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In Tana Delta, the people looked at a monkey in the face and still ate it

Wednesday September 12 2012



The ethnic clashes in Tana Delta (a French news agency report called the violence “tribal vendetta”) have claimed more than 100 lives since they broke out a month ago.

Besides everything else, I am intrigued by the Pokomo and Orma warriors’ weapons of choice – mostly rungus (clubs), machetes, and spears.

There is something strangely scary when angry people, in this case Kenyans, gather in their hundreds (sometimes thousands) wielding spears, machetes and rungus.

The reason for that is that killing someone with a machete or rungu is very intimate. You have to get very close, and often you have to strike them repeatedly.

A gun is “easy”, if indeed killing people can ever be easy. A good marksman can finish off 50 people comfortably from a distance of 200 metres without making eye contact.

There is a Guinean proverb once cited on the BBC that says: “If you want to eat a monkey, don’t look in its eyes”.


The idea being that it is very difficult to kill something humanlike (and therefore humans too) after getting close up to its face because you see yourself in its eyes.

The people of the Tana Delta are so angry, they ate the monkey after looking in its eyes. Then, machetes, and especially spears and rungus, aren’t that efficient. They require the mobilisation of many warriors.

Indeed, reports have it that in the latest round of mayhem, the Pokomo raised an impressive 300 warriors. That is the second unnerving thing about killing with what Kenya media likes to call “crude weapons”. It is highly democratic and participatory in a very evil way.

Thirdly, the use of machetes and spears turns a conflict into a primeval one. A warrior who today takes to his chosen battlefield with a rungu and spear is using the same weapons his grandfather, great grandfather, and great great grandfather used.

These fights over pasture and cattle happened between communities 150 years ago. When the warriors set up with spears to kill their rivals, they are digging up over 100 years of passions and hatred.

Which is why modern suit-wearing officials don’t know how to resolve these conflicts. To complicate matters, burning a hut is not the same as burning a house in a Nairobi suburb. A hut is very personal, even spiritual, for the owner.

Almost always, the owner built it himself, ferried the grass and wood with his wife and children, and churned the mud with his own feet in his backyard.

For that reason, though it has zero price in the property market, it possesses far greater sentimental value than a house in Lavington that you bought with a mortgage payable over 20 years, will ever have.

My sense is that a conflict with spears, machetes, and rungus is so personal, and dredges up so many ancient passions, it makes it that much harder to heal the rift between the warring groups.

Nothing illustrates that better for me than an experience from 1986. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to power in January that year after a bitter five-year guerrilla war.

The war was based in a fertile southern swathe of Uganda called the “Luwero Triangle”. The government security forces (and the rebels) were accused of widespread human rights abuses during the war.

Immediately the war ended, a colleague and I went to Luwero to see for ourselves what had happened there. There were mass graves, and skeletons of people killed in the war piled in many places.

Then we came upon a once-thriving trading centre that had been wasted, and most of its residents killed. There was this one house with many skeletons.

In one of the rooms, were five. The skull of one skeleton still had a hoe embedded in it. A second had been killed by a pickaxe. The axe was also still sticking from the skull. A third was lying face down, with a machete protruding from the back.

I have seen more dead bodies than I can count in my career covering conflicts, but while I am able to forget the other thousands of cases, 26 years later, I can’t get those three out of my mind.

I still can’t understand the rage and fury that drives a human being to kill another like that. And I can barely begin to imagine, how their loved ones feel.