On the Footsteps of Marsabit Peacemakers

I am in Marsabit, Kenya’s northern county – a land of camels, mountains, elephants, deserts and diverse people. It is the home of Ahmed – the greatest elephant that ever walked on earth and the only one in history to have been protected by a presidential decree until its death. It is the home of Lake Paradise, possibly the most breathtaking place you will ever see.

I am not here to chase mountains but rather in search of peacemakers. Marsabit is beautiful but also a troubled land. Its people have been fighting for the last six months – lives have been lost and property damaged.

Mediators huddle together for a quick brief before a peace meeting.

For days in the last three months, I watched my friend Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan post depressing messages on social media – calling for peace among her people. She is the head of, Horn of Africa Development Initiative (HODI), an organization that uses soccer to create peaceful co-existence among various communities.

Fatuma’s posts were heartbreaking and in the process informed me that they have formed an interfaith team that will go around dangerous places to mediate peace. I got curious. What does it take to make peace when lives have been lost? What kind of people would put their lives on the firing line in search of peace?

So, I drove 550K from Nairobi to meet the Marsabit peacemakers also called Interfaith Mediation Team.

We left Marsabit town in the morning towards the conflict zone. In my company was Fatuma, two priests (Anglican and Catholic), a Sheikh, an ex-politician, a teacher, NGO and government officials. We headed east, dropping from the mountain height towards arid land. The mood was jovial – the group made jokes about their faiths, families and trivial things. They also reviewed the outcome of a meeting they had in a different village yesterday – it did not go well but no life was lost. They called that a win.

Mediators convincing Borana elders to attend a peace meeting with the Gabra.

Today, the aim is to negotiate a ceasefire between two villages – Jaldesa and Shurr villages

The road is rough and rocky and this was the first time that any vehicle has plied here in 90 days. On arrival at Jaldessa, men with guns accompanied by elders and their chief surrounded us. The armed men are called KPR and armed by the government to protect their villages. Some were very angry at our presence. To make things worse, the peacemakers wanted their elders to accompany them to Shurr village for a peace meeting.

This will not happen! They said. They are not willing to walk into the lion’s den. There was a melee. I could see anger, pain and genuine fear in their eyes. Someone’s father and husband was killed here. Inside a pump house where they draw water, I was shown bullet marks on the generator, an effort by their rivals to destroy their only source of water.

After almost an hour of tantrums, several elders and the chief agreed to go to Shurr. As we were about to leave, one elder walked away from the group – no, he was not going to give his life to the enemy.

The drive to Shurr was not long, may be 15kms but the tension in the vehicle smelled of a war zone. No one knows what waits ahead. A few peacemakers have already received calls warning them not go. Chances of a bloody ambush were real.

Shurr is stunning village – about 300 dorm shaped colourful houses surrounded by large umbrella-shaped tortilis tees. Our arrival was shrouded with palpable tension. Elders and young men under a tree even though they knew of our coming, were not welcoming. They had knives and guns. One commented while servicing his weapon and said “this gun should do a good job today,”

A mediation meeting under a tree in Shurr between Borana an.d Gabra people

We were directed to a place for lunch. There was immediate relief. Provision of a meal is a very good sign – they are willing to talk.

I heard from mediators that Shurr was not just attacked but bombed! Several people died but the numbers are dodgy depending on the source.

The negotiations started under a massive tree – cold shed. Only few elders (men and women) joined us with all the furious young men staying away.

There were long-winded speeches from sides. There was talk about how some of the elders have been friends before the conflict – they had visitations, friendships and intermarriages.

I heard about the source of the conflict – boundaries over land, access to water sources and grazing rights. I heard about politics too – that local politicians are fuelling the conflict by buying guns and grenades for their respective tribes.

The armed youths trickled in – mostly on motorcycles and sat at a distance, observing the process. None uttered a word.

The mediation team pressed both sides for a ceasefire and after about four hours, I started to see a relaxed mood and at the end, they agreed to talk further. A meeting was set for the following day at Jaldesa. Hope is in the air.

Peacemaking is not for the fainthearted.

The meeting ended with prayer – no one was smiling but the elders from both villages hugged one another. This was good enough for the mediators. Peacemaking is a process.

We drove out as the sun painted the sky orange on the horizon of Mt. Marsabit. The mediators were tired but satisfied by the outcome. A joke went round about how much water they drunk but no one went to the toilet.

We arrived at Jaldesa and were received by an anxious community – glad to have their elders back in one piece. They could not believe that they were not hurt. The mediators briefed them on the outcome and requested that they prepare to host the mediation meeting the next day.

The drive back to Marsabit was one of emotions and relief. Father Racho skilfully paced the Landcruiser through the bends towards the mountain. There will be more meetings like this in the coming days and weeks until peace is achieved.

Peacemaking is not for the fainthearted.  May God bless these men and women. 

Good evening Marsabit!

Nairobi to Addis: Day 5- Shashamane & Rastafarians

I usually start my day with prayer – with the face on the mattress, then a reading from The Daily Bread.

Today is my birthday and I asked God to keep walking with me on this journey of self-discovery, to give me another chance to start over with Him – to keep forgiving my belligerence and selfishness.

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Me and Ras Hailu

“Happy Birthday Dad!” came in messages from my son and daughter. I quickly responded that I am actually some years younger according to the Ethiopian calendar.

The driver called in sick – food poisoning. He will see a doctor and come pick me up later.

I spent most of the morning on a boat ride at Lake Hawassa – pleasant views and I really felt guilty enjoying this without my children but again, how would one keep teenagers on the road for long without causing a crisis or war?

The driver arrived after midday and we decided against driving to Addis Ababa but instead tour the nearby town of Shashamane, the home of the Jamaican Rastafarians. We picked a 19-year old fellow who knows Shashamane well to accompany us – a friend to the driver. This will probably be the most eventful part of my travel.

Shashamane is 25KM from Hawassa – a town of 100,000 people. It is here that Rastafarians migrated to from the UK, France, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago etc. – they are descendants of African slaves who were taken away during the tragic trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

During a visit to Jamaica in 1966, Emperor Haile Selassie set aside 500 acres in Shashamane to welcome back descendants of slaves seeking to return home. They did, and many Rastafarian made Shashamane their home and Ethiopia has become their spiritual home and they believe the Haile Selassie was a descendant of King Solomon and the Messiah.

The 400 Rastafarians who live here believe they are fulfilling a prophecy that descendants of slaves will all return to Africa. It is upon this historical background that I was excited to visit Shashamane.

Home of Rastas
12 Tribes of Israel compound

We drove into the town – nothing different from the other Ethiopian towns that I have seen– the usual sea of blue Bajajs (Tuktuks), donkey and horse carts, street coffee places, shops and offices. It is really a crossroads town where major roads connect to different regions. We reached the home of the rastas in the northern side of Shashamane. We pulled onto a gate painted in rasta colours and written “12 Tribes of Israel.”

At first, there was a guard, then, a few young men joined from the street as we conversed about the entry. Within a minute we were surrounded by young guys all asking to be our guide, one had some kind of official tag. Another handed me some magazine about the Rastafarians. Another said he can get me something nice – “good ganja in Shashamane,” he said.

The guard opened the gate and we walked through, several of the young men came through too. I started to worry and told them I need no guide. “I am your guide. I have government papers,” the fellow with the tag said. He was definitely intoxicated with something “nice” and still chewing khat (miraa).

A rastaman approached us from the building – tall, slender and calm man with intense eyes

“Brother, just wait outside the gate, they are my guests now,” he told the “guide”.

“I am their guide,” the guide said.

“You are not our guide,” I intervened. “We don’t need a guide.

Words were exchanged and the young man wanted a fight. We retreated and left the compound and got into the vehicle and started to pull out.

“Sir, pay for the magazine, 200 birr,” I heard as a hand was extended towards me through the window. Ouch! I thought it was free stuff. I handed it back to him. He said I have read it so I should pay. Wow! This is getting interesting. I offered 50 birr. He took it.

We started to drive out while my mind was racing, wondering if this was the end of the Rastafari experience. I was disappointed. While at it, one of the young fellows came to the window.

“Brothers, don’t leave. I can take you to another place. A better place with no crazy people for free,” he said.

“For free? Are you sure?” the driver asked. “Yes, free.” I did not believe him but he has this cheeky smile and twinkling eye. He is definitely street smart and reminded me of my younger self while growing up in the border town of Namanga – hustling, always looking for one deal or another.

“I am sorry for the confusion, people here sometimes smoke too much stuff, too much marijuana,” he said.

He got into the car and guided us onto a dirt street to a compound that boasts as the only “Banana Art Museum” in the world.

He knocked the gate and called out. “Ras, Its Christmas family, they want to see you.”

It took a while until a tall, skinny rastaman opened the gate. He welcomed us with a smile – a soft-spoken man with kind eyes. His name is Ras Hailu Tefari, an immigrant from St. Vincent in the Caribbean islands. He moved here in 1995, took up land, built a home which is also his museum. ‘He has a beautiful place where he grows his own food, lots of herbs like Aloe-Vera and fruit trees.

“I am going nowhere. This is home,” he told me. His artwork is impeccable. He basically uses dry banana leaves to make art instead of painting – an art he taught himself from the age of 10. He believes the skill is a gift from God. I spent about an hour talking to him – going through his collection of many years. Asking about the family he left behind and the one he started in Ethiopia and the challenges that the rastas face in their new home. I found that he can’t travel outside the country because his passport expired and he still does not have Ethiopian citizenship. This is the case for many rastas. They are stuck but the government is still promising to process their citizenship at some point.

Ras Hailu charges $1 for entry to the museum.

I walked out of the museum only find the young men outside – all lit! Puff! Puff! A roll of marijuana was making rounds and another one was being rolled and passed around as a gift for me and the driver.

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Making a roll of ganja – plenty

We drove out for lunch at the Bolt Restaurant. It is managed by a couple from Jamaica. She was happy to see us and showed me photos of her visit to Kenya – so not all rastas are stuck here. The food was great!

We stopped by another compound with a museum and a Tabernacle, they call it – a place of worship. We were welcomed by a calm gentleman – very dark in complexion. I could barely hear what he was saying – he seemed to have had a stroke at some point in life. There are drums in the museum and he explained what the different drum beats mean but generally, they all ended up saying “Do Good.”

It was approaching 5PM and I still felt like giving the 12 Tribes of Israel compound another try, with the hope that the broker-tour guides have left. The place is home to just one section of Rastafarians. There are others like Bobo Ashanti and Nyabinghi and like churches; they too have different rules and regulations.

We drove back to the 12 Tribes compound – the guard was in prayer ((Muslim). We waited till he finished and were ushered in. The crazy “guide “miraculously reappeared and walked with us into the compound.

The same gentlemen who earlier received us came over. He was happy to see us.

“Please remind me which country you come from?” He asked. He later brought me a book which used to learn Kiswahili while in prison in Addis Ababa. He was jailed for smoking marijuana in public in that part of the country. He met a jailed Kenyan bank fraudster who taught him Kiswahili.

As someone who is on a spiritual journey, I learned a lot from the 12 Tribes of Israel rastas. One of their tenets is that they read one chapter of the Bible a day. I have never met kind people like these ones – actually, all the Rastafarians are respectful and have this aura of honour around, like some kind of royalty.

They believe in Jesus and the Bible, so, our differences is that they added Haile Selassie and the smoking of marijuana as their sacrament – the equivalent of bread and wine in Christian communions.

After the tour of the building, we sat around to chat and read the Swahili book – there was a translation of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and we tried to sing it. By now, a lot of people have come into the compound and never in my life seen so many joints of marijuana going round – rather, everyone had their own lit or rolling one.

“This is the red light district for marijuana,” said one of the rastas. “No one can arrest you for smoking it here but you can’t do it outside of this area.”

Did I take a joint? No comment. My teenage son could be reading this.

Did I smoke it? No comment.

Did I inhale it? Well, one could smell marijuana miles away. I think inhaling was not optional.

And with this, I bid bye to Shashamane! I will be back, someday!