The realities of daily life for a cattle herding community in the troubled, lawless district of Turkana - 'Kenya's wild west'. Turkana, Kenya. 13/02/2009.
The realities of daily life for a cattle herding community in the troubled, lawless district of Turkana. Turkana, Kenya. 13/02/2009.
The Rite of Passage
Mgipeyok Naukot ,11, owns an AK47 assault rifle to prevent attacks from raiders and also to raid other communities for livestock as has been the tradition in the Turkana community. At this young age, he has already taken up arms to defend his community and himself from the unsolicited, ever more frequent attacks.
The young boy from Turkana confesses readily that he does not know his age, however he can operate his weapon accurately. He recounts the gruesome experiences and the number of brothers he has lost in cattle raids.
"I was injured when raiders attacked our village and stole livestock am now confined to the hut and cannot move,"
a young Turkana man says. He sustained a gunshot wound the night before, during a raid from neighboring Pokot raiders that will result in amputation.
For generations cattle have played a central role in the lives of pastoralist communities. Indeed, the value of a wealthy man is judged by the size of his herd.
Instead of monetary accounts, they use cattle to traditionally store and invest family wealth. Thus the pastoral tribes around the Kenyan, Sudanese, Ethiopian and Ugandan borders have a long tradition of cattle raiding- a breeding ground of tribal wars for livestock and access to water. Teenage boys go through elaborate rituals to become warriors or cow rustlers.
Turkana is largely seen as Kenya’s Wild West. It is referred to as bandit country, where cattle rustling, bloody feuds between neighbouring ethnic groups and heavily armed men is common. The district has about 315,311 cattle in 9,063 square km of arid and semi-arid scrubland, according to ministry of Livestock officials. Likewise it is estimated that there are 50,000 illegal guns, circulating in the region.
It is an area where army and the police traverse in large platoons and are protected by helicopter gunships. It is one of Kenya's three districts, where the residents regard Kenya as some distant place and government security is looked upon with suspicion or as representatives of some occupying power. It has been left undeveloped by successive Kenyan governments going back to the colonial administrations.
For years, border communities in Sudan, Uganda and Kenya have consistently stolen cattle from one other. In the past this was considered a hobby. However, the availability of small arms has changed the pattern.
In recent decades, the clashes have become increasingly violent as water sources have dried up and climatic patterns change. Locals seek to steal guns for more power in the lawless district and inflame battles between tribes which are becoming increasingly brutal.
Following civil wars in Sudan and Uganda, the dynamics of the local economy stopped evolving and led to the rise in theft. What was once a traditional practice among pastoralists of the arid northern landscape, has taken a dangerous turn with the influx of weapons from civil unrest in all of Kenya's Northern neighbours, causing a staggering number of deaths. Most families in the community have at least one gun per household. The boys are taught how to use it as early as six years of age. These factors have contributed to the increase of child combatants like Naukot in a lifelong process he calls survival.
Preceding the post election violence, the cattle rustlers have turned the local communities of Turkana into massacre zones where marauding warriors kill children, women and men indiscriminately.
In recent times, cattle rustling, hitherto a mundane traditional practice, has taken on an even darker identity, they raid with military precision and are better armed than any of the security forces set up by the Government to prevent the vice in this vast and dry area. Between 2006 - 08, loses from rustling in Turkana area have amounted to Ksh 211.4 million according to a local NGO in the area Riam Riam.