How Nyumba Kumi has helped fight violent groups in Kuria

Kuria elders in a meeting at Biang'ung'u shrines in Kegonga which is the cultural site for Nyabasi elders. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

For several years, Kuria in Migori County made headlines for the wrong the reasons, as rogue groups took over the villages forcing young girls to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

FGM compounded with pockets of cattle rustling, smuggling of goods across the Kenyan-Tanzanian border as well as robberies, have worsened cases of violent extremism in the region.

Today, the trend appears to be drastically declining as villages strengthen their Nyumba Kumi initiatives and improve relationships with security agencies to help tackle crime.

Interviews with a number of residents established that the locals had gained confidence in the police and are actively sharing information on leads to end violent extremism.

Backed by a cultural intervention called Engoro (a traditional communal ceremony), the community has reduced violent crimes and is helping to get rid of illegal guns.

Engoro is a traditional communal ceremony performed by elders against suspects who refuse to comply with the communal appeal to desist from a condemned practice.

Kuria Council of Elders Chairman Nyagusuka Magige says a bad omen befalls those who partake in the ceremony, knowing they are guilty of the accusations levelled against them, like going through it when they possess the illegal guns.

The cultural practice is regarded by the Kuria's four clans as the last option to condemn the suspects in denial of illegally possessing guns or other crimes.

During the ceremony, suspects undergo the 'engoro' ritual while naked and before the crowd to prove their innocence.

"Our strong Nyumba Kumi initiatives is helping more families to volunteer information, and it is at the core of our responses to violent extremism," said Magige.

Kuria East District Peace Committee Chairman Wambura Matatiro points out that through a strengthened relationship with security agencies, they have been able to reduce crimes.

"We recovered over 100 cattle and 16 illegal guns last year during the circumcision period because of strengthened relationships between citizens and law enforcement," said Wambura.

George Chacha, an activist and a civic educator in Kuria, notes that community policing, peace committees, and public awareness has helped the community identify and flush out cattle rustlers.

In the past, people used to sleep with their animals in their houses for fear of cattle theft.

The development has helped in the fight against FGM, and the number of people arrested by police for participating in FGM has increased drastically as more residents report cases.

Kuria West Sub-County police commander Cleti Kimaiyo says his area has recorded positivity in terms of reporting cases and credits it to the improved relationship with citizens.

"People used to shy away from reporting cases, and most of the matters were solved out of court, including criminal cases. The situation has really improved in the last few months," said Kimaiyo.

During the FGM season that ended in January, police arrested more than 40 suspects. They included seven people arrested in Gitongo and Wangirabose villages in Ntimaru Sub-County for perpetrating FGM and violent extremism. "I devised a strategy whereby any complaint reported to the Sub-County police commander, I make a follow up until the complainant gets justice," Kimaiyo explains.

Migori County Commissioner Meru Mwangi says a multi-agency strategy where everyone, including religious leaders, CBOs, political leaders and NGOs are in discussions with neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda to help reduce cases of violent extremism.

He says owning illegal firearms is rampant in the region, especially in Isebania town, Kuria West Sub-County.

"Our immigration department must work as a multi-agency team so as to deal with the issue of porous borders where illegal firearms are smuggled."

Further, the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) Vice Chairman and president for PEFA churches of Kenya, Bishop John Okinda, said some cultures, such as circumcision, may have negative effects because the young initiates are allowed to do anything since they are considered adults.

"If not well guided, they can begin to engage in activities they were not supposed to do simply because the culture has told they that they are adults," Bishop Okinda says.

He says the church is trying to deal with FGM, a retrogressive culture that has exposed girls to forced circumcision and promoted cattle theft.

The Kuria community, which was initially a pastoralist community before turning to agriculture and animal rearing due to limited fields where they could roam, has had cattle rustling menace for over a decade, which forced many to smuggle illegal firearms from the neighbouring countries.

Cultural practices such as circumcision have been said to fuel cattle rustling whereby those who had been circumcised have to part with Sh3,000 in order to be initiated into an age set.
Moreover, cows would also be needed for the payment of a dowry for circumcised girls.

Cattle theft is rampant during the months of November and December when circumcision takes place.

The season comes with increased cattle rustling, which forces many families to spend nights in cow sheds or sleep with them in their houses to protect them from being stolen.

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