"The topic of violence among pastoralists in Northern Kenya has been of great concern to me as a Kenyan and anthropologist"

February 14, 2017.  

Interview with Dr. Willis Okumu from Kenya who conducted and completed his doctoral research at ZEF (January 2017). His research was funded by DAAD and the Right Livelihood Campus at ZEF.

What was your research topic and were your main research questions?
I started my PhD at ZEF in October 2010. My research dealt with violence among pastoralist groups in Northern Kenya. The study sought to add to the anthropological conceptualization of violence, by looking into ways how local Turkana and Samburu communities use violence to gain power at both the individual and collective levels. Furthermore, my study sought to understand the role of violence as a tool for boundary demarcation in a historically contested area such as Baragoi. The study therefore aimed at establishing the history of violence among the Samburu and Turkana of Baragoi. It further sought to comprehend how particular culture assigns specific locations and spaces such as grazing lands as avenues for socialization and practice of violent behavior among warrior-age groups. I also wanted to understand how and why traditional conflicts such as cattle raids increasingly have turned into massacres in recent times. Finally, I wanted to identify the key actors in violence among the Samburu and Turkana of Baragoi.

You have been conducting research over the past years on violent conflicts in remote areas in Northern Kenya among marginalized nomadic groups. Why did you choose this topic for your doctoral thesis?

I chose this topic because violence among pastoralists in Northern Kenya and, actually, in the larger Eastern Africa region has been an issue of great concern to me as a Kenyan and as an anthropologist. Having worked in Northern Kenya since 2010, I have seen many peace initiatives. Some were led by civil society and others by the government. What is common in these initiatives is that they never bring sustainable peace. As a researcher, I wanted to understand why peacebuilding initiatives have not been successful in many areas of Northern Kenya. I felt that violence has been beneficial to some groups of people. I felt that a better understanding of the changing meanings, purposes and parameters of violence could be useful in designing new peacebuilding measures to effectively re-engage communities in Northern Kenya.

Would you tell us something about the probably very adventurous circumstances of your field research?  What was your most striking experience?
One day I was interviewing the head of local police in his office in Baragoi when he was called via radio call and informed that Samburu warriors were targeting the local bus, which was owned by a Turkana businessman. The information was that if the police did not travel all the way to Morijo (a distance of 80km) to meet the bus and escort it back to Baragoi, then there were high chances that the bus would be ambushed and all the passengers killed. On receiving the information, the police chief asked me if I wanted to accompany them. I had like just a half a minute to make a very bold decision. He called his officers and asked them to wear bullet proof vests and jump on the police van. I made a decision to go with them, it was a scary journey.  We didn’t know if we could be ambushed on the road. As I sat with the police officers at the back of the van, they told me about their own experiences, the number of colleagues they had lost in various incidences of confrontations between the police and local herders. They discussed their own challenges in dealing with violence among pastoralists, how unequipped and under-staffed they were. We reached Morijo without any incident and met the bus parked by the road side. They were waiting for us. You could see the fear in the eyes of the passengers. It dawned on me that while Kenyans from ‘down Kenya’ took for granted simple things like going to the market, in Northern Kenya insecurity has made it extremely difficult for people to have access to basic services. The use or threat of violence has contributed in a big way to restricting people’s ability to move and trade across communities.

How difficult was it to build trust so you could get access to relevant information?
To build trust was a big challenge. Security is a very sensitive issue and people were not very open at the beginning. As a stranger in Baragoi, many people thought that I was a government spy. I entered the field as a volunteer of the Catholic Diocese of Maralal because the Catholic Church has been providing social services to locals since the early 1950s. Through the church, I was able to establish contacts among chiefs who later introduced me to their villages. After that, I was able to collect data mostly among men. Still while collecting data among the communities, I was not entirely trusted. When I had a Focused Group Discussion with the Turkana and I wanted to do the same to the Samburu, I often faced accusations of ‘selling communal secrets’. In other words, due to the mistrust between the two groups, it took a while for the communities to understand my role as a researcher. Building trust among security personnel was equally hard; it took me about four months to interview my first respondent from the security personnel.

What was the main outcome of your research? What will happen to your result in terms of policy advice or recommendations?
My study puts a new perspective on the role of the so-called new elites especially at the County levels and how these new elites use state resources to mobilize pastoralist groups for violence, just to attain a political gain. It shows that even though devolution as a concept has helped in redistributing state resources at the local levels, it has also contributed inadvertently to more violence as competition for power and other resources has increased. The study further points out the role of the state as a central actor in violence among pastoralists through the Kenya Police Reservists. Whereas past studies have focused on non-state actors as the main source of illegal weapons in Northern Kenya, this study shows that the government of Kenya has been actively distributing arms and ammunition to local communities since 1980. Thirdly, the study shows that culture is continually being used as a basis for organizing political violence. The use of culture can be seen in the role of age-sets and how these groups are mobilized for political violence among the Samburu and Turkana of Baragoi. Lastly, the study shows the role of violence in expanding the parameters of social institutions. For instance, increased violence among the Samburu and Turkana since 1996 has led to a more stringent interpretation of women’s identities, thus leading to an increased targeting of women during violence unlike in the past where women were often protected from attacks. This study is therefore vital in understanding the role of local politics especially in the newly devolved units and that of political competition among communities and how it is carried out in a very lethal way among pastoralist groups. Political leaders in Northern Kenya subscribe to ‘politics of protection’. Meaning that people who campaign for political office do not do this on the basis of striving for serving the community per sé but rather have an ethno-nationalistic platform to protect their community against its ‘traditional enemies’. The increasing number massacres in recent times have been politically organized - mostly to disenfranchise communities from events such as voter registration or voting itself. Violence is thus seen as a means of capturing and preserving political power.

What are your plans for the future?
I am heading back to Kenya to start my work as a Researcher and a Coordinator of the Peacebuilding Intervention Project at the Anglican Development Services (ADS). This is a three- year project funded by Brot für die Welt aiming at establishing local peacebuilding mechanisms in several conflict hotspots in Kenya. Having worked with communities across Kenya since 2007, I believe my experience and expertise will contribute to a better comprehension of these conflicts so that we can work with communities towards peacebuilding. I intend to continue to work and partner with research institutions and universities in Kenya to further my work as an ethnographer.

Which advantages did it bring to you to do your doctoral research in the context of ZEF’s doctoral studies program?
ZEF’s doctoral program is unique, the interdisciplinary and the disciplinary courses offer a sound base for the students to build their work on. The tutorship at ZEF is also very helpful right from the time one is preparing a final proposal and throughout the data collection and writing stages. So I benefited from the support I received from ZEF. The ZEF program is well organized and helps students to finish their work within a good time. Through ZEF I was also able to travel to conferences and share ideas with colleagues from across the globe.

How did you benefit from being a member of the Right Livelihood Campus?
The RLC provided my PhD scholarship, so it was perhaps the biggest contributor to my success here. My work with communities also mirrors the work that the Laurates of the Right Livelihood Award have been doing since 1980. In Kenya my work is much closer to that of Dekha Ibrahim Abdi who led many peacebuilding initiatives among pastoralists in Northern Kenya. The Wangari Maathai Institute of Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi also mirrors the work of Prof. Maathai an RLA Laureate of 1984 who inspired our generation by bridging the gap between science and practice through working with local communities to seek sustainable solutions. As a member of the RLC, I benefited from the many training sessions they held and the logistical support that was offered to me from the office of the RLC Coordinator.

My PhD was supervised by Prof. Dr. Michael Bollig, Professor of Social Anthropology from the University of Cologne and a notable expert on pastoralism in East and Southern Africa. I have worked with him since 2010. At ZEFa, I was tutored by Dr. Papa Sow.

My study was funded by a scholarship from the RLC/DAAD. Additional funding for my field research was obtained from Foundation Fiat Panis. I sincerely thank the RLC, DAAD, Foundation Fiat Panis and colleagues at ZEF for the time and ideas we shared during my time in Germany.


The interview was conducted by Alma van der Veen



Dr. Till Stellmacher