Turkana is a county in the northwest of Kenya that touches the borders of Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia. It is both a stunningly beautiful and forsaken place where mountains and steep red canyons rise high above an arid plain that transitions into the Sahara further north and temperatures often soar beyond 40 degrees centigrade. The pastoral communities here eke out a living through herding cattle, goats and camels. The culmination of scarce water, climate change, population pressures and regional conflict make the geography ripe for conflict and violence among clans.
In the northeastern part of Turkana lies Kenya’s second largest fresh water lake, which is shrinking due to dams and the diversion of the Omo river tributary in Ethiopia. Along the lake’s borders live fishing communities with HIV rates of over 7.6 percent, in a country that has a 5.5 percent national rate. South Sudan’s prolonged civil war has led to an increase in arms trading across its border with Kenya, revenge killings are a common practice to achieve manhood rituals and, while decreasing, female circumcision is still practiced.
Amid this complex context is Chief Mark Amojong, who manages Loima, with a population of 200,186. It is this chief who opened my eyes during a recent visit to what Pact’s peacebuilding work really means to communities struggling to overcome a climate of violence and conflict. Through a Chief Forum established across this landscape, which is connected to the federal security apparatus, Chief Amojong is working hand in hand with other chiefs and the government to break down the prejudices that divide communities, work collaboratively to address conflict when it arises and find lasting justice.
Pact’s Peace III project, which is funded by USAID, is working to strengthen conflict-management systems and build the capacity of regional and national institutions to stem cross-border conflict. Peace III is the culmination of 15 years of peace building across conflict-ridden regions that cross communities living along the borders of Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. It is a vast area with a huge diversity of clans, multiple religious affiliations and some areas dominated by Al Shabab. It is where clan customary rights butt up against government-declared rights, and the exploitation of clan, ethnic and religious identity can create obstacles to lasting peace.
In the international development field, we tend to report on peacebuilding projects within the confines of a paradigm that incentivizes inputs such as trainings, workshops and counting how many women and men show up to events and activities. This paradigm allows us to declare outputs of agreements signed between communities and actions taken to reduce conflict and promote peace. We can demonstrate greater linkages between local communities and government to address conflict. We can even measure a reduction of violence and conflict in the cross-border areas where we work. It was not until Chief Amojong told me the value of our efforts through his eyes that it opened up my vision to what truly is the result of peace.
Chief Amojong walked us through countless stories of violence in Loima and actions taken by the Chief Forum and the communities to reduce the violence and solve conflicts. He would point in different directions indicating the conflict in the mountains, the plains, along the river valley, with such precision and detailed accuracy that his words dripped with the authority of experience and struggle.
Yet he did not stop at the outcome of peace in elaborating on what had changed for the communities.
“Because we have peace,” he told me, “there is a significant increase in trade. Because we have peace, more children attend school. Because we have peace, health posts have reopened. And because of peace, there is more intermarriages between clans, which will bring about long-term peace for our communities.”
Chief Amojong saw peace as just a means to the significant impacts of education, health, trade and breaking down barriers that create prejudices. Isn’t peace, security and stability just the means through which we achieve access to quality education, health and jobs, among other meaningful impacts on the lives of individuals, communities and regions?
When I pressed Chief Amojong on whether these changes were perceptional, he replied, “No, no, no. I can measure how many children are now in school as compared to when we had more conflict. I can measure how many citizens are using our health posts. I can tell you how much trade has increased and the number of intermarriages. These are real. I have facts to back my perceptions.”
As peace builders, are we not telling the whole story? Just ask Chief Amojong. He has the answer.