The Dassanech are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Africa. These people live in three different east-African countries: Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya. The Dassanech have been in conflict with the nomadic Turkana for generations. The tensions may be explained largely in terms of pasture and water scarcity. A missionary tries to mediate peace between the two groups, but the Ethiopian government launching the construction of a dam could make the situation worse.
Niakidor, daughter of the Dassanech chief, is happy now: she feels at home among the friends in Father Steven Ochieng’s mission. At the beginning it was not easy for her to accept the new situation. She arrived at the mission almost without clothes, wearing just bracelets and a necklace. She was very shy and often kept herself aside from the other children who played happily together. She missed her family and her village, Sies. She felt like a stranger among the Turkana children, whose language she did not even understand. Then, one day, a Turkana girl gave her a T-shirt. It was the first step in building mutual trust, a sort of miracle, since the two ethnic groups have been fighting for generations. Cattle are most of the time the cause of disputes.
Father Steven has come to this not very welcoming region to have the Dassanech children meet with their Turkana peers, trying to contribute to reconciliation. There are 44 children in his missionary school in the village of Todonyang. Three of them are Dassanech. “Lord, protect those who are worse off than us and help us to become an instrument of peace”, the children pray every morning.
Niakidor’s parents wanted to give their daughter a chance to study. So, when Father Steven arrived at Sies for peace talks with the Dassanech, the chief of the tribe and his wife Choro gave him the custody of their child. The priest took her with him beyond the border, in Todonyang, on the west shore of Lake Turkana, where his mission ‘Mary, Queen of Peace’, is. “Many thought I was crazy”, says the missionary. “Living here is dangerous, but even the Kenyan authorities approve the presence of the Church on the border with Ethiopia. They hope missionaries can help reconciliation among nomadic tribes”. Two Ethiopian MPs have recently come to meet Father Steven, they hope the priests will contribute to peaceful relationships among neighbouring groups.
Father Steven belongs to the Luo community that lives in the western part of Kenya around Lake Victoria. It is the third largest community in Kenya. The missionary is very familiar with this land and its inhabitants. He is, therefore, the ideal person to mediate and put an end to bloody fights among neighbours. “Turkana and Dassanech kids share the same classes, we want them to learn to live together peacefully”, the missionary explains. “Children learn more easily how to live together in harmony, adults are more difficult to persuade”. Father Steven is a nice and relaxed person. He faces his risky commitment to peace as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The Dassanech, are about 30,000 and most of them live concentrated in the Lower Omo River Valley. They no longer fight with spears and javelins, now they have smuggled Kalashnikovs from Somalia. Police on the border are powerless to stop weapon trafficking. Agents in charge of stopping the smuggling are attacked themselves by members of tribes. “The Dassanech are not supposed to graze their cattle on pasture in the lands beyond the border anymore”, says Father Steven. “They do not seem to accept the new rules. Once, they were accustomed to graze their cattle without paying attention to the borders of the state”.
Father Steven is, currently, the only one who is allowed to cross the border between Kenya and Ethiopia without a passport. When he crosses the border to reach the Dassanech’s territories, the police recognize him and say ‘hello’. “On my way back”, says the missionary, “I always stop to talk a little while with them and invite them to attend the mass at our mission. They are happy about our presence here”. The conflict between the two groups has already caused hundreds of deaths. In addition there are many others who have died as a consequence of drought. But Father Steven does not give up easily. He buries the dead of both sides and takes care of the injured people in the mission hospital. “I have the chance to have a talk with both groups. They trust me and I consider it a privilege, but still challenges are tough”, he says. “I need more nurses, teachers and collaborators. But, where can I find people willing to live in a region where temperatures exceed 40 degrees?”.
Tensions between the two communities have been mounting, partly due to the ambitious Ethiopian project: the construction of two dams on the Omo river. About 200 kilometers north of Lake Turkana, the giant wall overtopping the Gilgel Gibbe III dam looks like a constant threat to the nomads. The Addis Ababa government wants to improve electricity production to meet the domestic needs and sell the excess power abroad. Environmentalists denounce the risk of an ecological disaster. The Omo river is in fact the largest tributary of Lake Turkana, and the water level in the basin decreases considerably during the dry season. Father Steven is particularly concerned for the nomads. “We stand in solidarity with those who are forced to leave their pastures”, he says, “we are in a difficult situation ourselves. Our presence here hampers the multinational corporations’ interests”. (Marie Czernin)