‘We have to feel our neighbors’ pain’: On the Kenya-Ethiopia border, feuding groups unite after crisis

November 23, 2020
Community members in South Omo gather for a Hamer-Dassenach discussion. (Credit: SND/SEEK)

In September, heavy rains drenched Ethiopia’s South Omo region, home to the Dassenach community. Nearby Lake Turkana overflowed its banks, destroying agricultural and grazing fields and displacing many Dassenach. Soon their cattle were dying for a lack of grass.

In the past, this is exactly the kind of crisis that would have led to violence between the Dassenach and nearby Hamer communities, both pastoralists who have competed for grazing land. Dassenach herders might also have migrated south into Kenya in search of pasture, specifically into territories occupied by the Turkana and Gabra communities – also likely leading to violence.  

This time, though, something very different happened. For the past two years, Pact’s SEEK project, which is funded by the European Union Trust Fund for Africa, has been working to mitigate potential conflict and foster peaceful coexistence along the Kenya-Ethiopia border. Through SEEK, Pact and its local partners are addressing root causes of violence and helping communities to the lead the way in building lasting conflict management systems and institutions. In South Omo, with support from SEEK, the local organization Peace and Development Centre has been working closely with the Dassenach and Hamer communities to reduce strife. The communities have taken part in trust-building dialogues and have established peace committees, building their capacity to lead peacebuilding processes on their own. The efforts have instilled a sense of ownership over the peace process at the community level, with residents voluntarily taking part.

Demonstrating just how much has changed because of this work, after the flooding, the Hamer community, of their own volition, pitched the idea of a resource-sharing agreement to community leaders and government officials.

Inter-communal dialogues, such as between the Dassenach and Hamer communities on resource sharing, are effective at preventing potentially catastrophic conflicts. (Credit: SND/SEEK)

“I have travelled to Dassanech kebeles and seen for myself the distress our neighbors are in – animals dying and people losing their homes,” said Karate Sudo, a respected Hamer elder and peace committee member. “I thought about what it would feel like if this happened to Hamer. We have to feel our neighbors’ pain and allow our two communities to share grazing lands.”

Elders from South Omo’s Hamer community held successful dialogues with their Dassenach counterparts to negotiate access to pasture in Hamer Woreda. To reach an agreement, they used traditional mechanisms as well as negotiation skills they’d learned in SEEK training sessions. Meetings were held with herders and community members to share details of the agreement so everyone would understand its terms. This effectively prevented the Dassenach from encroaching into Kenya, averting conflict.

“I have no words to express my gratitude,” said Lobokoy Itia, an elder and peace committee member from the Dassenach community. “I thought our neighbors had abandoned us. This agreement is a new chapter of life for both of our communities. This is the life we all need to live. I will never forget this agreement.”

Among the Hamer and Dassenach communities, elders are the custodians of the community’s natural resources and are charged with negotiating, monitoring and enforcing agreements on the sharing of resources. This conflict management approach requires continuous monitoring to identify and address emerging issues that could disrupt peace – work that is carried out by local SEEK-supported volunteers called Boundary Partners. In South Omo, Boundary Partners include kraal elders, women leaders, peace committee members, local government and youth leaders.