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 Ababa: Day 3 – Not Xmas Eve, Food

Day 3: A Day in Yabelo – December 24, 2017

It was an easy day considering that I was not on the road. I planned to relax and read.IMG_20171224_140149

There are quite a number of restaurants and coffee places down the street. I walked out for breakfast at about 10AM. To my surprise, there is nothing that is not meat. So, I bought milk from a shop, which turned out to be from Kenya and bread. I learned that most Ethiopian families here love to make their own bread – they do not have to buy it all the time. I can’t say the same of my own country.

I had some real nyama choma for lunch – they call it Woslam in Oromia. The meat is roasted in a kiln and it comes out really hot and yummy. Happy man!

Today is Christmas Eve and Christmas messages from Kenya started buzzing in but there is no sign of Christmas here. Ethiopia celebrates Christmas in January. This is also not the year 2017 but 2010 according to the Ethiopian Calendar. Am I ten years younger? Whatever makes me happy – Yes!

Nairobi to Addis: Day 2 – Yabelo!

Day 2: Moyale – Yabelo Dec 23, 2017

John Kisimir

I alighted from the bus in Moyale, called my contact who advised that I should make haste and cross to the Ethiopian side because they have power cuts at 10:00AM and that means they will not be doing any immigration work until the afternoon.

Breakfast: Liver and ugali at ZamZam restaurant – Yes, let me make it heavy. As I washed hands at the back of the restaurant, a young Maasai warrior emerged from one of the rooms. I could tell he is Tanzanian by the colour of his shukas and beads. What on earth is one of my own doing 1000KM from home? A little chitchat – he sells honey and its good business. Whatever works for you man – as long as it feeds your kids.

I made my way down to the border post, past yelping money changers, boda boda taxis and did my paperwork – it is a beautiful building with a large parking area for travellers and transit tracks. I could see across the bridge in Ethiopia that they have put up the same facility. Africa is moving forward and traveling is much easier!

My contact/fixer arrived as I walked out of the Kenya immigration and we crossed the bridge towards Ethiopia on his motorcycle. I found a group of Kenyan Christians on a mission to Djibouti lining up at Room 2. The officials were chatty and friendly – a word of Swahili and Amharic here and there between them and the excited young missionaries. My turn came and the passport was quickly stamped and told: “Good luck with Djibouti, sir!”

That was easy! The backpacker just passed for a missionary. I rarely cross African border posts with little drama. As I walked through the gate, the guard blurted “Wapi chai?” I smiled and walked past him and jumped on the motorcycle – I need to change money and find a bus to Yabelo – 200KM away for my first night in Ethiopia. There is no direct bus to Addis Ababa from Moyale but you can take buses that stop at cities like Yabelo, Hagera Maryam, Hawassa or Shashemene. It all depends if you want to tour these towns.

My contact quickly briefed me that there is tension and insecurity on the Ethiopian side of Moyale. There has been fighting between Somali and Oromo people and dozens have been killed. The government claims that the conflict is overuse of resources like water and grazing areas etc.

Moyale on the Ethiopian side is literally divided into two – one side occupied by each group.

As we rode towards the bus station, Gede showed me the station on the Somali side that is empty – for fear of attacks. Somalis were staying indoors or have left town. It is strange that everything looks normal – shops are open and the streets are busy with people on their daily chores.

Transport to Yabelo is by minivans and I found passengers already seated and luggage being tied to the carrier.  The fare is 60 Birr (Sh180) but was quickly hiked to 80 once the attendant learnt that I am a foreigner.

There was also an extra fee of 100 birr (Sh300) for my rucksack – purportedly for the customs and police officials at different checkpoints along the way. We haggled over this, as I insisted that I will deal with the police myself if they have a problem with my luggage.

“He is not a foreigner,” said one of the passengers. “He is pretending not to know our language.”

Am I causing unnecessary drama? I look a little Cushitic and you could not pick me from a crowd in Ethiopia as long as I keep my mouth shut. My contact negotiated the fee down to 50birr (shs150). He took the phone numbers of the driver and another passenger so that he can check on me while on the way.

11:20 AM: Okay, let us go!

The road to Yabelo is smooth – easy drive. There are a number of police checkpoints but they did not bother with us except the conductor passing on bribes to them.

The driver could speak some English. A mother offered his 8-year old son as a translator. I sat next to a young couple who are definitely in love – hands wrapped around one another. I mused if they know that love could at some point fade away and that it will hurt. I turned my attention to the window to enjoy the landscapes of Southern Ethiopia!

As we approached Yabelo at 2:45 PM, the driver asked: “Do you need a bedroom?” I had to quickly remember that he meant hotel accommodation.

“I will stay at Yabelo Motel. It should be on the road before the town,” I responded.

Yummy: Sheekla Tibs and Injera.

I alighted and bid them goodbye and crossed the street to the motel. I could feel the passengers’ eyes on me – still wondering why I am not one of them.

Yabelo is a small town of about 15,000 people. It is predominantly occupied by Oromo people and hosts several aid agencies. My contact here is an old friend.

I had Shekla Tibs and Injera for dinner and downed it with local beer. Shekla Tibs is some kind of sizzling nyama choma placed on a little clay pot cum jiko.

My contact here had some good news. I can get a ride on one of their vehicles going to Addis Ababa on Dec 25 (Christmas Day). This means spending an extra day in Yabelo. Perfect!

Goodnight – 1,000Km Done!

Nairobi to Addis: Day 1 – Night Bus to Moyale

IMG_20171225_115857I knew 2017 wasn’t going to be a great year for me but I vowed to sink it with a bang – with something hard and positive. The Road trip to Addis Ababa on my bucket list came tops of what I should do. This is a solo road trip of 1,600 kilometres by public transport! It is part of my dream to travel from Cape Town to Cairo by road. I have already driven from Cape Town to Nairobi three years ago.

I took time to study the route – the available means of public transport in Kenya and Ethiopia from one town to another – the costs, places to sleep and security. I rekindled old contacts and found news ones from both sides of the border that turned out to be extremely helpful.

Day #1: Nairobi to Moyale – Friday, December 22, 2017                             

As most Kenyans prepared for Christmas holiday, I bought a Sh2000 bus ticket via M-Pesa to Moyale. I arrived at Eastleigh 10th Street at 7:00PM just enough time to check in and last minute shopping before departure at 8:00PM. Eastleigh is busy, chaotic, congested – fellow travellers, loaders and traders doing circles around the slow traffic, parked buses and hawkers. I found the Moyale Raha bus office and was allocated a seat. I found a shop to buy a few things – a mulika mwizi (long lasting battery) phone, power-bank and snacks for the trip. I returned to the bus, was shown to my seat but an elderly passenger was already seated. The bus attendant asked him to move to his seat – there was an argument.  I offered to take his seat wherever but the attendant would not agree.

“Brother, our people must learn to take seats as allocated, otherwise we will have these silly arguments every day,” he told me. The passenger yielded. The seat is not very comfy but has enough leg room. This is OK. I am not in the mood for comfort – I just want to move.

Fellow passengers piled in and the bus left at 8:35PM – not a terrible time. Cushitic music playing through the sound system put me in the right mood that I am actually travelling to the north. The journey to Moyale is estimated at 11 Hours.

Out first stop was at Sagana and passengers disembarked for a bathroom break (males) in the nearly bush and buy groceries.

The bus was carefully driven – good speed. The next stop was at Isiolo – 274km from Nairobi. There was a call out for a 30-minute bathroom break and dinner. We took off again, driving towards Archers Post onwards to Marsabit. Now we have armed policemen on board – the stretch between Isiolo and Moyale has occasional banditry. There were two other buses behind us.

I woke up on another pit stop at 5:45AM a few kilometres from Marsabit Town. My brothers and sisters of the Islamic faith piled out with prayer rugs. I got out too and found a quiet spot and prayed – thanked the Lord for journey mercies and safety.

We drove past a sleepy Marsabit as the sun ascended from the horizon – shedding orange light to beautiful hills – many of them with sharp peaks that seemed to have been carefully planted in the desert.

We reached Sololo town at 7:00AM and the road turned east respectfully avoiding the might of the majestic mountains that create the boundary between Kenya and Ethiopia. Then we started climbing up the hills after Turbi towards Moyale. This road is glorious – wonderfully made and I kept imagining the nightmare of driving on it before it was tarmacked a few years ago.

9:00AM: Good morning Moyale – 800km done. I am ready for Ethiopia!

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.