John Kelai became a runner to escape a hard and dangerous life in northern Kenya, where three of his uncles were killed in armed cattle raids when he was a teenager.
Now the 38-year old top marathon runner has returned to lead a peace march, hoping to end cattle rustling and revenge killings in Kenya’s remote and impoverished north.
“We must come out together and forget our differences, our tribal lines, and speak out in one voice: enough is enough,” said Kelai, the 2010 Commonwealth champion.
Rivalries between pastoralist communities competing for scarce resources, such as livestock and water, are worsened by easy access to automatic weapons and the absence of state security officers.
Kelai is organising the 836-kilometre (520-mile) peace march, with Ethiopian running legend Haile Gebrselassie expected to join for the final stages of the walk, due to end on August 6.
Shouting “Amani! Amani!” — “peace” in Kenya’s Swahili language — Kelai and 30 of his travelling companions arrived at the small dusty town of Kainuk, on the border of Turkana and West Pokot districts, where deadly skirmishes over livestock have taken hundreds of lives in recent years.
Just two months ago, five Kenyan security officers were murdered in a revenge attack after several Pokot herdsmen were killed and their animals driven away in an ambush by Turkana raiders.
Kelai’s peace crusade hopes to draw attention to this kind of violence, and help end it.
The athletes, who are encouraging people to join them in their walk, hope to raise over $250,000 (225,000 euros) to fund a peace-building programme, said the Aegis Trust, which has worked to rebuild communities riven by conflict, notably in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Aegis Trust, which is helping organise the walk, said the programme “will engage at least 10,000 young people at risk of being drawn into the ethnic violence, saving lives.”
– ‘Mere stupidity’ –
The call for peace appeared to resonate well. Local officials have provided security and the athletes were welcomed by more than 50 elders of the Pokot and Turkana communities when they arrived in Kainuk earlier this month.
“These merciless killings between our own Kenyan brothers have continued for too long. This is just mere stupidity,” said 80-year-old Pokot elder, Matayo Chemala, who travelled a long distance from Kanyarwit town on the Kenya-Uganda border to witness the occasion.
Chemala said that where he comes from, communities had negotiated peace, “and now we live happily with each other and our animals can graze on both sides of the border”.
“Why can it not be the same among Kenyan blood brothers?” he said.
Turkana elder Elim Okapel decided to join the athletes for their entire journey. “It is now 48 years that we have preached peace and we have not got a remedy. We have decided walking was the only solution,” he said.
For Kelai, who lost both his parents as a child and then saw three of his uncles killed in cattle raids, hope lies in the next generation. He said education could help them avoid the trap of cattle rustling as a way of life.
Kelai compared making peace to striving for a gold medal. “To achieve any precious thing, you must pay a price so that you can be crowned. For peace to be realised and enjoyed in this region, we must go that extra mile,” he said.
Kelai hopes the Kenyan government will do its part by building schools in the neglected north where youngsters from competing communities can learn side-by-side.
“We appeal to the government to build boarding schools along this volatile area,” he said.
“With the young generation being educated better than our parents, it will be easy to transform the way of life,” said Kelai.
Photo Credits : AFP