Eyewitness: Kenya's Valley of Hope

From a distance, the Kerio Valley looks, quite simply, like paradise. The road from Eldoret, the nearest city, winds through the fertile highland farms of the Cherangani Hills before plunging 3,000 metres down the vast Elgeyo escarpment to the wooded valley floor below.

But up close, it is a fractured and traumatised region.

For decades now, farmers of the Marakwet farming community and their semi-nomadic cattle-herding neighbours, the Pokot, have effectively been at war over the valley's scarce resources, particularly water.

A generation ago, such clashes were fought with bows and arrows. But the proliferation of small arms since the mid-1990s has made a whole new terror widely available - the AK-47 assault rifle.

It is the type of brutal forgotten conflict that is repeated across sub-Saharan Africa. In the Kerio Valley, however, a series of ambitious projects have given the two communities hope that they may be able to share their future together.

 Intervention  

    

Backed by its mandate under the Geneva Conventions to assist the victims of armed conflict, the ICRC first began work here in 1998 with an emergency distribution of basic aid to some 14,000 people.

It may not have been a full-scale civil war, but the level of violence was such that locals nicknamed the road running between Pokot and Marakwet areas'Kosovo'.

" This was one of the most violent areas in Kenya, " said V incent Nicod, head of the ICRC's regional delegation in Nairobi.

He explained that after the ICRC provided the initial emergency response, an agreement was struck in 1999 with the American Red Cross to collaborate on a series of longer-term projects.

With the active participation of both communities, some 65km of roads have been built, more than 70 wells have been dug and some 40 schools have been rebuilt. A health centre is also now in operation.

And while conflict resolution was not an official aim, the projects have had a dramatic effect.

" By keeping everybody busy, it had an incredibly quick effect on the level of conflict, " Mr Nicod said.

The total number of deaths in the fighting is unknown, but the number of clashes has dropped radically - the last fatality was in August - and a new optimism pervades the area.

 Access to health  

    

" You know, these people are very happy, " says Rev William Lopeta, the Lutheran pastor in Annet, a Pokot village perched on the escarpment, where the ICRC has rebuilt the primary school and provided access to clean water.

" The Red Cross has really lifted this area, " he said.

Families became closely involved in the school reconstruction, providing one rock per pupil for the reconstruction of the buildings, as well as sand, gravel and labour.

Hundreds of villagers also took part in the construction of a remarkable road, which under American Red Cross supervision, was carved 1,000 metres past Annet up the escarpment.

In the absence of heavy digging equipment, workers laid fires overnight around the bigger boulders, which were then cracked open by pouring cold water over them. Another similar road was built in the nearby Marakwet area.

Both roads then allowed Ministry of Health officials to access the areas to conduct vaccinations, the Ministry of Agriculture launched training programmes, trucks were able to take produce to market, and materials for the school reconstructions could be brought in.

 Joyous ceremony  

    

It appears the thirst for learning was almost too much to bear for the children.

" As soon as there was a roof, even before the last coat of paint was put on, the classrooms were full, " said Jean Vergain, the head of the ICRC's Nairobi-based Regional Water and Habitat department.

Workers had to chase pupils out so the buildings could be finished, he said, as a ceremony to inaugurate eight schools in the area got under way.

Hundreds of Pokot villagers, as well as local chiefs, elders and administrators, had converged on Annet for the ceremony, which included songs from the school choirs and traditional dancing.

As the coloured ribbon was cut outside the main school office, what had started as a slow rhythmic clapping from the crowd erupted into a joyous cacophony of singing, whistling and bursting of balloons.

There were moments of sadness as villagers remembered the American Red Cross engineer, Alfred Petters, who was killed in a car crash in February. Alfred, who had devoted his life to the Kerio Valley since the project was launched, was widely loved by both communities, and will be sorely missed.

Amid the celebrations, tensions can still run high in the Kerio Valley. Marakwet farm ers still flee their lowland farms each evening for the relative safety of hide-outs further up the escarpment. But they too have received extensive support from the ICRC and are said by Red Cross officials to welcome the Pokot projects.

Both sides agree that education is by far the most powerful weapon against tribal hatreds. Whatever uncertainties the future may hold, the message from the Annet primary school choir was clear:

" The time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make a friend, " they sang.

 Mark Snelling   is the ICRC Regional Information Delegate based in Nairobi  

    

    

 At a glance: Red Cross activities in the Kerio Valley since 1999  

    

  • 74 wells dug by hand

  • 10 rainwater tanks built

  • Four gravity-fed water systems built

  • 1,100 household latrines built

  • 19 dams desilted

  • 40 schools rehabilitated

  • 20 schools supplied with stationery

  • Three-month school meal programme for 5,000 children

  • 65 kms of roads constructed