Under the shade of a sprawling acacia tree — encircled by a small crowd of elders and local leaders — the man stands, speaking passionately about his people and the situation they find themselves in these days. He is small-boned, with the short nose and delicate features characteristic of the Ik people. Around this part of northern Uganda, they are known as the “Mountain People,” a somewhat mysticized tribe of only a few thousand people and dwindling.
His audience listens intently, with more than an occasional enthusiastic exclamation of agreeance — a shout, a whoop, a clap and an exclamation that I equate to an “Amen brother!” if its fair to translate to English based on body language (I’m not so fluent in Ikien, okay?).
What got these people so riled up? I’m proud to say it was us, Mercy Corps, whose peace-building team traveled to the isolated village of Kamion that day to introduce our new cross-border program called Alternatives to Conflict in Karamoja and Turkana. Armed with sodas and a mobile stage (literally. a stage that folds out on top of a vehicle aptly dubbed the “Peace Van”), the Mercy Corps team gathered influential people of the community together to explain the new program and allow the community to discuss their thoughts. And discuss they did.
Overlooking the Rift Valley, Kamion lies in the hills of far northeastern Uganda, with the Sudanese border to the north and Kenya to the east. Part of the notorious region called Karamoja, the Ik claim they are caught in the middle of conflict between two semi-nomadic warrior tribes: the Dodoth of Uganda and the Turkana of Kenya. One weathered man in the circle takes his turn to speak.
“We are calling for peace. We want to become teachers of peace to these other communities, our neighbors who are troubling us innocent people," he explains. "We are not cattle keepers. We are just victims of the way. Our food in the gardens has become a feeding center for raiders. Right now, our gardens are not safe for us to go. They steal our chickens we want to survive on.”
The Ik, traditionally hunter-gatherers whose “hunting” aspect diminished in the 1960s once their land was declared a National Park, struggle daily with hunger, disease and insecurity. They are not alone in this plight, as the whole of the semi-arid Karamoja region is vulnerable to cyclic drought and flooding, illiteracy and lack of infrastructure. The armed conflict doesn’t help either.
Armed conflict? What’s that about? Well, let me tell you — it’s all about the cattle. Cattle equal livelihood. Cattle are a symbol of wealth. Cattle are the means of bride price.
Livestock is indeed life. Livestock need land to graze. With all your neighbors being semi-nomadic, with no differentiation between who owns what, it isn’t unexpected for age-old conflicts to exist. And when you find yourself in love and in need of 100 cattle to appease the lucky girl’s family, what do you do? Well, you steal them from the neighboring tribes, of course.
I suspect that cattle raiding has long been a part of the culture here. The Karamojong (the collective term for several tribes existing in northeast Uganda) are well known for their ‘warrior’ skills. Even the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army feared entering this region. With the availability of small arms (AK-47s), cattle raiding has taken on a whole new dimension. Whether you are an offender or a defender, you should have a weapon. Not uncommonly, even the 10-year-old boy whose family has decided it is more important for him to tend to the livestock than go to school may be a warrior with a gun. No shoes, mind you, maybe not even pants — but he’s got his semi-automatic.
Back to our Ik council under the tree: one high-tempered woman raises an issue of the uncertainty of their lives because the raids between the Dodoth and Turkana have made them vulnerable. As these tribes pass through their community, they may kill them and steal their food.
“When children are sent to fetch water or firewood, they are killed and women are being raped and undressed,” she yells, arms flailing. “We wish our children to go to school to become big and responsible people in the community. Peace should be achieved for everyone to move freely.”
She sits back down and nods her head, “I have lost my life,” she says defeatedly, the passion and fire suddenly gone from her voice. As hard as I try to fight it, I cannot keep the tears from swelling up in my eyes.
And this is exactly why the Alternatives to Conflict in Karamoja and Turkana (ACKT) program was formed. But Mercy Corps cannot single-handedly achieve peace. The lifeblood of the program is in the communities themselves making a commitment to work together.
ACKT’s purpose is to advocate and mobilize them to find much-needed projects to work on together in order to build trust, realize shared values and reach a common goal together. Lobolia David, the sub-county chief, steps in to help our cause, requesting full participation from his people. He is already full of ideas, wishing to construct a water point and better road across the border to Kenya. He thanks Mercy Corps for coming up with the plan of involving the community, most especially the Ik, who had been left out of most peacebuilding talks.
And now, it is time for my confession. As a health intern, I have nothing to do with the ACKT program. I had tagged along for the day out of a purely selfish desire to see Kamion and the escarpment overlooking Kenya. But I found myself supremely inspired.
Peace is the fundamental component of any development program. Public health is intrinsically tied to peace, because without stability, how can we achieve any kind of sustainability? How can we expect people to eat their vegetables when they fear going to their gardens? Sitting under that tree, listening to their plights, I came to realize the enormity of factors that play a role in a healthy community. All our programs — agriculture, sanitation, peace and health — are linked together like a puzzle to make a complete picture. The goal for the health program is dependant on the peace program’s success, and so I thus justified my visit to Kamion.
After heavy discussion, it was time for some fun, a personally much-needed respite. Two Karamojong musicians danced and sang atop the Peace Van in the center of town. One by one and two by two, people trickled in from their hidden homes in the hills, curious as to the commotion. By the end of the day, we had about 300 people dancing and celebrating messages of peace.
“An Ik was born with peace,” Lomogin Thomas, an elder of the community said. “Even from our mother’s womb we’re peaceful. Whatever we have discussed today under this tree should be implemented."
"You have my full support,” he concluded. Well now, that’s just what we were hoping to hear.