By: David Alton
Over the past few year a number of British people have generously supported the work of Fr Steven Ochieng, an African who works in Turkana – in a vast area which straddles the border between Kenya and Ethiopia. Earlier this year his bishop gave Fr Steven the formal role of Parish Priest of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Todonyang. Within weeks his parish compound - where I stayed last year - had become a sprawling place of refuge for hundreds of displaced people fleeing from a wave of violence that has swept through the region. The violence has partly been triggered by a catastrophic drought that has left people fightiing over grazing rights and access to water - and stealing each other's cattle.
Fr.Steven’s parish is situated in the north-eastern part of Turkana, bordering Ethiopia, and the northern tip of Lake Turkana, where the River Omo forms its delta. In this area, which is rich in pasture, two communities rub shoulders: the Turkanas from Kenya and the Dassenech from Ethiopia.
Insecurity in the Northern District of Turkana has been a major challenge for many years. It manifests itself in cattle-rustling raids on livestock the Turkana and the neighbouring communities. As a result, Todonyang has been designated a de facto “no go zone”. Historically the Turkanas and the Dassenech have lived in constant tension: fighting over grazing, fishing grounds, and water – constantly attacking one another in animal banditry. In the past years cattle raids have been common as well as punitive and marauding bands have become involved in what have become known as vengeance expeditions.
This endless conflict had hindered the work of anyone trying to facilitate understanding, trading, and co-existence.
In 2005, Fr Steven helped to foster a peace agreement between the communities in conflict and through his mission station at Todonyang this remarkable African priest-peace maker has helped to establish a whole range of development activities - including water development, education, health, fishing and even some marketing of local produce. Relative peace has enabled Fr Steven to extend pastoral provision to the communities living along the Lapur mountain range and also on the villages along the Omo River.
Since 2006 until late 2008 this tentative peace held between the two communities.
The fishing community at Todonyang rose to about 5,000 people and trading opportunities were developed. Both pastoral communities from Dassenech and Turkana shared grazing fields. Then, in November 2008, the Dassenech from Ethiopia broke the truce and killed three fishermen after a dispute.
This brought panic and discord within the area. This was followed by punitive killings from both sides. Further killings occurred on May 31st when about one hundred Dassenech ambushed thirty fishermen. They killed ten. The fighting has been due to revenge, stealing of animals and fishing nets.
So far more than sixty people have lost their lives in this continuing crisis – which threatens the stability of the region and could imperil the many gains which have been made in recent years.
Since the beginning of the year, the inhabitants of the fishing village - now reduced to between 600 to 1000 people - took refuge in the Todonyang Church mission compound because of fear of attack from the Dassanach.
Most of these seeking refuge and sanctuary are women and children. Their economic activity is basically fishing but there are also some pastoralists. They have erected small structures of reeds to sleep under and and have crowded around the church compound. The church is seen as a “safe haven” because of the protective fence around the compound – but, in reality, when people are concentrated together in this way a fence can give a false and illusory sense of security. It would not be difficult for a determined group of insurgents to penetrate and perpetrate a massacre.
In any event, the hugger-mugger overcrowding, with little sanitation and hygiene, is dangerous in itself. It has led to a very volatile atmosphere and to a serious threat to a health. Fr.Steven fears that the overcrowding in the church compound, the existence of only two latrines and deplorable living conditions poses a major health hazard where cholera could easily develop. Their dispensary is already overwhelmed with cases of malaria, respiratory infections, diarrhoea, skin infections, worms and eye infections.
The continuous raids in the area have led to many fishermen losing their nets - due to theft. The same raids have robbed the pastoralists of their animals. So both groups are left devastated, without the ability to sustain their already minimalist existence.
The extent of the region’s ferocious drought has further decimated the number of animals per household. In recent weeks, after some sporadic rainfall, rains that should have come as a blessing, led to what Fr Steven describes as “the incomprehensible death toll of animals in catastrophic numbers. Many families lost their animals to the last one, while some so the reduction of their numbers to a handful.” He sent me some photographs that give a glimpse of the unfolding tragedy facing his embattled parishioners.
These families are now living in a dire situation and their pastor tells of how one head of a family had to be restrained from contemplating suicide – so deep was his anguish and depression and fear of what the future holds for his little family.
The Parish has tried to cope with these emergencies and challenges but is totally overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crises which have engulfed them. Fr Steven has been appealing for assistance in the form of tents or sleeping materials for his people and for food to sustain them.
To contact Fr Steven, e-mail: email@example.com