Jun 12, 2013

Disarming The Violence

Source: Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice

BY Kaitlin Barker Davis and Jennifer Freeman

Beyond Africa’s bustling metropolises of Johannesburg and Nairobi, far from the lush rainforests of Congo and Gabon, stretch arid expanses of sun-bleached plains where nomadic tribes move as they have for centuries. Only now, many carry AK-47s.

From Kenya to Uganda, Burkina Faso to Mali, Sudan to Tanzania, a toxic combination of colonialism’s legacies and modern trends of environmental degradation and the spread of small arms have escalated skirmishes over the centuries-old practice of cattle raiding. National lawmakers seem content to throw up their hands at the violence plaguing these forgotten regions, but in northern Kenya, Sarah Akoru Lochodo did not have that luxury, so she took matters into her own hands.

Between the Turkana and Pokot tribes of northwestern Kenya, cattle can mean life and cattle can mean death. So for as long as Assistant Chief Sarah Akoru Lochodo can remember, the two nomadic tribes have raided each other’s cattle — a source of strength, pride and wealth. Tall and loud with a brash sense of humor, Sarah has at times had to carry a gun herself, even as she advocates disarmament and steps forward as the first woman bringing about nonviolent resolutions to the region.

Before she was old enough to know of the conflict between the Pokots and Turkanas, lanky Sarah would accompany her father, Chief Lochodo, on his visits to neighboring Pokot communities to discuss grazing territories. Even at that young age Sarah’s boldness was evident. In school, girls sat on the ground and boys sat on stones. It was the same in village meetings — women sitting on the ground while men sat on stools. Her mother’s explanation was succinct but unconvincing: “Women are lower.” So one day, like the boys, Sarah selected a stone from the path on the way to school. She sauntered into class and sat stubbornly on her stone of opposition, undeterred by the boys who snickered and tried to snatch it away. In a stone she found a simple truth — she had the choice to not be lowered.

Her mother’s explanation was succinct but unconvincing: “Women are lower.” 

The raids in her village were a continuous part of life, but one night Sarah’s innocent games of childhood were brutally displaced by the bullets that cut down her playmate, Jamani, before her eyes. Stifling her screams so that she too would not be killed, Sarah learned that behind the celebration of warriors lay the violence and pain of the raiding season.

As she grew, so did the violence — occasionally waning, before resurging with destructive force. Shortly after the birth of her own daughter, a particularly devastating, deadly raid tore through her beloved village of Kainuk, killing many of her family and friends. A fire ignited inside her. These things must stop, she thought, standing in the carnage of the raid turned massacre. I want to make this stop.

At the time she didn’t know how. Six years later, working as a relief food monitor for the National Council of Churches of Kenya, she decided to start with the women. “Why can’t we — Turkana women — join with the women of Pokot to change the culture of killing that leaves us empty?” she asked them at a local village meeting. She arranged a meeting and proposed a plan for women’s economic empowerment. “When women are empowered,” she told them, “there will be security and peace for our people.” Four Turkana and two Pokot women were the beginning of the intertribal Rural Women’s Peace Link, in which the growing membership contributed funds to help each other start businesses. The Peace Link would later play a major role in stabilizing communities after Kenya’s violent election riots in 2007.

“When women are empowered,” she told them, “there will be security and peace for our people.”

When Sarah first saw the poster advertising the position of assistant chief, she quickly dismissed it as a position expected to be filled by a man. But the smoky smells of the massacre 10 years earlier returned. The fire still burned within her to make the killing stop. So she applied, countering tradition and her deeply patriarchal culture. Demonstrating the conviction that she would not allow herself to be lowered, Sarah at just 29 years old, was appointed assistant chief.

Working in a pastoralist, patriarchal culture unaccustomed to women being authoritative in public life, Sarah quickly proved herself. Within one month of becoming assistant chief, she averted a massive revenge killing after a Pokot herdsboy was killed by a Turkana warrior from her own community. The Pokots had vowed to take 100 Turkana lives in exchange for the Pokot boy and had already captured five hostages.

Unsure of what else to do, Sarah ventured into unchartered territory, offering to speak with the Pokot warriors herself. But first she changed from her official chief uniform into the traditional clothing of Turkana women: a red and black sheet tied over one shoulder and colored beads layered around her neck.

The young Pokot warriors were shocked to see a woman coming to negotiate with them. “What good is she to us?” they asked Sarah’s Pokot companion and translator. “If we kill her, we cannot count the kill because she is only a woman.”

“I have come here because I am a mother,” she responded with calculated logic. “I am like your daughters; I am like your wives. I am here on behalf of all three.” Then it came to her — the Pokot word for agreement. Muma. When she said it, all the warriors looked up, with surprise. She then proposed an agreement: Any life taken will be compensated by the offender with 40 heads of cattle. The warriors agreed, and the five Turkana boys were released.

In 2005 when the Kenyan government was preparing to disarm the warriors, Sarah wanted her community to disarm voluntarily, before the government forced them. She asked the warriors, young and old, to gather at the village meeting tree. Sarah explained that the government would exchange the warrior’s illegal guns for government-monitored guns. If the guns were used for killing, the government would know and they would be arrested. Eighteen Turkana warriors were persuaded to surrender their illegal firearms voluntarily. They still had guns, but it was a step for peace.

As Sarah earned respect as a leader, she continued to be one of only a few women in such a position. Of the 1,500 chiefs and assistant chiefs in the 2007 Administration College’s paramilitary skills training, Sarah was one of only three women. By 2009 — with the trust she had gained over the years as assistant chief — Sarah succeeded in holding a historic Pokot-Turkana meeting, the first attended completely without arms. When the 160 Pokots and 200 Turkanas arrived under the meeting tree that was now Sarah’s office, she proposed a break from the violence: a one-month ceasefire.

“December is a month in which we lose many lives,” she said to the crowd of warriors. “This year, shall we not make December a peaceful month?” At the end of her request every hand went up in a pledge to stop the fighting and raiding. That December was a month of peace, but Sarah knew peace would not be permanent until issues of hunger and scarce resources were resolved.

While disarmament has become a large part of Sarah’s work in her district, she is well known as a community mediator, convening elders from conflicting communities to discuss the root of the region’s violence. Her dialogues often end in the surrender of illegal firearms, pre-emption of cattle rustling and solutions to boundary disputes.

In addition to her official governmental duties, Sarah works to combat female genital mutilation and discourage early marriages in rural communities. She also personally supports local girls whose parents’ livelihoods have been decimated by cattle rustling, financing their education and at times providing them a home.

“If every woman would involve herself, we would make a change,” Sarah says of her focus on empowering the women and young girls in her community. “Deep inside, I feel that peace has the face of a woman.”

This piece is based partially on the publication “Empowered to Hope,” by Sigrid Tornquist.

Opinions shared are those of the author and are not necessarily representative of views of CHIME FOR CHANGE, Gucci or any partners of the campaign.

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Assistant Chief Sarah Lochodo