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How women pushed for peace in troubled zones

By Mercy Adhiambo | March 14th 2021
Samburu women during a peace initiative meeting at the Kalama Conservancy.

The sound of gunshots takes Josephine Ekim back to a time she wishes she could forget. It transports her back to her childhood when cattle rustlers would shoot indiscriminately in villages in Isiolo.

During such moments, most villagers would cuddle their children, hoping it would all pass. But there were times when the war went on for months and children stayed home from school. 

“It was a horrible life. You never knew when someone in your family would get killed. There was always an air of anxiety. You could not even trust your neighbour,” she says.

The fight for grazing land was brutal. When there was drought, Ekim says it meant that there would be more bloodshed as pastoralists fought for the limited resources.

In their local communities, they spoke in hushed tones about the air of sorrow that hung around them and how helpless they felt anytime their husbands and sons left home to go and fight.

She says women from different communities came together through chamas and decided to explore ways that they would promote environmental conservation with hope that it would reduce fights over pasture. 

Kiresha Bille, a member of the Samburu community, says for a long time, many women imagined that the issue of cattle rustling was a men’s affair and they had no voice on it. 

Their initial attempts to unite women to take action were met with resistance. The women who were at the forefront were brutally attacked. Others were called traitors for wanting to meet with women from warring communities and were intimidated to the point that most dropped off from the meetings.

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“It was not easy. There was suspicion even among the women themselves. We pressed on. We had birthed these people who were going to war. We were their mothers. We had the power,” says Bille.

The first step was to acknowledge the role that women had played in the tribal wars and cattle rustling. She admits that many women would incite men to go out and fight whenever there was an incident.

Grace Lebene from Baringo says whenever there was cattle rustling, women would break into song and ask men to step out into the night and bring back the lost cattle.

“Then we started seeing the real impact of the loss. Bodies of those who had died in the war. Children being orphaned due to the activities. So much displacement. Something had to change,” she says.

They formed women groups and started having candid conversations about peace-building. They also started the idea of community conservancies where parcels of land would be conserved and cared for to avoid misuse of resources that would lead to fight once resources dwindle.

On most days, they move within the community to educate men and women on the importance of environmental conservation.

Lebene says their aim was to see that everyone has a fair share of grazing land and that there was some order in the way they utilised the resources. 

“It has been a long process, but we are getting somewhere. We planned who is supposed to be grazing at a piece of land at a particular time. The fighting has reduced,” she says.

Elizabeth Pantoren, Chief Programme Officer at Northern Rangeland Trust that supports 39 community conservancies across northern and coastal Kenya says they worked with the women in counties where people fought over the control of natural resources to make them realise the connection between environmental conservation, peace and economic stability.

Ekim says the young morans who used to go and fight have now been taken in as community rangers whose role, among others, is to ensure the grazing rota is adhered to.

“There are still moments in between when war will be reported in some parts, but we stand firm as women community leaders who preach peace,” she says.

Pantoren said woman must take position and embrace the role that they can play in peace building.

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