Following the recent rise of incidents at the border of Baringo, Turkana and West Pokot County, it seems timely to learn more about a strong female figure, a woman who dedicated her life to the fight against the frequent outbreaks of violence. By providing a short portrait of Kanyaman, we are able to illustrate the role of women in conflict resolution. Grounded in the authors’ ethnographic research conducted in both West Pokot and Turkana County, the article is based not only on an in-depth interview conducted in 2020 with Kanyaman, but also on the broad expertise of social scientists working in the respective areas.
It was pure luck that led to the meeting with Mary Kanyaman Ekai in December 2020. Mary was visiting Kapenguria on some errands for the Turkana County Government and I (Elizabeth Ndunda), on my part, was seeking information from influential elders from the pastoralist communities in northern Kenya. The tall lady in the elegant dress was introduced to me as mama wa maji na amani, Swahili for mother of water and peace. I immediately recognized Mary the moment she entered the room. I knew her from various news feeds and meetings with officials where she prominently acted as peace ambassador and environmental and gender activist.
On this December 2020, Mary was on a sad mission. The previous day, bandits had attacked the village of Lopii in Turkana East and killed three young men, taking off with a considerable number of livestock. Although these kinds of violent outbreaks often involve brutal, reckless murder and criminal marketing chains, they are commonly labelled “cattle rustling” or “cattle raiding”, with the act of stealing cattle portrayed as culturally intrinsic to pastoralist societies. Yet, the shifting nature of the raids, which are driven by economic logic and modern forms of violence, should more accurately be referred to as “predatory raiding”, according to international security advisor Dylan Henrickson.
Mary and her entourage were in Kapenguria to seek the County Commissioner’s help in following up the bandits and ultimately punishing them before more attacks occurred. This has been a continuous cycle between the government and the communities of north-western Kenya.
Later the same day, while we were enjoying a cold soda in the unforgiving heat of West Pokot, Mary remarked that, for this specific meeting, Kalya Hotel was very aptly named, as kalya means peace in the Pokot language. The objective of our encounter was to discuss the weaknesses and challenges of the current conflict resolution mechanisms in northern Kenya. These mechanisms usually include disarmament measures, peace barazas (Swahili for meeting), peace caravans and arbitration measures. Disarmament involves the military and police, a common state response to regain control after a period of violence. Peace caravans are the latest, trendy mechanism for peacebuilding. Professionals from each county organize themselves and move from county to sub-county gathering villagers together and speaking of the need for peace. The colourful events usually include a lot of entertainment in order to attract many participants. However, Mary’s biggest concern was that women were simply left out and not considered able to play an important role in conflict resolution. She is far from being alone in holding this opinion. In a 1991 book titled Women and Things: Pokot Motherhood as Political Destiny, anthropologist Barbara Bianco states that the majority of peace projects target the men. Women are mainly included in programmes to fulfil a funding requirement, to attract donors. And yet they play a significant role.
So, who better than Mary Kanyaman Ekai, with her deep insights into these mechanisms, to be the perfect source of information on the subject? Born in 1979 in Turkana East, Mary learned the sad reality of raids early in her childhood, when she had to flee her home after the painful loss of family members to livestock rustling. Despite this stroke of fate, the girl’s athletic skills came to the fore in school as did her driven ambition to acquire an education. A Bachelor of Microbiology and Biotechnology and one of the few female Turkana professionals, Mary was predestined to become a public servant in the Ministry of Health. However, she didn’t rest on her laurels but pioneered the Golden Valley Cooperative Society, whose objective was to enhance resilience through improved and commercialized livestock production and to champion peaceful coexistence between neighbouring communities in the border areas of Baringo, Samburu and Turkana. Mary believed that peaceful coexistence among the pastoralist communities could be achieved if only pastoralists had alternative livelihoods and women had a greater voice.
Women are mainly included in programmes to fulfil a funding requirement, to attract donors.
Although Mary immediately agreed to our meeting, it took us some time before we were able to settle down; Mary was constantly interrupted by many people claiming her attention. I could understand this as I too was drawn to her strong voice filled with emotion as she spoke of the deaths that cattle rustling has caused in the region. Her phone rang constantly during the interview, a reminder of the busy life that she led and the tight schedule that she kept.
“Many people know my brother Ekuru. Even in the villages, people call me Ekuru’s sister. I’m not sure they would listen to me if I was not related to him.” Her brother, the lawyer Dr Ekuru Aukot, vied for the presidency on a Third Party Alliance ticket in 2017. Laughing, Mary says, “Here in this pastoralist culture, it is difficult for a woman to have her own identity, she is either a daughter or a wife of someone. I sit in the County Government yet even there I’m known as Ekuru’s sister.” With some resignation in her voice, she goes on to explain that it is this mentality and culture that has led to the role of women in conflict resolution being ignored by many peace projects and NGOs. Women from pastoralist communities are often considered victims, not active participants in the conflict. She asked me, “Isn’t it common to assume that women have little role to play in conflicts since northern Kenya is a heavily patriarchal society with archaic beliefs and supposedly harming norms including early marriage and FGM?” Mary declared this point of view faulty.
“Many people know my brother Ekuru. Even in the villages, people call me Ekuru’s sister. I’m not sure they would listen to me if I was not related to him.”
Yes, women are victims of conflict and often face the highest security threats during periods of violence, being exposed to both physical and sexual violence. However, Mary was convinced that women play a significant role in motivating men to engage in livestock rustling. She explained that for a young man and woman to lead an accomplished life, they must marry and have children. While undergoing initiation is one important step in the journey from childhood to adulthood, young men are also required to show their courage, and acquire wealth which in turn attracts the “best wife”. This wealth is in the form of livestock—cattle, camels, goats, sheep and donkeys—that can be grown through careful breeding of animals, or simply through raiding. Dowry is often daunting and young men have little to show, and the list of fathers (every paternal uncle) who expect some livestock in exchange for their precious daughter is long. Their wives-to-be, in turn, encourage and motivate them to acquire the needed wealth and prestige as rapidly as possible.
This view is shared by officials of the county government’s Peace and Reconciliation Department. They state that while women understand the disadvantages and the calamities brought on by raiding, they are quick to defend and praise the sons and husbands who participate. This seems understandable, as men are expected to avenge death and destruction by recovering stolen livestock. Of course this creates a cycle of violence as each group feels the need for revenge. However, to simply assume pastoralists do so to impress their women would be to ignore the lack of security and justice in northern Kenya. The responsibility to recover stolen animals that are crucial for their livelihood is often left with the victims. Therefore, the women are not defending or praising violence per se, but are trying to ensure security, justice, and continuity.
Although “beaded” girls and mothers challenge their men to participate in raids through mocking and praise songs, they also want their husbands to come back alive. Lal is a ceremony during which returning warriors are anointed with oil held in a lal, a cattle horn of high symbolic value that has been blessed by spiritual elders. The honouring and cleansing of warriors with the lal after raids is done exclusively by women. It is the women’s duty to spread the oil in the lal on the warriors after a battle or to carry it to the areas where the warriors congregate. Mary encouraged women to stop the cycle of violence by refusing to protect the men during livestock rustling.
So, is it all women’s fault?
It is a little more complex than that. Professor Kennedy Mkutu, an expert in the field of violence and guns in northern Kenya, argues that pastoralists are under threat from inadequate policing, pressure on land and common resources, and the proliferation of small arms. The number of small arms circulating within the region is concerning; spears and arrows have been replaced with more deadly weapons and it is now popular for a father to gift his son a gun during initiation. Another factor that adds to the complexity is the devastating long-term absence of rain. The pressure on communally owned and unregistered land is not only high due to the changing climate but is further exacerbated by outside interests in resources such as crude oil, gold or sand. And as if all this was not enough, politicians exploit the precarious situation.
“Now”, I ask Mary, “with declining resources—over which women have little to no control—and the increase in small arms, and as disarmament measures fail and guns become more common, what can women do?” I was surprised to see Mary laugh heartily, “You look at women as weak and lacking control. Women are the instigators of violence between the Pokot and Turkana. The men fight because of us. I may not have control over the use and ownership of cattle, animals or property but I do not want to be married to a poor man, worst of all a coward. Until their [women’s] participation is seen and understood, we cannot adequately address conflict.” For instance, women have begun playing a vital role in armament. With disarmament measures being stepped-up, and with constant checks and increased patrols along the borders, women transport small arms and ammunition from Somalia and Uganda, hiding them in their clothes and undergarments. It is easy for the women because they are not as thoroughly searched as men are.
“Spears and arrows have been replaced with more deadly weapons and it is now popular for a father to gift his son a gun during initiation.”
Mary must have seen my eyebrows rising and was quick to reassure me that women are indeed quite vocal in encouraging their men to engage in livestock rustling. However, they remain timid on issues of peace and collaboration. “Older women who have a strong standing in the community may become vocal about peace, but the younger women are more supportive of their raider husbands, arguing that this is the only means of gaining wealth, economic and social status.” Elderly women have probably seen more destruction from the violence, the lost sons, brothers and husbands. They have faced highly volatile situations throughout life and have become more inclined to peace. Their participation in peacebuilding stems from the knowledge and experience that violence has devastating effects notwithstanding the wealth gained. The younger women are more desperate to find a “suitable partner”, one who will bring them pride and wealth, and earn them respect.
Therefore, for women leaders in the pastoral regions such as Mary Kanyaman, women hold the answer to sustainable peace. Mary held onto the belief that cooperation among the pastoralist women would “silence the guns”. To illustrate, Mary showed me an intricate belt, made from cow hide and decorated with shells. This belt is known as leketyo and is a powerful symbol for some pastoralists women. The belt is given to a woman during her first pregnancy, to protect the child she carries. It ultimately connects her with the child and its lifeline. Interestingly, so explains Mary to me, when a warrior goes to raid, he requests his mother to wear the belt, to ensure her child is protected. “Every pastoralist woman, even we who are modern, has their belt,” says Mary, seemingly lost in thought, brushing away some imaginary dust from the shells on the belt.
During the March 2020 POTUMA peace campaigns that took place in Kapenguria, Kainuk and Marich, organized by the former Minister of Immigration, Linah Kilimo, women, both old and young, publicly removed the belts, a symbol that they would no longer be active participants in the conflict. Those going for war could rely on themselves for protection. By removing their belts, the respected elderly women had placed a curse on those involved in violence and especially in acts of rape, which is taboo.
“There was so much crying from 2019, so many of our children died as they fought for cows,” Mary said. Indeed, statistics from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) records show that in 2018 alone 11 raids and 4 fatalities occurred. In 2019, ACLED records more than twelve dead in the first raid, followed by various massacres that brought the fatalities to a total of 47. Only deaths were recorded. The injured, the traumatised and the destroyed families and livelihoods are not reflected. “Enough was enough. We toured hotspots including Kainuk and Sigor and we challenged women to take up the mantle of peacebuilding. The lal was silent, there were no songs composed for warriors that season. Women did not go to ceremonies honouring warriors and therefore there was no singing”.
According to Mary, this peace campaign had a significant influence because the women were finally involved. “While government officials were searching for the bandits, we women knew exactly where they were hiding. They rely on us for food and water as they prepare to raid. We told them clearly; we will let the police know where they are when asked. This ultimately led to a long period of peace and collaboration”. It seems it was a peaceful time; people travelled from Lodwar to Kainuk to get products for sale, and to do business. Women from Loyaa went all the way to Kapenguria to shop and sell milk. It was a good time. However, according to Mary, problems returned when the campaigns for the 2022 elections started, and politicians began insulting each other anew. The seeds of hatred grew fast. “Within weeks, we were back to fighting again.” However, contrary to other times, there has been a growing number of women actively involved in and participating in peacebuilding. For instance, the current Bunge la Wananchi grassroots assembly in Kapenguria holds the highest number of women from Marakwet, Turkana and Pokot participants ever, who are working towards peace-making and peacebuilding within their villages. This is an achievement for Mary. However, there is still a lot to be done.
Problems returned when the campaigns for the 2022 elections started, and politicians began insulting each other anew.
That day in Kapenguria, I would never have expected that the energetic peace ambassador seated in front of me in the Kalya Hotel would become a victim of livestock rustling herself. After her brother Ekuru Aukot announced Mary’s death on September 24th 2022, social media channels reported that besides Mary, eight General Service Unit (GSU) police officers, one Senior Chief and two civilians were found dead after they were ambushed by bandits at Namariat Kakiteitei in Turkana East. The story of her death reads like a crime novel. In the night of Friday to Saturday, the village of Ngikengoi was searched by armed bandits who stole livestock and murdered two people. Mary called for security backup to recover the livestock and volunteered to have the law enforcement officials use her vehicle to pursue the suspects. But, for whatever reason, the bandits got wind of the operation and laid a trap for the two vehicles.
Social media channels were awash with devastating pictures of the crime scene, with some commentators crying for revenge, while others called for an end to the violence. Tears came to my eyes when I saw the picture of a mother of four, a wife, a government servant, and a peace ambassador—a role model for women—laying there shot dead. Would we fall into another cycle of violence and revenge?
It has become obvious that current state mechanisms are not effective enough. The short-term disarmament followed by highly publicized peacebuilding barazas seem nothing more than a cosmetic solution to an internalized problem. Mary’s death should be a lesson to both local and national leaders and calls for an immediate change in the response to the violence. Within a society where women have been both victims and motivators of livestock rustling, they must become actively involved in peace-making. As Mary said, “Women are in a unique position, but largely ignored. They can reach their husbands within their homes, they can admonish their sons. Men informally seek the advice and approval of their wives, and sons seek to bring their mothers joy and pride. Therein lies an opportunity that is yet to be explored in order to shift the tide of violence in northern Kenya”.