IT’S a story as old as the hills of Africa: in a remote part of the continent, two tribes, distantly related, both Muslim, the one cattle owners, the Orma, the other the Pokomo, settled pastoralists. They have a history of conflict over land.
The pastoralists grow their maize, mangoes, casava, bananas and onions on the fertile floodplains of the river. The cattle herders covet the sweet grass that grows on those same floodplains.
The river is the Tana. It flattens out into a huge delta that spreads over 130 000 hectares of mangrove and doum palm forest before it runs up against the towering dunes that fringe Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.
It is an intriguing river, the Tana. I have fished its headwaters on the slopes of Mount Kenya – a small, cold, crystal clear trout stream. It joins forces with scores of other rivers from the Aberdare Mountains and the eastern wall watershed of the Rift Valley, finally becoming the longest river in Kenya, meandering 800km to the coast, one of Africa’s great rivers.
By the time it reaches the delta, its waters are red and chocolate brown with soil it has stripped on its way down from Mount Kenya. In this semi-wilderness, life for the Pokoma and Orma people is one of hardscrabble subsistence, and conflict over land is a way of life.
On Wednesday, the following report came over the news wires via the French news agency, AFP:
“At least 48 Kenyans were hacked or burnt to death in ethnic clashes between two rival groups… ‘It is a very bad incident… They include 31 women, 11 children and six men,’ regional deputy police chief Joseph Kitur said of the attack, which took place late on Tuesday between the Pokomo and Orma peoples in the rural Tana River district.”
As I spotted the sentence where Kitur said “our investigations have shown that it is the Pokomo who attacked the Orma people, who live on an island”, I immediately knew the exact spot where the massacre had taken place.
Back in 1994, my wife and I had just returned to a friend’s farm at Thika, outside Nairobi, after two gruelling months travelling through Ethiopia. A phone call came through from one of the wild men of Kenya, Renaldo Retief, better known in local legend as “Bwana Mango”. He wanted our friend to help him on a safari into the Tana Delta, where he owned an exclusive, remote camp. He wanted us to come along on the trip to look at the camp, take some photographs, and entertain the guests.
A few days later, we left the Retief farm outside Malindi in Renaldo’s Land Rover, heading north to Garsen, the last town before the border with Somalia. The road was a rutted, corrugated track with enormous mud holes and washed-out bridges.
After two hours, we came to a barely visible track heading east, and within minutes of leaving the main road, we were absorbed into the bush of deepest Africa. We spotted lion spoor, a herd of elephant, a herd of buffalo thundered off at our approach. At a water hole, a herd of topi; still further, a troop of Sykes monkeys chattered and chittered as we disturbed them in a dense stand of riverine forest. Soon we were crossing tongues of the tidal flats on rickety bridges made of mangrove poles, through patches of black cotton mud to the river bank.
Two boats awaited us: a sleek longboat for the luggage, and a larger ski-boat for the passengers. As we motored slowly down the channels, brilliantly coloured mangrove, striped and pygmy kingfishers flashed past. A pod of hippo grunted and submerged, two huge crocodiles slithered down the bank.
We rounded a final bend in the river, and before us was the full magnificence of the Delta: ahead, pounding surf on the sand bars in the mouth; on all sides, deep twisted mangrove forest; on the left, towering sand dunes covered in coastal forest, and at their foot, a barely visible camp sculpted out of driftwood and beachcombed artefacts.
Every morning we found lion spoor in front of the camp; at night the lion roared in the bush, competing with the sound of the waves. On the beach, a troop of baboons scavenged for washed up shellfish.
The camp manager, Lawrence Kazungu, took us upriver to his home, the island in the river where the Orma lived and kept their long-horned cattle, separated from the Pokomo on the other banks. “We have been fighting for ever,” he told us, “but my wife is Pokomo. Our children are Pokorma, or OrmaPoko,” he joked. “Perhaps that is the only way to make peace.”
I fear that it was Lawrence’s island home that was the scene of this week’s massacre.