Africa's Belt of Misery
Religion and Climate Change Fuel Chaos in SahelBy Horand Knaup
Religious conflicts play only a minor role some 2,600 kilometers farther east on Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake lying on the Kenyan-Ethiopian border. The people here are fighting for their daily survival. The pastoral tribes in the region are trying to stop the desertification of their environment as they struggle with frequent droughts and cattle thieves.
Todonyang is on the western shore of the lake, in view of the Ethiopian border. It is a small village with a large Catholic mission -- and one that faces an almost impossible task.
Father Steven Ochieng's goal is to foster peace, provide a small amount of education and help the sick. It is evening, the temperature is still 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), and the lively priest is explaining the situation in the conference room of his office.
The Turkana and the Daasanach people have been living side by side in the region for centuries, the former in Kenya and the latter in Ethiopia. Relations have not always been good, but the two groups had learned to live with each other. The Turkana buy from the Daasanach, and there is intermarriage. When someone is sick on the Ethiopian side -- where the children still walk around naked and the women are bare-breasted in public -- the priest brings medication. Minor rivalries and cattle theft are part of traditional life on Lake Turkana, but the situation spun out of control some time ago.
Perhaps owing to the many periods of drought, water levels have been falling and the fertile river delta at the northern end of the lake has been shifting in the direction of Kenya. Of course, the violence can also be attributed to the weapons that both governments have distributed to their respective ethnic groups. "They used to have spears," Ochieng says. "Now they have Kalashnikovs."
Last May, Ethiopian Daasanach tribesmen massacred a group of Turkana people. The latter were on their way home after shopping in the Daasanach area when they were attacked near the lake, apparently without provocation. Twenty-three Turkana were killed. "We were able to save 46 others," Ochieng says. Likewise, in August, 14 Turkana women were shot to death when they went to the lake to fetch water. Afterwards, the Daasanach celebrated the massacre with a festival.
However, this doesn't mean that the Turkana are any more peaceful. Joseph Arbanish, 24, is a shy young Daasanach man from the Ethiopian side whom Ochieng helped complete his schooling. He attempts to explain the explosion of violence. "This is how we see it," he says. "The Turkana have a church, they have education and they get food aid. We have none of that." Then he adds: "As a Daasanach, you must kill a person -- only then are you accepted as a man."
Abandoned by Change
The situation on Lake Turkana is symptomatic for the region along the Sahel belt as a whole. The shooting, bombing and killing is rampant wherever there is no education and no jobs, and wherever there is a perpetual, self-reinforcing cycle of poverty, hunger and desperation. The central governments have essentially abandoned these regions, leaving the marginalized to fend for themselves. There is no development, and education and enlightenment never arrived in the first place. There is talk of democracy, and yet the people have no real voice.
Indeed, the same problems facing northern can also be found in Somalia and the impoverished southern part of Sudan. But now the neglected are fighting back. They sense that they have been cut off from the progress taking place elsewhere in the world. "It's 23 kilometers from my mission to the nearest school," Ochieng says. There are no schools at all on the Ethiopian side, in a region that is even more neglected by the central government in Addis Ababa.
The nomads in the region are especially disadvantaged. They are traditionally uneducated, live off their animals and follow the rain and greening pastures. Over the centuries, they have learned to adapt to dry conditions, and they have always been the masters of the arid zones. But now the nomads are confronting the limits of their way of life. They have not benefited from change in the region.
German veterinarian Willi Dühnen, 56, has been working in eastern Africa for more than 12 years, in Somalia, Kenya, southern Sudan and Ethiopia. Few others know as much about the hardships of the nomads. "The sedentary farmers are farming larger plots of land, the population has grown and the herds have also increased in size," Dühnen says. "Today there are cities and fenced-in farms where the traditional herding routes used to be." Now the nomads constantly run up against barriers where they once had unfettered access to watering holes and green pastures. Conflicts are inevitable.
"The nomads are impoverished when compared with the farmers," Dühnen says. "The farmers have benefited from technical advances, but the nomads haven't." To illustrate his point, he says that while a farmer can live well from 10 dairy cows, having the same amount of cattle -- which produce little meat and milk -- spells poverty for the nomads.
Climate change also poses a threat. The rainy periods have become shorter and the dry periods longer. The nomads can no longer adjust to the changes quickly enough. According to Dühnen, it takes four years for a herd to recover from a drought. This makes it all the more difficult to survive in places like the Horn of Africa, which is now afflicted by a dry period every two or three years. This also leads to conflicts. The nomads are forced to move their herds earlier than usual, which means that instead of taking them across fields where the harvest has already been brought in, they sometimes walk across and trample still-unharvested crops.
More Weapons, More Blood
Still, the biggest curse throughout the entire region is the flood of weapons. Half the continent seems to be armed with guns, and the Russian-made AK-47s is the weapon of choice. Self-proclaimed village protectors armed with the reliable assault rifles are setting up roadblocks in Nigeria. Fishermen on Lake Turkana get into their boats with the rifles slung across their shoulders, allegedly for self-protection and, in the Nuba Mountains, the cattle herders carry AK-47s as they drive their herds to pasture.
The weapons are relics of more than 20 years of civil war in Somalia and Sudan. In Kenya and Ethiopia, it was the governments that supplied their nomads with weapons. Farther west in the Sahara regions of Mali and Niger, which are teeming with human traffickers and smugglers of drugs and weapons, it's practically a given to see AK-47s dangling from men's shoulders. Programs to disarm the population have failed almost everywhere -- in Sudan, Kenya, southern Sudan and northeastern Congo. And since there are more weapons than ever before, the conflicts are bloodier than ever.
There will be more victims. And there seems to be no solution in sight. The UN is issuing warnings about new waves of refugees in Sudan, Mali and Niger. The next food crises are already looming in war-torn Somalia, northern Kenya, southern Sudan and the entire western Sahel.
Nevertheless, Father Steven Ochieng plans to persevere on Lake Turkana, even though he senses that "we are about to face tough times" now that less rain is falling and the conflicts over water and pastureland are becoming even more brutal.
In the morning, he encountered an elementary school student shouldering an AK-47. "It doesn't look good," Ochieng says. "Things only seem to be getting worse in this part of the world."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan