Shifta war: How mothers held their families together

Shifta secessionists

Security officers display guns and ammunition seized from Shifta secessionists in the 1960s. The rebels would arrive in a village and terrorise the residents.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The first instalment of our exclusive serialisation of Beyond the Call of Duty by Omar Abdi Shurie, one of Kenya’s most battle-hardened and dedicated police commanders, the retired officer writes about life in the turbulent 1960s during a violent secessionist battle in Northern Kenya and how it shaped his life

The suppressed voices come so vividly to my mind as if it happened yesterday. The gangsters are ready with their guns. Their eyes wander. Their restless fingers itch to pull the trigger. The hooded youth under their command stand by wielding machetes.

I tremble, grow goose pimples as I comply with their command. “On your stomachs! Face downwards!” I throw myself on the ground and lie there, motionless, hands stretched out.

Rescue is out of question at our home, some desolate huts standing on the sandy wind-swept plot behind a circular acacia hedge on the low-lying hills of Garissa.

The seven man-gang has time, power and freedom to do what it wants with us, the captives.

They rummage through the kitchen and bedrooms. Several minutes pass and, going by the noise – I hear footsteps and incessant sounds of sufurias, spoons and cups being packed in a bag – I realise they are still around. But the few minutes they will take are like days in jail. Then the noises fade. I look up, and they are gone. Gone with all the little we had. I, a seven-year-old, sits on my mother’s lap and we cry.

The trauma has never left my mind. I visualise all of us lying in pools of blood gasping for breath, had we given the gangsters reason to pull the AK47 triggers. They could also have chopped off our necks.

From then on, I am not just a passive listener to the frequently told stories of Shiftas storming homes, stealing and killing or abducting people. I become a living pain telling my own story. I bear the psychological wound that afflicted other children under the broader break-down of law and order that engulfed the North Eastern province, better known as the Northern Frontier District (NFD) in 1963.

Whether it came in form of cattle-rustling or neighbourhood gangsters plundering homes, the Shifta insurgency raised anxiety and terror that reduced us to living a day at a time. The Shifta Dystopia formed the theme of stories that we told in whispers.

A monster that consumed everything on its way. An omnipresent enemy eavesdropping at every conversation to identify, catch and slit open throats of those opposed to its mission. I heard that total obedience was the only option we had to survive.

Panicky parents

In subsequent days, the promoters of the Greater Somalia gospel would come. We would hear our panicky parents saying how they had come and summoned villagers to impromptu meetings. They said how they had instinctively learnt to listen and nod to show agreement with their views to escape victimisation.

Some parents understood the narrative that they were agents of light, fighting the Christian dominated Kenya African National Union (Kanu). “Demons of darkness”, they called them.

In their narratives, they endeavoured to create an impression of religious crusaders pushing for President Siad Barre-led Somali people unification. The mission, as we were told several times, was sanctioned from beyond Barre and this physical world. It was an initiative to preserve the Somali cultural distinctiveness. With it came violence that brought poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and disease.

The news of a “Free Kenya” had first been well received by children. I had actually imagined myself returning home from school carrying many books. I saw myself reading them, passing examinations and going to work in distant towns. I saw myself smartly dressed as I came back to help my mother and uncle take care of the other children.

Days passed into weeks, weeks into months, months into years. Still sad stories of attacks were told by children from other villages. Anxiety beleaguered us as every day we went for madrassa at 5.30am. Before our indefatigable teacher Maalim Duksi’s arrival, children hurdled together to share sad news on the latest incidents of cattle-rustling and other atrocities.

Come the 1-2pm break time and we would pick the stories from where we had left. On the way home, more news on defiled and terrorised families would reach us.

It became unsafe and we had to drive the cattle home before nightfall. It became a rule that children must be in the house by 6pm under the curfew declared by the government in 1967.

In between leaving madrassa at 4pm and driving the cattle home by 5.30pm, we searched for and collected very dry, light and easy-to-burn sticks. Once at home, we would light a stick at a time, and the resulting bright flame would spread light in the room. Then one of us would hold the burning stick high for the light to fall on the books, allowing others to read and write.

As we became accustomed to it, it helped us build team work, enabling us to do assignments and even prepare for school the next day. Some would read aloud to the rest. The solidarity reduced stress and strengthened time management skills. It reduced the tendency to stay on the assignment too long. It was fun, I recall. The cheerfulness and comradeship spirit encouraged younger children to join us.

I was at Garissa Primary School when the North Eastern region was sliding into a war zone. I recall many incidents which indicated that by 1967, the Shifta had really stepped up violence. They targeted families suspected of supporting the government.

Distressed children

The “us vs them” narrative had become apparent and defined the patterns of the conflict.

One day in March 1967, we were in the middle of a lesson when I saw perceptibly distressed children staring out through the window. The teacher, who had been talking, went silent mid-sentence. He joined the children in staring outside. Suddenly the bell rang, summoning the school to an emergency parade.

We waited with eyes on the headteacher who took time pacing up and down before uttering a word. When he finally spoke, he said the school had been closed down and we had a few minutes to clear from the compound.

Within minutes, military vehicles had started arriving, and hundreds of personnel disembarked and strolled into classrooms. Tents were already being erected in the open areas. We did not need to be told that we had lost the school; it was a military camp.

I arrived home to find that the news had reached my mum. She had been waiting for me. We had very little to pack on the donkey cart and set off on a journey to Hagedera near the Somalia border. This entailed my mum and myself riding in turns on the cart and giving it a push when the animals slackened on the track with loose soils due to the heavy exodus.

I took an adult position directing the animals to avoid thorny bushes; keeping an eye on my younger siblings and the sick sheep atop the cart.

At nightfall, hunger, thirst and the long walk under the scorching sun had drained us of energy. Scores of families had managed to come up to this point, which boosted our sense of security. As darkness fell, sleep was a luxury only enjoyed by those who did not have nestle, thistle or the needle-like cactus thorns to pull from the toes, or scorpion, spider or wasp bites to nurse.

Arriving in Hagedera from Garissa was like flying from the pan into the fire. We caused a sudden population explosion in the villages. We had to survive on limited supplies in a place sanitation and water were distant dreams.

Conflicts at the water points and communal water wells were frequent and vicious. Cattle encroachments created tension with the blame for the rising livestock diseases directed at us.

In 1967, 1968 and 1969, we waited for news on the security situation since the government introduced villagisation in 1967. We returned home on receiving news that security had been restored.

Looking back, I sense a force that buoyed our optimism as children. We were able to defy being defined by the closure of schools, pilfering, arson and Islamisation dogma of the Shifta.

“Shurie, keep learning ... don’t just follow other boys or be caught up in activities you find out there,” said my mother so often as she handed me food or a cup of black tea at the fireside.

I believe it kept my dream alive. But it must have been the case with many mothers who, despite living under the area claimed by the Shifta Caliphate, empowered their children to transcend the secessionist ideology.

I hope that when the story of the war is told, it will not miss to examine the role of mothers in holding families together after many men were killed or joined the Shifta.

Their force for good in that critical turn in the history of Kenya worked behind the scenes to de-escalate tension, fear and violence. And this is part of the story of the making of Kenya.

Tomorrow in the Daily Nation: Leading a risky mission in Somalia to rescue kidnapped Teacher Judy and recapturing a Kenyan village from al-Shabaab terrorists.