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Kenya clans' struggle for water turns deadly

Drought Hit Kenya Heading For Humanitarian Crisis
A herdsman walks in the desert heat past an animal carcass on Wednesday near Wajir, Kenya. The drought in northern Kenya has deepened after an unusually dry season.Chris Jackson / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Akiru Lomukuny’s clan already has seen one boy killed, a girl raped and dozens of women beaten just for trying to get a drink of water. Now, she says, things are about to get a lot worse.

Generations of east Africans have clashed sporadically over cattle, pasture and, most importantly, water. The drought sweeping the region is making the fight for resources more desperate.

Lomukuny is a member of the Turkana tribe. Among these nomads, a family is judged by its cows. The Turkana walk their cows, goats and sheep through Kenya’s northwestern corner, along the borders with Uganda and Sudan.

It hasn’t rained here in over a year, and her clan — along with more than 11 million other people in this semiarid region that also includes Ethiopia and Somalia — is getting desperate.

Lomukuny knows where she can get water 10 miles away, but the spring is in Uganda. She and her daughters — usually with Lomukuny’s three grandchildren strapped to their backs — have gone there for water in the past, only to be ambushed by Dados tribesmen.

“We were usually attacked on our way back,” she said. “We would lose all of our water ... sometimes they strip us naked, take all of our beads.”

Secret supply ran out
In January, Lomukuny’s clan of some 600 families retreated back into Kenya to a secret place where water collects in the rugged hills. But now that supply has run out, and they must look across the unmarked border again.

“Drought always presents a great risk for us because the alternative is to go to Uganda, where we’ve had a lot of experience being attacked,” she said. “The next move has to be to find water. There is water in Uganda, so we have to move there.”

Life in this part of East Africa is never easy, even in the best of times. When tribal clashes meant bows, arrows and shields, casualties were low. Now almost every adult male has an assault rifle, so even small skirmishes can leave a dozen dead.

As Lomukuny spoke, dressed in a traditional blanket and leather skirt, dozens of children crowded around, their foreheads covered with an orange fuzz that is a sign of protein deficiency. They are skinny, but don’t have the bloated stomachs of the severely malnourished.

Only the night before, Dados raiders stole 28 cows from two families in the clan, leaving them destitute. The clan already has lost cattle to the drought, and more become weak and sick every day for lack of enough water.

In Turkana society, there are two decision-making bodies. The female elders have met and decided it is time to move. The male elders will decide soon exactly when to go, Lomukuny said, looking west to the hills where Dados scouts sit and watch the Turkana.

The Rev. Bernard Ruhnan, a German priest who has been trying to end the tribal fighting in the area for 34 years, said there have been minor clashes, but nothing too serious since the drought began. He is working with tribal leaders on an agreement to share resources, but worries about what will happen if the rains don’t come soon.

Normally rainy seasons were dry
Normally, there are several rainy seasons in the region. But there was no rain in October or December, and now the expected rain in March has yet to come.

“If we don’t get rain in the next month, it will become much more serious,” he said. He said already there were militant elements in both tribes trying to make sure they don’t have to share anything.

Oxfam and other charities have also been trying to help the Turkana survive the drought without fighting. The British group has drilled water wells and installed pumps. They have also bought livestock from the Turkana, slaughtering them and giving the meat to the needy.

But those programs are too small and too far away to help Lomukuny’s clan. They will instead take their chances with the Dados as they try to reach an unoccupied, well watered, pasture, the elders said.

“The route through Uganda is like going between two dogs,” Lomukuny said. “During the migration, the fighting is perpetual, all the way through, until we find a place to settle.”

Well water instead of bullets
She said the biggest concern was the supply of bullets, because unlike in Uganda, the Kenyan government doesn’t provide the nomadic tribes with arms and ammunition. She said if the government would only give them more well water, things would be different.

But Lomukuny said her clan has to take its chances and cross the border.

“I don’t care if I lose a child, or my husband, it is a desperate state now,” she said. “We have to go.”

She looked a reporter straight in the eye.

“If you want to help me,” the grandmother said with immense dignity. “Give me a gun.”