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Kenyan Tribes Battle for Shrinking Resources

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Kenyan Tribes Battle for Shrinking Resources

Kenyan Tribes Battle for Shrinking Resources

Kenyan Tribes Battle for Shrinking Resources

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

An armed Turkana guards livestock. Dwindling water and livestock resources have fueled an increase in raids. Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

The mountains in West Pokot lie in a semi-arid region. The Pokots live just south of Turkana. Yann Arthus-Bertrand/CORBIS hide caption

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Yann Arthus-Bertrand/CORBIS

As the climate dries and herds shrink, more Turkana are turning to camels, which can go two weeks without water. Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Kenya's Turkana people and their southern neighbors, the Pokot, have been feuding for generations, raiding cattle and killing each other, but a spate of droughts in recent decades is exacerbating an age-old animosity.

The city of Lodwar is a sun-fried, dusty snatch of ground in central Turkana, one of the battlegrounds on which the feud between the Turkana and Pokots plays out. The matter is livestock — cattle, camels, goats and sheep — the livelihood of these pastoralists.

The Turkanas and the Pokots are highly skilled at livestock raiding, snatching from each other's herds for bragging rights, for wealth and often, for revenge. Their feuding predates the Old West in the United States and perhaps even predates the U.S. itself.

But Eris Lothike, who heads the Oxfam UK office in Lodwar, says that the groups are becoming better and better at killing each other.

"We are talking about hundreds of armed people attacking villages and chasing everyone away and killing them — those who resist mainly. Raids, which can involve a thousand men. Armed men, raiding a place," Lothike says.

Nearly every pastoralist has a story like this to tell, and in Turkana that means nearly half a million men, women and children. The Pokot are fewer in number, but are considered by the Turkana and other ethnic groups here to be the more aggressive cattle rustlers. They live just south of Turkana in the emerald green hills around Turkwel Gorge, a place so stunning, that to the naked eye it might resemble Eden.

But Rosalind Hibakoo-oh, a Pokot pastoralist and the mother of four, says that Pokots are not the only aggressors.

"Our problem is that I'm seeing that our counterparts, the Turkana — they are coming to kill us, even us, looking for food," she says.

'We Have Two Enemies'

John Achuka is a Turkana elder in the town of Lokchar. The town's scouts have told them to prepare for a Pokot raid that could erupt any day now, and Achuka does not take the news lightly: His brother died earlier this month when the Pokots raided their goat herd and reportedly made off with 400 goats. Achuka says he does not personally raid the Pokots, but he shakes the hands of the Turkanas who do.

"To us, we have two enemies. We have the drought and the Pokots. When there is good rain, we are raided. When there is no good weather we have the drought," Achuka says.

On his assessment hangs the tale of an even bigger drama unfolding in this part of Kenya. The climate is changing — and not for the better. Turkana is mostly semi-arid to arid territory, and increasingly, there's more dust than grass. The Pokots are better placed, but even they suffer. Drought and the unpredictability of rain over the years have made paupers of them all.

In times of weather emergency, the Arid Lands Resource Management Project sounds the alarm to the rest of Kenya.

"An emergency is a drought that has deteriorated into famine. There is widespread livestock death. Then people start dying," says Geoffrey Eyanae Kaituko, head of the project.

Weather emergencies have been happening more frequently. Kaituko says the area experienced a serious drought in 1999.

"The pictures were shocking. Most people in this country who come from other parts of Kenya could not believe we were sharing the same country with them," he recalls.

A Hard Life Gets Harder

The area is coming out of yet another drought right now. Rainfall well above normal over the past several months has resulted in unprecedented flooding. Villagers say that rain comes when they don't expect it. This year, they expected it to come in April, but instead, the rain fell heavily in June.

But for pastoralists traveling on foot, lead time is essential. They need predictable weather in order to position their animals where they need to be. When there is less rain, the Pokot are forced to look elsewhere for grass – in Turkana.

Custom dictates that pastoralists must ask one another for permission to share water or green space, but sometimes they muscle in uninvited, armed with spears, fingers knives and bows and arrows. Disarmament programs have largely failed, and unrelated conflicts in Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda have also resulted in the proliferation of small arms and AK-47s.

Now raids happen almost daily, and the dead are left where they have fallen, for the wild animals to eat.

John Mark Edaan is a Turkana who heads a not-for-profit organization that brokers peace between Turkana pastoralists and their neighbors.

"The life of a nomadic pastoralist is the hardest, the harshest and the most ridiculous thing that ever walked on this planet. You have basically no roof over your head. You have no limit to the ground distance you can cover. Tomorrow is not assured because of the insecurity," Edaan says.

Coping with Drought

Livestock is a pastoralist's only source of wealth, but climate change has had morbid effects on the animals here. Drought is believed to have promoted diseases that few understand and even fewer can treat.

Lodwar's police are trying to solve the mysterious death of 500 goats found in May after a night of rain.

Kaituko of the Arid Lands Project believes the explanation is simple – the goats are weak.

"After a long drought spell, the animals become very weak because they feed on nothing, they are basically starving. And then it rains and they are left in the open. And it rains all night. How do you expect a weak goat to survive until morning?" Kaituko says.

As the region continues to dry out and herds continue to shrink, more people are turning to camels, which can go two weeks without water and give milk for three years. But even so, camels do not hold the same allure in this region where song and verse are devoted to the bull.

More and more pastoralists are also learning about irrigation, growing gardens and sending their kids to school, if only for the promise of their children getting a free meal.

The young and educated in this part of the world, however, still need livestock to get married. The price of a bride includes camels, cows, goats, and sometimes donkeys, too, and men must acquire these animals somehow.

Until the last animal disappears from the horizon, the raids will most likely continue.

"The Turkana, the Pokots — their coping mechanisms I think are still very low," climatologist Peter Omeny observes. "So when it is too dry, the best they can do is to struggle and to fight over the little resources."