Kenya: report from Todenyang

By: David Alton

Todenyang is a desolate and primordial stretch of baked sand between Kenya and Ethiopia, west of Lake Turkana. Since the dawn of time, its people have been engaged in an ongoing fight for survival not just against hunger and thirst but from the constant threat of attack from the neighbouring Ethiopian tribe, the Dassenach. It is a place where every family has two high powered rifles (in case there is no ammunition available for one of them) and where theft, violence and death are common methods of settling disputes over fishing and grazing rights.

When I arrived in Todenyang last summer, I confess to being taken aback by a people so disconnected from the rest of the world that they would swarm around the land cruiser to catch glimpses of their reflections in the wing mirrors. By the time I left however, it was not the people but their Governmental support that left me in wonder.

The key stabilising factor in the region of Turkana is The Missionary Community of Saint Paul the Apostle (MCSPA). (editor's note - in the 1960s Irish missionaries were the first to begin working here and establish some roads and other basic infrastructures) Before their presence, there was no education, little concept of sanitation and no inherent belief that killing was wrong. Since the inter-tribal fighting has been going on forever and the area is so remote, one might wonder why a foreign body would embark on dealing with Turkana’s issues at all, but surely these are not excuses that the Kenyan Government could use? Perhaps it is because the people there have neither laws to live by nor representation that they are prevented from commanding their Government’s full attention. But whose fault is that?

To find an example that illustrated the disingenuousness of the Kenyan Government, I had to flip back through my diary all of two pages. About a month ago, there was an outbreak of cholera that may have affected thousands of locals (as yet, there are no official figures). It took a Government official at least ten days to arrive and the only provisions he carried were a small box of Doxycycline (enough to treat around 30 adults) and 20 litres of infusion fluid. Ten days after the ‘relief package’ was delivered, a second visit was made to assess the situation. That marked the end of the Government’s involvement in the matter.

When I visited the local police station in Todenyang, I was curious as to what messages the Government were trying to send. The officers are charged to somehow keep lawful order amongst a nomadic people, in a vast desert, without transportation. That is to say, they are literally stranded at their station.

Then, there is the issue of the Ilemi Triangle: a literal no-man’s-land between Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. The first time I visited the mission there, we were in a belt of land that was supposed to be under the care of Kenya. When I went back three weeks later, I learned that Kenya had ignored the deadline to pay for the land and that Sudan had laid claim to it. This was distressing to the inhabitants because border shifts can lead to unrest and even violence. It was all the more worrying, at the time, because an oil reserve had recently been discovered in the region.

As my stay in Turkana lengthened, I became closer to the people and increasingly convinced that their Government utilise a ‘bare-minimum’ approach when dealing with their problems. Such inadequacies on behalf of the Government have had severe repercussions for the Turkanas but perhaps none more so than their failure to act in 2008.

First, I should tell you that in 2005, MCSPA priest, Fr Steven Ochieng managed to secure a peace agreement between the Turkanas and the Dassenach. For three years afterwards the two communities lived in harmony and were even happy to work and be educated together. Unfortunately, in late 2008, a dispute between men from either tribe resulted in the deaths of three Turkana fishermen. Panic and outrage erupted on both sides but the Ethiopian Government, who had been content with the peace, took matters into their own hands. They sent a military brute squad to beat villagers of the Dassenach tribe, from which the offenders came, for a week. After that, most people from both tribes considered the case closed. However, a group of Turkanas considered that death should be repaid with death and ambushed and slaughtered several Dassenach. Here is when the Kenyan Government should have acted.

The Ethiopians demanded that the Turkanas be punished as they had been. Instead, the Kenyan Government embarked on an inquiry that took place over several months which resulted in absolutely no action whatsoever. Livid, the Dassenach concluded that murderous retribution was their only option. Since then, it has been a free-for-all with punitive killings and cold-blooded ambushes ensuing from either side. The Kenyan Government’s failure to act not only opened the door for the murders of over sixty people to date but massively compromised the Mission’s work.

The subsequent loss of respect for the Mission couldn’t have been more brutally demonstrated than on my sixth day in Todenyang. A group of approximately fourteen Dassenach surrounded and executed a mechanic working for Fr. Steven who had helped build a water pump in their village the day before. They deliberately murdered an unarmed mission worker, from a different tribe, in a completely different part of Kenya. His young wife, the nurse in the dispensary, was three months pregnant with their first child.

The mission plays many vital roles in Todenyang. As peacekeeper and provider of medicine, education, water-works projects and religious guidance, as well as being the Government’s only liaison in the area, its closure would be catastrophic. Thankfully, the Government acknowledge this and have posted increased numbers of army personnel close to the mission compound. This however, is more of a measure of deterrence than anything else and it is too little and far too late. The Government need to take a serious and immediate interest in Northern Turkana before sixty deaths become a hundred.

The glaring absence of positive action, such as failure to settle border disputes and to stem the mass sales of rifles, is pathetic and shameful. Truly heart-breaking are incidents in which the Government actually work against the people. Last year an excavator was generously donated to the cause of digging wells and dams in Turkana. It is still sitting at the docks it was delivered to because the Government will not release it for less than an extortionate sum of money. The service that machine could have provided, since its arrival in Kenya, would have benefited hundreds of people and possibly thousands of livestock. They continue to expect a vast sum for nothing on their part, while lives hang in the balance.

In our time, the world is so connected that economic crashes are felt globally, victims of natural disasters are met with aid from every nation and five year olds can video conference across continents. The people of Todenyang have been left behind because they have never been considered by those whose job it is to protect and serve them. The average shepherd has more bullets in this gun than his entire family have years of education. He does not understand that he is being neglected but he appreciates every kindness. Must individuals like Fr Steven Ochieng be the only ones trying to help?

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