Female Chief Promotes Dialogue Instead of Killing
Sarah Akoru Lochodo
“I couldn’t allow the killing between us to continue to happen. I decided that we must approach these things through dialogue.”
I am a Chief among the semi-nomadic and pastoralist communities in the Turkana District of northwestern Kenya. Unlike other countries where community members elect the chief, I went through a competitive process and was appointed by Government of Kenya to be the Assistant-Chief of my people.
In the history of Kanuk (my division), I am the first woman to ever hold the position of chief. When I went to interview for the position in 2002, they initially kept disqualifying the interviews simply because I was a woman. The officials felt there should be a man in the position — a man who has a gun and can fight someone who is intruding and killing the Turkana people.
But that is what I found missing in the chiefs — in the Turkana community and among the Pokot and Karamoja (neighboring pastoralist communities). They don’t put themselves in the shoes of their neighbor. They don’t feel that they are the same. Yet we are all people who resemble each other. Our cultures are almost the same. The climate is almost the same. The problems we have are almost the same. I couldn’t allow the killing between us to continue to happen. I decided that we must approach these things through dialogue.
Two months after I was appointed chief, I averted a revenge mission that would have claimed hundreds of lives in my community. A Pokot boy had come to sell milk and one of our boys — a Turkana boy — shot him. The boy died.
Fifty-two Pokot men quickly assembled and said that they were coming to attack. They had already captured ten Turkana boys who had gone for fishing and swimming in the river. They had those boys tied up and said they were going to come and kill 100 more.
It was the expectation that I, as the leader, should do something. I knew that if there was fighting it would be the women who lost. The men always just run, leaving the women to be caught and killed.
I decided to walk 3 km into the bush to talk with the Pokot men.
My heart was pulsing as I stood in front of the 52 armed men. I said to them, “I am the Madam Assistant-Chief of Kanuk.”
If I had been a man, they would have sat down and been attentive as I spoke. Instead they just stood there with their guns.
I told them, “You must know that women do not have boundaries and borders. I am your sister. I could even be your blood sister. I could be your wife. And I am also just like your mother.
“There is no time that a Pokot mother or a Turkana mother would see a child crying somewhere and just leave that child crying in the sun — regardless of their skin, their color, their religion. You will always find that a mother will move to where that child is and she will comfort the child.
“It is because of this that I have come to talk to you. I know that the Turkana’s have done the worst thing. They killed one of you. I came here, first of all, to say sorry and secondly, to discuss how to address this.
“Someone has been killed. I know his mother must be crying for him. His father is crying for him. I know that it is so painful. But we can’t pay for his blood with more blood.
“We have a culture whereby it says: when one person is killed accidentally the family of the perpetrator should pay forty cows. Why can’t you appease the spirits of this boy and appease the cries of his family by doing this? Even if you go and kill, do you think you can take those dead bodies and give them to the mother of this boy?”
After this, the Pokot men agreed that they would appoint five people to negotiate in the cultural way with me. These boys came to my place. They ate and slept. And the next day we started negotiations.
I realized then that if these 52 armed men could listen to me than others could too.
Killing is the option that the men in the pastoralist communities know. For you to be seen as a Hero you must have killed other people. But if you ask them: “If you are given a chance in this world, what kind of life would you like to live?” They say, “I would like to drive a car, I would like to live in a house that has floors.” No one says, “I would like to kill someone.”
The government at one time had to give me a gun to protect my life. One of the responsibilities of the Kenyan government is to protect life and property and they felt that I was subjecting myself to danger. But for me, it is not danger. These are my people. When I see a Pokot or a Turkana, they are the same. I don’t see any borders that tell me that they are dangerous.
The problem will not be solved by just forcibly taking the guns. When asked why they are armed, men say “it to protect our livestock and our people.” The borders of Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya are porous and there are no livelihoods. Disarmament will only work if something else is put in place to enable the people [pastoralist communities] to protect themselves. The government needs to develop this area, give the people alternative livelihoods, and ensure their security.
There also needs to be education, especially for the girls. I believe that once you educate a woman, you have educated the nation. Places where women are empowered are developed places. If we had educated women this place could be different. I have personally taken in 25 girls for education. I use the small money I get and make sure these girls are educated. They are my starting point.
Sarak Akoru Lochodo is currently a 2010 Women PeaceMaker at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.