As 16-year old Bob Salat sweats through revision work in preparation for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam a few months away, his friend Chris strokes his gun as he drives his father’s cattle through the treacherous Kerio Valley in the Rift Valley region.
With imminent attacks from enemy lines hanging over the “valley of death” like a dark cloud, Chris drives the herd of emaciated cows, goats and sheep with his automatic AK47 rifle cocked. He drives his four dozen cattle from their hilly Muchongoi village along a footpath snaking west through python plagued shrubs. He drives past grazing fields by a river that divides his Marakwet community from the enemy Tugen and Pokot tribal warriors.
Like most herders from his village, the rule of thumb is to always take his automatic firearm whenever he drives animals to a watering point. He ensures one bullet is strategically ready in the chamber and eight more in the magazine. In the course of the day, he will occasionally run into enemy lines by the river. Although they have never attacked him, he is always prepared, just in case rival pastoralists pounce.
Pokot raiders occasionally storm his village to steal cows and goats, especially during the dry season when food harvests are scarce.
“You never know when they will turn on you, kill or drive your cows away,” says Salat.
Increased Cattle Raids
Other than the fear of rival warriors, Bob is also wary of the paramilitary General Service Unit officers who are routinely deployed to the treacherous region to contain the deadly ‘armies’ of the rival militia.
In the greater Baringo County where land is arid, rocky and non-arable, the majority of largely traditional tribespeople who occupy the area are bee-keepers or work with livestock.
The nomadic nature of life means families rarely live in a single location for long, as herders, the majority of whom are men, move around in search of pasture and water.
The pastoralist communities, who are sub-tribes of the larger Kalenjin community that has produced world champions in athletics, have long considered cattle rustling a cultural rite, according to a 2011 Kenya Human Rights Commission report.
During recent raids, warriors have wielded traditional crude weapons such as spears, swords, bows, and arrows that are used to steal livestock, but they rarely killed people.
Livestock is a symbol of wealth and stealing cattle has long been considered as a means to elevate one’s social status.
But in the past few decades, among residents of West Pokot, Baringo, Laikipia, Turkana and Samburu counties in northwestern and central Kenya, cattle raids have escalated, fuelled by the proliferation of small arms smuggled into the country from war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan.
A 2015 Kenya Police report indicates that cattle raiders’ weapons originate from neighbouring countries that have suffered years of internal strife.
In recent years, the raids have grown deadlier, with a sharp rise in the number of people killed during attacks.
Gangs of gun-slinging raiders usually storm villages at night, shooting people on sight before driving away entire herds of cattle, sheep, and goats, leaving entire communities devastated.
A 2015 Kenya Police report shows more than 24 people were killed in cattle rustling violence in the year, while nearly 25,000 livestock were stolen in 56 raids.
Yet local media reports suggest the number of people killed could be far higher. In May 2015, the international French news agency AFP reported that 75 people were killed over just four days.
In November, Kenya’s deputy president William Ruto, a member of the mainly farming and livestock keeping Kipsigis sub-tribe, oversaw the destruction of at least 5,250 guns recovered in the past nine years, a fraction of the estimated 500,000-plus illegal firearms in the country – most of which are owned by pastoralists.
Government reports indicate that disarmament efforts have yielded minimal results.
Mochongoi is the epicentre of the violence along the borders between the districts of West Pokot, home mainly to the Pokot community, and Baringo in Kenya’s Rift Valley, which is mainly occupied by their Tugen rivals.
Herders, tired of waiting for the government’s help, feel they have no option but to take up arms in self-defence.
In the mostly lawless Suguta Mar Mar Valley, an area that has been dubbed by the local media as the “Valley of Death” ethnic Turkana, Samburu and Pokot are routine victims and raiders in equal measure.
With police also scared of booby traps laid out by rustlers, cattle theft has led to revenge attacks. The area has remained without security agents after one of the deadliest attacks on Kenyan police in 2012, in which 32 officers pursuing stolen cattle were ambushed and brutally murdered.
Arap Kibiwott, 60, a cattle owner from Bob’s village which is home to about 200 residents, says the Endorois (a sub-tribe of the Tugen) have not been gun owners for long, leaving them prone to frequent attacks by heavily armed Pokot bandits.
The Tugen has been engaged in an armed campaign over the past five years. While raiders often strike at night, they can also mount daylight attacks.
In March 2015, on one sunny afternoon, just as Eric Kibiwott was settling down for a meal of roast meat at home, a burst of gunfire swept through the homestead.
The eldest son, Noah Salat, 38, stormed out with his AK-47 to face the gunmen as his parents, children and two wives headed in the opposite direction into the hills.
The frightened family drove their herd of 85 cows and 100 sheep through thickets and forests into the safety of nearby hills.
As the villagers fled, his brothers and about 20 warriors from the village fought the about 60 Pokot rustlers. Two hours later, the guns fell silent.
The attackers, who were better-armed, battle-hardened cattle raiders stole hundreds of livestock.
The warring communities secure semi-automatic firearms, including AK-47s and more powerful weapons such as M16s and G3s, to protect their families, their livestock and also recover stolen animals.
At the end of the clash, a young man who had fought alongside Kibiwott’s son returned with sad news.
“He told me my son had been shot and had died on the spot. It was very painful to lose a son at such a young age” says Kibiwott, a tall man with stooped shoulders, whose son had five children all under the age of 10.
Kibiwott arranged for his son’s burial from the bush and hurriedly conducted the funeral on a slope near his home.
Afterward, villagers from Kipoi and valleys, fearing more attacks, moved to stay with relatives in the hills.
But some men remained at Kipoi.
The gunmen struck later in the night and killed an 80-year-old woman who had remained behind to milk and feed the livestock.