How dry was my valley
by Florian Westphal
The Red Cross sponsored a song contest bringing
together school choirs from the Pokot and Marawket communities.
During the 1990's the Kerio Valley was sporadically
shaken by ethnic clashes.
Since 1999, the ICRC, the Kenya Red Cross
Society and the American Red Cross have been working in the
arid plains and steep highlands of the Kerio Valley area in
north-west Kenya, one of the country's most isolated regions.
By improving access to water and education and promoting humanitarian
values, the Red Cross has been trying to deal with some of
the causes of the inter-ethnic conflict that has rocked this
area in recent years.
The dramatically beautiful lowlands of the Kerio Valley are
a harsh place to live. The soil is poor and the sun beats
down mercilessly on the sparse vegetation that grows here.
People face a daily struggle to make ends meet and to find
the water they and their livestock need to survive. During
the dry season, many women spend up to six hours a day collecting
water for their families, at times digging several metres
deep to find the precious liquid.
The shortage of pasture and water has been at the heart of
frequent violence between the two communities living in the
Kerio Valley: the Marakwet and their nomadic neighbours, the
Pokot. "During the drought especially we had no food
and the livestock was dying," remembers Kama Too, a Red
Cross volunteer in the village of Kolloa. "Our people
would cross over to the Marakwet side to fight and to steal
cattle." During the 1990s, the violence worsened because
of the influx of automatic guns from neighbouring countries,
leaving people dead and injured and thousands displaced. Schools
were closed and vital roads blocked due to the insecurity.
A long-term programme
In 1998, the ICRC and the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS)
provided emergency aid for 14,000 victims of armed clashes
in the Kerio Valley. However, it soon became clear that a
more sustained intervention was needed to reduce the strain
on basic resources. In May 1999, the ICRC, the American Red
Cross (ARC) and the KRCS launched a long-term programme for
the valley. With the ARC providing most of the finance, the
project is supervised by the ICRC's Nairobi delegation which
also takes care of the logistics and administration.
The Red Cross engineer in charge in the Kerio Valley is Alfred
Petters, an American once labelled the "darling of the
Pokots and Marakwets" by a Kenyan newspaper. According
to Petters, "The project aims to have an impact on the
conflict by improving infrastructure such as water systems,
schools and roads." Using mainly local labour and materials,
the Red Cross has been constructing dozens of wells and desilting
dams so they retain rainwater throughout the year. Several
schools have been rehabilitated and equipped, and two roads
constructed to connect isolated communities.
At times, the Red Cross project had a direct impact on the
conflict by providing much-needed finance and jobs at critical
moments, for example during a long drought in 2000. "When
the project started youths got involved in digging wells and
other work in return for food," says the Kolloa chief,
Joshua Yatta. "Now they have seen that you can do other
things but fight and steal to survive." Importantly,
the increase in water sources also means that more livestock
- the main source of wealth for communities and a frequent
source of conflict - survives drought periods.
The fertile highlands of the Cherangani Hills, although overlooking
the Kerio Valley, seem worlds away. The air at an altitude
of nearly 3,000 metres is cool and refreshing; the gentle
hills are covered in verdant fields and mountain forest. Cherangani
is home to many of Kenya's world renowned long-distance runners;
in fact, one of the main Red Cross project sites in the area,
the village of Kapsait, also hosts a training camp for future
top-class athletes. However, the everyday life of people here
is dominated by more basic issues than the struggle for sporting
The first problem identified by the Pokot and Marakwet communities
was access to water. "Our women used to spend up to two
hours a day carrying 20 litres of water up the steep hills
from the river," says Reuben Kiptanui who heads a joint
Pokot/Marakwet committee responsible for maintaining a new
water system installed by the Red Cross. Thanks to a new pump
and a filtering system, clean water now arrives directly in
the village, making life for women in particular a lot easier.
The second problem was education, a major priority of the
population, not only in Kapsait but also in the lowland communities.
According to teachers, the Red Cross's work to upgrade school
facilities has encouraged more parents to send their children
to school. "We have more space now," says Philip
Suter, the headmaster of a school in Kapsait. "Pupil
numbers are increasing and the health of the children has
improved because of the water system."
Red Cross activities in the Kerio Valley since
- 74 wells dug by hand
- Ten rainwater tanks built
- Four gravity-fed water systems built
- 1,100 household latrines built
- 19 dams desilted
- 40 schools rehabilitated or assisted
- 20 schools supplied with "school chests" containing
notebooks and pens
- Three-month school meal programme for about 5,000 children
- 65 kilometres of rural roads constructed
Three KRCS buildings erected
Schoolchildren were also the main participants in what is
undoubtedly the most talked-about Red Cross project in the
Kerio Valley, a song contest on humanitarian values which
involved 33 Pokot and Marakwet schools. Last December's final
brought 240 pupils from six schools to the capital, Nairobi,
and was won by the choir of Kolloa school. Many people in
the area praised this event, saying it encouraged both communities
to meet and acknowledge the suffering caused by fighting.
According to Moses Kilimo, a young Marakwet, "After the
competition, people moved among the other community with less
fear; it created some trust between Pokot and Marakwet people."
Finally, the project has also provided a foothold for the
Kenya Red Cross Society in this remote area. A newly constructed
guesthouse in Kolloa is managed by local Red Cross volunteers
who plan to use the funds raised to help communities maintain
and repair the new wells and schools.
For Alfred Petters, the Kerio Valley project shows some interesting
lessons for future Red Cross interventions of this kind. He
stresses the need to be flexible, to be ready to adapt projects
rapidly to changes in the often volatile environment. Petters
also argues in favour of addressing economic issues as an
indirect means of influencing the conflict: "The Pokots
are widely seen as the aggressors in the conflict, but they
are also a lot poorer than the Marakwets. That's why we devoted
more resources to their areas. Many Marakwets actually welcomed
this because, in their view, it helped to reduce tension."
The problems of the Kerio Valley are far from over. There
remains a real potential for further fighting, especially
when drought periods stretch the area's few resources to the
limit. However, on a positive note, a surprising number of
people - both Pokots and Marakwets - seem convinced that the
Red Cross has had a positive impact on the situation. Now
it is up to the communities to show that they can use the
new wells, dams and schools to build a Kerio Valley without
Alfred Petters died on 26 February in a road accident
in Kenya. Despite this tragic loss, his work to bring peace
to the Kerio Valley will continue.
Florian Westphal is ICRC communication delegate in Nairobi.
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