How intermarriages helped curb Tana River's ethnic clashes

 Residents of Tana River County led by the elders during a peace walk in Wema village.

Photo credit: Stephen Odour I Nation Media Group

The events of many nights in August, September and December 2012 are etched in the memories of many residents of Tana River County.

Attackers crept out of the night like ghouls and, armed with axes, pangas, guns and rungus, betrayed their intentions: they wanted to kill.

In one incident in August 2012, 48 people were killed in a night attack in Reketa village.

The deadly clashes between farming communities and pastoralists did not only steal the peace of a once happy people, but it took away trust and the potential for investment, leaving the county poor.

Hospitality died and hotels lost business. Some, like the Tana Delta Resort, survived the dry spell, while others like the Delta Lodge could not and bowed out.

A judicial commission of inquiry into the ethnic violence in Tana North and Tana Delta would single out land tenure and conflict over resources among the key causes of the clashes that claimed more than 160 lives and destroyed property worth millions of shillings.

Ten years later, the county is still picking up the pieces, fixing its economy and exploring every bit of its potential. 

As they reminisce about the events that served a dark phase in their lives, residents take pride in the 10 years of peace the county has enjoyed, and the secret, they say, lies in intermarriages.

"We lived as enemies and we could not see eye to eye, we fought and targeted each other and always imagined revenge,” said elder Dakan Huko. 

“But we sat down as elders and resolved that our future generation was not going to continue like this."

He said elders examined how the communities could respect each other and live in harmony and agreed that intermarriage would be the antidote to long-standing conflicts.

Nobody would dare attack their in-laws, they reasoned, and if the communities intermarried, there would be a second thought before plotting attacks.

"You will rarely hear that one has attacked his in-laws, unless he is mentally unstable. We decided to create that relationship between communities and it has yielded fruit," Mr Huko said.

With the support of human rights organisations such as the Kenya Community Support Centre (KECOSCE) and Search for Common Ground, elders came up with a Supreme Council of Elders, composed of senior citizens from the seven communities that would hear and decide disputes.

The council was also to spearhead peace talks across all villages, and this has worked tremendously.

"We have learnt to speak one language and look at things from one perspective. We reason together and our people in respective communities are adopting this unity," said elder David Magasan.

Dakan Huko, an elder in Tana River County during an interview with Nation. africa at his home in Garsen.

Photo credit: Stephen Odour I Nation Media Group

As residents mark 10 years of peace, there is no doubt that the development witnessed so far is a result of the prevailing peace.

As of 2012, the county had neither good roads nor decent hotels. 

It was difficult for farmers to go about their business peacefully, as they kept looking over their shoulders, while herders moved like armed bandits in large groups ready to engage if they were attacked.

But the situation has changed and farmers and herders have become responsible for each other’s welfare.

Roads are opening up, activities are resuming their vibrancy and trade is picking up at a fast pace.

More investors are visiting to explore the potential for tourism, while others have built hotels or are contemplating putting up camps.

To inspire the unity of seven major communities in the county, Search for Common Grounds project coordinator Rebecca Ghamaloku said, it took hard work to find a conversation they all could relate to.

"In every community, there are those factors that make them one. They can all relate to that – it can be traditional or cultural. In the case of this county, most of their traditions are similar and that is what has brought them this far," she noted. 

The steps taken by elders in partnership with peace organisations should be replicated in areas experiencing chaos in the rest of Kenya, said Tana Delta Deputy County Commissioner John Kipsiwa.

"The Tana Delta was one stubborn area, but the maturity between communities is an example to emulate. It is inspiring lots of growth and development," Mr Kipsiwa said.

Traditional practices, he added, have a lot of value in minimising misunderstandings between communities and aligning those in conflict for a lasting solution without bloodshed.

As residents celebrate peace, they hope the tranquillity will yield more development.

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