Law and Order

Yet another delayed post, I'm afraid.

So the Saturday before last I travelled up the Rift to Laikipia, the transitional region between Kenya's lush Central Highlands, home before independence to white ranchers and timber barons, and the semi-desert grazing lands of northern Kenya. My organisation has an office in Sipili, a small market town just north of the equator, serving as a the jumping-off point for travelling north to Samburu, Pokot and Turkana. The organisation's (shamefully under-resourced) Samburu and Pokot staff live and work up north, using Sipili as an occasional southern base. Sipili is much better equipped than many places further north, with electricity, packed dirt roads and even hot showers.

This is Sipili's main street. Also an excellent piece of signage for a Board & Lodging place, the Arrivals Lodge, where I didn't stay.

It was cattle market day when I arrived, with the street full of Samburu and Pokot pastoralists, carrying their ceremonial clubs, bringing their goats and cattle to sell. That picturesque bit of pre-packaged timelessness is nicely debunked when I'm introduced to S, a major herder in the area, sitting in his Pokot 'skirt' in a bar working his way through six or seven Tusker beers. Like any economic system, there's higher-ups and lower-downs. S is a round, cheery guy with a slightly hard look in his eye who tells me, not unkindly, that he's a much wealthier man than me, the mzungu. I can well believe this: the end-of-dry-season price of a cow in this area might be the equivalent of two to three hundred pounds, and major herders may have 400 or 500 cows.* Then I'm taken up the hill to a tiny nyama choma joint to eat with the local police chief - this kind of administration contact is really important for the kind of community conflict monitoring system we're hoping to set up. The police chief tells me that last night there was a cattle raid near the neighbouring town in which Mr N was killed and at least 150 cattle stolen (don't worry, Mum, I'm staying in town, they don't raid any cattle there!); and that S is the local 'warlord' (his word) who was probably responsible. I've no idea whether this is true, but certainly this kind of cattle rustling isn't simply a piece of picturesque tribal martialism – it's a well-organised (and comparatively well-armed) communal business, feeding cattle over the border to Sudan and Uganda, and to businessmen who buy the stolen cattle. I want to ask more about it, but the police officers around the table seem rather more concerned about my sexual well-being, and how I'm going to last for several months without my wife “or castration”, which forms the general topic of conversation amongst the assembled company for the next hour.

These kind of weird non-sequiturs have characterised my experience of law and order in Kenya so far – jolting from the social and familial, to cheerfully discussed or delivered force. This is, I suppose, a feature of any country where security forces aren't as rigidly separated from society as they are in the UK, and don't have the kind of reserve from their communities typical of British police forces. A, a female sergeant (and champion G3 rifle marksman) joins us while we're eating, and as she's going on patrol she offers to show me around the local police post. First she introduces me to her daughter, a gorgeous six year old. She carries her daughter into the police post, sits her on the front desk, and then, still chatting sprightly to the kid and me, rams the door open into the cells, slamming it without very much concern against the head of someone sitting on the floor in a dark, piss-smelling corridor beyond. There's no furniture at all, even in the (empty) 'women' and 'children' cells, just fetid, dark concrete rooms. The door from the corridor into into the 'dangerous persons' cell is wedged open, and the cell is stuffed full to standing room with wide-eyed men, some of whom have dirty bandages on their hands and legs. When I ask what these people have been arrested for, A says that they're mainly “thieves and robbers”, and that they can be in the police post cells for weeks “until the investigation is finished” (quite what that kind of investigation consists of isn't really clear). I have no idea what I'm supposed to say.

That evening, at the bar, another local police officer cheerfully discusses their shoot-to-kill policy with me. Propping up the other end of the bar is a Divisional Officer from an administrative division further north, the main government representative in his area. He's only in his mid-twenties, flanked by two Masaai security men, and almost crying into his cups as he tells me how 'primitive' his division is, having come from Nairobi. But there's a more serious context – he's clearly extremely worried about a joint army-police 'operation' currently on-going in his division to disarm pastoralists, many of whom keep ageing AK-47s for security against rustlers, or for rustling. He tells me quite frankly, with the police officer sitting next to him, that the 'operation' will only bring hardship and rape to the communities in his division. Similar forcible disarmament operations near the Tanzanian border have brought similar allegations.

Sipili itself, though, is awesome. Although I spent time that week travelling further north (about which I'll bore you another time – don't worry Mum, not too far north!), killing time in a dusty farming town with the nearest internet point an hour's drive down the road was exactly what I needed after Manchester and Omega. Sipili life is remarkably like The Archers - not a programme I'd previous thought of as having a resonating universality. But Sipili has a stock of characters you'd find any evening on Radio 4: there's Mr M, the stout, bookish former adult education officer who runs the school textbook and stationery shop with his wife (in the Radio 4 version he'd have a Yorkshire accent and be a cricket umpire); T, the school teacher who goes home to his farm each night and writes poetry inspired by Heraclites; S, the 'Matt Crawford' herder king and alleged cattle-rustler. This was my view from the Olivia Motel, where I was staying. I think I need more views like this in my life.

* The famous reluctance of Samburu, Pokot and Turkana pastoralists to sell cattle even in times of real economic hardship, when prices are very high, is often explained as 'irrational' cultural prestige overcoming economic need: considerable wealth may only ever be realised in social rather than economic terms, and 'wealthy' herders may starve rather than sell. Some recent work, though, suggests that this 'irrational' herd maximisation is 'rational' in the very long term, given the difficulties of building up herds for inheritance in such an aleatory, semi-arid environment.

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