in Kerio Valley, Kenya.
Women from the Endo Chamkalya women's group in Kerio Valley, Kenya.

The Northern Kenya Integrated Development project trains women in peacebuilding. Milka Rutonye explains how the women brought two conflicting communities together.

Three years ago, Milka Rutonye had had enough. The mother of seven children grew up in Kenya’s Pokot area but married a man from the neighbouring Marakwet. Milka could no longer bear with the impact of conflicts between the two communities.

Political incitement, livestock theft and a scramble for water between the Pokot and Marakwet led to shootings, violence against women and disruptions in the children’s education. Milka was determined to leave her husband’s home, leaving her children behind, and return to her family in Pokot just to run away from the gunshots.

“I always felt terrible when the Pokot ­– my people – came to Marakwet and caused chaos,” she says. “They forget that their children, sisters and nieces are married to the Marakwet.”

In 2018, Milka spoke with bitterness and complained of the area’s insecurity and its impact on her life. She began taking part in talking circles for women from both of the conflicting communities. Through the platform created by Finn Church Aid (FCA), the 57 women found a common cause and took it upon themselves to change the narrative of insecurity in the Kerio Valley.

The talking circles connect women from the neighbouring communities of Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot. Issues, such as water scarcity and cattle theft, have sparked violence in this area of Kenya.

The talking circles connect women from the neighbouring communities of Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot. Issues, such as water scarcity and cattle theft, have sparked violence in this area of Kenya.

Training gave birth to peacebuilding initiatives

Milka Rutonye has participated in women’s talking circles since 2018.

The group calls itself Endo Chamkalya. It encourages women to be resilient in all aspects of life and actively create a just, peaceful, and equal society through formal and informal structures. Ahead of the International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021, Milka speaks from inspiration.

“I was touched to see that FCA, coming from outside our communities, was concerned about our well-being. The talking circles have opened our eyes to the causes of our conflict”, she says.

“Water scarcity contributed to the fighting because we wanted to ensure that our livestock gets food. The training has built our capacity to hear and understand each other.”

The Northern Kenya Integrated Development project arranges training in peacebuilding. The training gave birth to various initiatives that the women undertook to restore peace.

Milka recalls a significant event in 2018; a protest against violence. During a border conflict between Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot, the Endo women crossed over to the Pokot side when the conflict had practically restricted all movement across the border. They prayed for peace.

“We had mobilized the Pokot women that are married to Marakwet and decided that we will seek peace by all means. Our only way was to seek an audience with the Pokot,” she says.

The women of Marakwet and Pokot gathering in prayers for peace.

The women of Marakwet and Pokot gathering in prayers for peace.

Women from the Pokot community met the women that Milka’s group had gathered. The women from the talking circle ended up meeting with 35 village elders of West Pokot. In two mediation meetings, the women spoke out about how they wanted their children to go to school without interruption, their animals to graze freely, and enjoy peace like any other part of Kenya.

Peacebuilding may start with as simple things as learning to express oneself to the other person.  Milka says that the Pokot elders did not know that they were attacking their blood relatives, those that were married to the Marakwet. They regretted it, and some of them even cried.

More importantly, according to Milka, the story shows that anyone can find a moment like this and connect to it – and eventually, become a peacebuilder.

“We were able to influence the village elders of both Pokot and Marakwet to come together and discuss.”

Clearing the road improved livelihood opportunities

Since the peace negotiation led by the FCA talking circle, the situation between the two communities and the entire Kerio Valley has improved.

Benedicta, a moderator in Milka’s women’s talking circle, says that youth from both Pokot and Marakwet joined in clearing the nine-kilometre-long road connecting the two communities. The thick bush had provided hideouts for armed robbers, and there were also other physical obstacles that restricted movement. In the past, Benedicta witnessed two pregnant women die due to the impassable road.

“They were on their way to the district hospital, which is two hours away in normal conditions. The peace engagements have kept the road safe. Now, no one will die because of the road,” she says

Marakwet and Pokot youth clearing the bush along the road connecting the two communities in Northern Kenya.

Marakwet and Pokot youth clearing the bush along the road connecting the two communities in Northern Kenya.

This road led to the opening of the Lodio market, an important centre for the communities’ livelihoods, and eased access to the health centre. According to Benedicta, it paved the way for people to trade and improve their living standard.

When Covid-19 restricted gatherings in the Kerio Valley, the women groups found creative ways to arrange peace meetings. Peace talks continued during the lockdown on radio channels, such as North Rift FM and Upendo FM Eldoret, with a substantial contribution from the women.

“The talking circles have empowered us women, and we are now committed to advocating for human rights and lead herders and the entire community to disarmament, development, livelihood and gender equality,” Milka adds.

Text: Elizabeth Oriedi
Photos: Aziza Maalim