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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 glory.

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 1999

  • 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
 

Reducing tensions

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 conflict.

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
Florian Westphal is ICRC communication delegate in Nairobi.



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