Each year the School of Politics and International Relations allocates funds to help undergraduate and MA students engage in activities beneficial for their intellectual and personal development. Such activities may vary considerably but they must have some direct bearing on their studies. Students have, for example, received financial support to conduct fieldwork for their dissertations, undertake internships and voluntary work, study foreign languages, and take part in international aid projects. Here Jordan Street recounts his experiences whilst doing research for his MSci dissertation in Northern Kenya.
When the massacre of forty-two police officers in the Suguta Valley area of Samburu County made international news last November, the issue of insecurity in pastoralist communities was superficially exposed for the world to see. Described by al-Jazeera reporters as being ‘routed in tribal issues’ and being ‘connected to political issues’, the killings were dismissed by most as being just another ugly turn in an area rife with cattle raids and subsequent reprisal attacks. However, the fact of the matter is these issues are not that simple, as numerous dynamics contribute to making Northern Kenya one of the most dangerous places in East Africa.
I originally travelled to Samburu County in July 2012, working for 6 weeks with a local development office in Maralal, during which I developed a specific interest in the security issues and challenges facing the region. The area has had a fair amount of research directed at it, with most contemporary analyses focusing upon resource scarcity, climate change and ethnic tensions between the Pokot, Samburu and Turkana, as key drivers of the pastoralist conflict. However, much of the research ignores the role of politicians and community leaders in the area, coupling criminal attacks such as roadside banditry under the loose heading of “cattle raiding”. Furthermore, literature tends to be tentative at best when assessing responses in the region, usually refraining from being too critical of any aspects of law enforcement.
Kindly financed by the University to travel back to this region this summer, my MSci thesis seeks to assess the causes of conflict in the area, before reviewing the effectiveness of management and response strategies. I am lucky enough to have a range of great contacts in the area, who have facilitated opportunities that have allowed me to interview locals – including community elders, chiefs, and raiders – as well as providing me access to members of the church, police officers and councillors. Through the array of ethnographic data, I hope to be able to produce a piece that will provide insightful input into the current debate, as well as informing policy direction.
Whilst most of my time in Kenya has been hugely enjoyable, there have been some scary moments. Last year I was on my way to conduct research in the village of Longewan, when a small cattle raid began to take place. A car just five hundred metres or so in front of us was shot at by the raiders, and sadly the young male in the passenger seat, who was simply attempting to protect his community and livestock, was killed. More scarily, a few weeks ago as I set off to travel to the scene of the police massacre, our car was ambushed by armed raiders, at a spot on the road that was notoriously dangerous. The gunmen demanded our money and phones, whilst pointing their loaded AK-47’s at our chest. The experience was made slightly more disconcerting by the inability to communicate, and by the fact that the hands on some of the attackers were obviously shaking. Luckily we miraculously escaped the ordeal losing no more than the money in our wallets and our phones (I managed to hide my phone before they got close enough to the vehicle), with not one person in the party harmed. The raids and roadside attacks are unpredictable events, but due to the pervading insecurity in the region, have come to be expected.
There is no question I have lived my research, although I think I would have preferred not to have to deal with the aforementioned incidents in order to! However, these two experiences have really hit home the huge problems facing the communities in this area, providing a great motivation to work to promote peace. I am now home safe and sound, with the fun task of writing up my findings still remaining. I would like to thank the School of Politics and International Relations for providing financial assistance for my research trip, all my colleagues in the office in Maralal for everything they have done, and all my family and friends for the much needed support after some scary events.
Jordan Street is a students on the International Relations and Global Issues MSci at the University of Nottingham and is currently writing a thesis titled: ‘The “Hyenas” of Peace: Assessing the causes and responses of pastoralist conflict in Samburu County, Kenya”.