The police came by day and the militia by night

The conflict in western Kenya 15 years ago attracted very little international attention, but the civilian population, and especially women such as Mercy, are still suffering from its consequences to this day. The Fastenopfer (Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund) program in Kenya operates in this region, supporting a number of partner organizations and empowering women.

The story of Mercy Chebet* is just one of many. Lots of women in the Development Education Services for Community Empowerment (DESECE) organization could tell of similarly tragic experiences.

Mercy lives in Kenya and belongs to the Sabaot ethnic group: “I am 47 years old and my name is Mercy Chebet. I live in western Kenya with my eight children. I am a widow.” Her predecessors were dispossessed by the British colonial government in the 1920s and 30s so that the fertile agricultural land could be given to white farmers. The Sabaot were resettled in the foothills of Mount Elgon, where they came up against other ethnic groups living in higher regions. When Kenya became independent, a wildlife reserve was established in the region, without the involvement of local communities. The availability of land, already in short supply, became even more restricted. Because the Sabaot felt that they had been disadvantaged by the government when their land was repeatedly redistributed and they were forced to resettle, they founded the Sabaot Land Defense Force (SLDF), an ethnic militia.

In 2005, the conflict flared up out of control and the civilian population – including Mercy’s family – was caught between the fronts. The militia came to her village in the night, demanding food, drink, money, and fighters – that is to say, young men, people’s sons. By day, the police and the army came, seeking information about the SLDF. Both parties in the conflict punished the local population if they did not get what they wanted. This is how Mercy describes that difficult time: “During the clashes in 2005 that continued to afflict the Mount Elgon area for about three years, many people in the Sabaot militia (SLDF) were driven out or killed. A few put up some resistance and defended themselves. My husband was one of those; he was killed in 2007. Our land and our animals were stolen from us and our house was burnt down. When the conflict spread over the whole Mount Elgon region, I took my children and fled. That’s when my life changed completely.”

The open conflict continued from 2005 until the SLDF was defeated in 2008. Throughout the whole conflict, the government seemed to be mainly concerned with its own interests. According to human rights organizations, in just one operation conducted by the Kenyan army – “Operation Okoa Maisha” (which euphemistically translates as ‘Operation Lifesaver’) – up to 1,000 people were tortured. However, even after the conflict was resolved, the lives of the survivors were hard, says Mercy: “When the Kenyan army carried out ‘Operation Okoa Maisha’, the Sabaot militia was defeated and forced to flee into the woods. I myself went back home, but I had to start a new life. I had lost my husband and everything else as well. In order to survive and feed my children, I took on occasional work, called “Kibarua” (Swahili for “casual paid work/day laboring”). The church helped me with food and clothing, but it was not enough. My life went in a different direction, and I miss my previous life.”

Like many women in this region, Mercy lost her husband because of the conflict. Today, the widows in western Kenya still find themselves in very difficult circumstances: often they are obliged by their dead husband’s family to marry again, and they suffer mental and physical consequences such as violence at the hands of their new family, or sexual attacks. They have no claim to land or any other part of their husband’s legacy. Even though the Kenyan constitution does give them those rights, traditional values prevent them from being implemented at the local level. It is no surprise that many women like Mercy talk about having performed “necessary work” to get by. By this, they may well mean selling their body.

This is why it is all the more important for Fastenopfer to put the empowerment of women front and center in its projects. Especially in conflict regions like the one described here, establishing stable group structures and strengthening forgotten values such as solidarity and trust are essential for carrying out grassroots work. The 15 solidarity groups that are active in 2020 – 75% of whose members are women – are setting up community projects on the land and are being trained in eco-friendly farming methods, so that, even though resources are limited, agriculture can offer them a future again. At the same time, the project is also engaged in peace work, because conflict over resources can – as Mercy’s story powerfully shows – very quickly destroy everything again.

*Name changed