Making Sense of Violence in the “Badlands” of Kenya



In this article, I situate violent conflict affecting pastoralists in northern Kenya in the context of media representations of violent incidents and the relationship that many Kenyans perceive between such incidents and election politics. I argue that media representations are implicated in cycles of violent conflict through erasure and misrecognition. Most crucially, media representations tend to focus on cultural stereotypes that tacitly legitimate ongoing violence by explaining it away as timeless and cultural. These unidimensional representations can distract from the culpability of political elites and from the role of economic and political disenfranchisement in sustaining violence. They can also mask the ways in which some elites benefit from the propagation of cultural stereotypes even while deliberately engaging in manipulation of ethnic fault lines. Finally, I argue that these already ubiquitous representations hinging on cultural stereotypes contribute to a global politics of marginalization, within which so-called indigenous violence is simultaneously politically expedient, routine, and forgettable.

In this article, I take as given the relatively uncontroversial premise that analyses of contemporary ethnic conflict must be situated in the nexus of local realities and the state. However, I argue further and more specifically that “culture” as a discursive category is implicated in multiple causes and contexts surrounding violence that are mutually productive of one another and that have disastrously productive effects. One of these productive effects is media marginalization, enacted through erasure by according global attention to some violent events while largely or entirely ignoring others, and also enacted through attention that marginalizes by manipulating “culture.” This media effacement contributes to what is effectively a war (however unintended), not on poverty, but on the poor and marginalized. So long as violence is chronic, piecemeal, and affecting minorities, it is quickly forgotten, if noted at all. I suggest, therefore, that the politics of representation must be examined alongside, and as fundamentally entangled with, other complex causes of “small” wars. Given the brief space I have, however, my attention to this argument and the examples I give in this article are brief and preliminary.

I wrote and presented the initial draft of this article in 2006, well before the December 2007 Kenyan elections and their violent aftermath. As this article goes to press years after those events, some aspects of it now seem obvious, rather than controversial. At the same time, however, the global media attention given to the postelection violence that centered on Kenya's powerful, politically elite Kikuyu gives additional weight and force to my arguments. This is particularly so because the simultaneous violence affecting ethnic minorities elsewhere in Kenya, and that I describe here, went entirely without comment although it was politically and historically relevant to the postelection violence—an issue I argue more fully in another article. Thus, some of the events spanning 2005–07 that I describe here remained largely under the global radar, just as do similar and continuing events in Kenya's Rift Valley Province and in other “out-of-the-way” places.

To make my points about the role of the politics of representation in shaping wars between the marginalized, I weave between descriptions of a war involving my Samburu interlocutors and a discussion of a massacre “up road,” as it were, which originally inspired this article. I begin with a September 2006 e-mail from a Samburu friend:

Dear Bilinda,

How are you since we parted in L____? On my side things are okay. I stay in Le____ alone—the Pokot factor has even worsened. There are two terrible incidents that happened when you left Samburu. There was this one attack on the 2nd September that took place in Likek Sapuki and another in Siampu that people lost life and livestock of about 300 cattle and four people killed, including a girl of twelve years.

These two incidents have made me think that we may not lead a normal life any time soon. I am doing the herding of my goats personally and return them back to sleep in S____ where Mum and the rest of the family stay. My shamba[farm] is almost ready for harvest now, but the problem is the wild pigs (lguya) who come in at odd hours—that is, midnight and at 3.00 am, so that makes me wake up at this particular time to guard the shamba though there is always fear of the Pokot attacks. But the goodness is all the cattle are guarded at one big settlement on the banks of NgareNarok river. Le____ does this since he has an experience with guns. . . . Any way I hope God will soon intervene since we have no hope in the police or any other Government support. . . . 

Love, your friend

L____[e-mail to author, September 25, 2006]

Many details compete for attention in my mind as I reread my friend's e-mail, feeling again the sadness of this life disrupted. When I first conceived this article in spring 2006, a massacre further north in Kenya was on my mind, as it had been on the minds of many Kenyans when it actually occurred, in July 2005. I was in Kenya at that time, doing a multiyear project about gender aspects of interethnic violence from the point of view of the Samburu pastoralists with whom I have worked since 1992. The details of what became known as the Marsabit massacre were both simple and horrifying, and reported over and over in the Kenya Daily Nation for weeks afterward, as in this excerpt:

At least 53 people including 21 primary school pupils were feared dead after a series of raids by heavily-armed bandits on a remote trading centre in the far north of Kenya. Five hundred raiders surrounded a school at dawn, massacring the children as teachers begged for their pupils' lives. Three teachers—two men and a woman—also died as the bandits, dressed in jungle camouflage, opened fire on anyone in sight. They then chased the survivors into their manyattas (villages) and cut them down with machetes, knives and spears. The raiders, armed with AK-47 rifles, sub-machine guns and hand grenades, struck at Turbi, about 130 kilometers from Marsabit Town. [Wachira and Muiruri 2005]

Although this event's status as a massacre brought it to the attention of the global news media, apart from initial similarities, the way in which it did so differed markedly from the way it played out in the Kenyan news media. The Kenyan and global media did share some features, such as a focus on competition over water access and pasture between the Gabra and Borana, who were the subjects of the massacre. They also shared finger-pointing at the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments. One Kenyan government minister decried a careless Kenyan government for paying more attention to the London bomb blast than the massacre within its own borders:

When there was a blast in London (and before the British intelligence could figure out whether it was a terrorist attack or a power outage) our condolences had already reached there. But when it was reported that people had been massacred 400 kilometers away from Nairobi, it took us some 24 hours to react, because we had to go to dinner at a five star hotel in Nairobi and open an agricultural show some 140 kilometers away from Nairobi. [Muganda 2005]

This minister's anger was matched in numerous other articles and by random citizens I encountered in Nairobi that summer, whether it was my taxi driver heating up about his ineffectual government that doesn't care if children are killed in the far north, or my hotel receptionists jointly apologizing on behalf of their government for its negligence. How could it be, they wondered, that so many could be killed in this merciless manner while the government stalled on allocating the helicopters necessary to get to the scene and help people? Why was the north of their country continually ignored? For the moment, the well-educated and self-identified cosmopolitan citizens, down country, put aside their usual critiques of northern Kenya cultural “backwardness” to focus on the larger political issues they saw at stake.

As I have already mentioned, global media reports outside Kenya likewise pointed to government failures to control the northeast. However, they left explanations of root causes vaguely and simplistically framed in the culturally marked idioms of scarce resources and livestock raids: “Clashes in Kenya's arid east and north are frequent as clans fight for scant resources, and cross-border livestock raids are frequent. ‘Local authorities and tribal elders in Ethiopia and Kenya had been holding talks on how to curb the raids,’ said David Kimaiyo, deputy police commissioner in Kenya” (Ali and Anderson 2005). A similar account appears on the Wikipedia website: “Cattle rustling is a relatively common practice in this region, and some reports suggest that the massacre may have begun as a cattle raid. The Gabra people, victims of the massacre, had been accused in June of stealing hundreds of cattle and goats” (Wikipedia 2008).

In contrast, writers for the Kenyan news media that lingered for weeks over the causes of the massacre, took note of the relationship between raiding and poverty but looked astutely at the political economic mechanisms at stake in perpetuating that poverty. Thus, one Daily Nation writer's descriptions of the Gabra and Borana, peoples related to one another and previously coexisting peacefully, are reminiscent of popular characterizations of the Hutu and Tutsi before the Rwandan genocide. Then, following a brief mention of resource competition between the two groups, he traces root causes to competition over Kenyan parliamentary seats, rather than water, and, additionally, to Borana accusations that Gabra migrated across the Ethiopian border just to vote in elections in that country (Mukui 2005).

In 21st-century Kenya, something as quaint sounding as cattle rustling can tip the balance for or against particular election candidates. Since at least 2005, that is what Samburu have been telling me to explain the persistence of the Samburu–Pokot war, and I thought it sounded like conspiracy theory. Really—parliamentary seats and national elections are not really among the crucial things that cattle rustling is about, are they?

As I mentioned earlier, at the time of the Marsabit massacre in the summer of 2005, I was already deeply engaged with a study of the gendered dimension of Samburu warfare. The Samburu of northern Kenya, like their southern neighbors the Maasai, have been widely depicted in coffee-table books and on postcards. The quintessential “beautiful” indigenous group, they are well known for their warriors—lmurran—in red-ochered pigtails and their young women wearing large, elaborately beaded collars. As lmurran, Samburu young men enjoy a status as glamorous and sexy bachelor warriors, whose military prowess is celebrated in songs composed by themselves and their girlfriends. So then, the Samburu–Pokot war is caused by the glamour of war itself for Samburu warriors and their girlfriends, right? It is, as the British colonial government thought—at least by the 1920s (Straight 1997, 2005, 2007)—all about girls goading their boyfriends into killing to prove their manliness and to bring home some cows into the bargain, right? That is the facile, shorthand cultural explanation that conveniently fits increasingly globalized preconceptions of timeless “tribal” warfare. This “cultural” explanation is facile not because it is untrue, but because it is only one of several entangled causes that range from the colonial and independent Kenyan governments' culpability in resource depletion through underdevelopment and reduction of land holdings (Lesorogol 1991, 2003), to local, regional, and national political realities.

As we step further back, we can see other layers of causation to consider, and here the terrain becomes oddly circular, as cause and effect are indistinguishable. Within this fraught crucible, the question of ethnicity paces back and forth uneasily. One writer to the newspaper in the aftermath of the Marsabit massacre stated her perception quite clearly—a perception shared by others in print and on the streets that summer:

There are so many questions that follow these mass killings, and so few answers. But for the numbers, those images of a woman slaughtered in her eighth month of pregnancy and the dead strewn about might as well have been a replay of Rwanda 1994. The excuse for the killings was the same, and ultimately so very frightening in a country increasingly locked into tribal cocoons. As I write this piece, 89 people lie dead not because they have done anything wrong or gone out of their way to provoke their attackers. They are dead simply because they were born into a particular ethnic group. [Oriang' 2005]

I would counter, however, with a question: Is it for being born into a particular ethnic group, or for being born into the “flavor of the month” marginalized one?1 Was the Marsabit massacre provoked simply by competition for water and pasture, or also by Kenyan political rivalries and even, over elections across the border in Ethiopia? Or both? In discussing the Samburu–Pokot war, two writers for the Daily Nation on May 8, 2006, first quoted Samburu District Commissioner Joel Sigei as identifying the usual resource issues of inadequate water and pasture. Then, however, they referred to his claim that “political leaders contribute to the cattle rustling as they whip up ethnic sentiments in order to paint themselves as community heroes who deserve to sustain their political leadership. Land ownership, whether communal or individual, provides ready fuel for political incitement and ethnic manipulation by politicians, he adds” (Barasa and Kipkoech 2006).

Indeed, many writers shared my Samburu interlocutors' claims that political elites were inciting Pokot violence against the Samburu in anticipation of the 2007 general elections, just as had occurred in the lead-up to previous elections. The effects of the lead-up to the 2007 elections on the Samburu in the contested lands of Laikipia District are worthy of detailed attention. Even as the Samburu were suffering heavy cattle losses by Pokot attacks against them, in October 2006 Kenyan Internal Security Minister John Michuki (a Kikuyu) successfully ordered and implemented the forced removal of more than 3,000 Samburu and their 50,000 cattle. In addition to the human casualties and morbidity from exposure, many cattle were stolen by Pokot during the move.

In contrast to the Marsabit massacre, this forcible removal did not register on the global radar. Within Kenya, however, public sentiment manifested itself swiftly in the national media, with some Kenyans demanding to know why Samburu who had been in Laikipia for a decade or longer and had purchased land there were being forcibly removed, whereas others analyzed the situation politically and historically. Thus, in an October 8, 2006, Daily Nation report, Gakuu Mathenge identifies the specific land allocation schemes implemented during the previous Kenya African National Union (KANU) administration to the Samburu and Pokot in Laikipia District. He quotes a KANU official: “These politicians were in the opposition and feel they were unfairly left out in these schemes. They are inciting some communities against others to achieve political goals and settle personal scores” (Mathenge 2006). The Kenyan 2007–08 postelection crisis was then looming, a little over a year in the future, and it is critical to note that the personal scores being settled were largely Kikuyu ones.

This echoes both the claims of Samburu I know and those of a broader study of conflict in northern Kenya conducted in 2003 by the Intermediate Technology Development Group—East Africa, whose authors assert that “there are rife allegations that the economically powerful people are funding livestock thefts and politicians are encouraging conflicts to flush out would-be supporters of political opponents from their political turfs” (Pkalya et al. 2003:14, emphasis added ). Many Samburu I know add that political elites use profits from mafia-style livestock raids to finance their campaigns. Meanwhile, in May 2007, the same Kikuyu politicians responsible for the forced move used government helicopters to track Samburu warriors attempting to recoup cattle stolen by the Pokot. Although the government did not retrieve stolen cattle for the Samburu, surface missiles were used to massacre as many as seventy Samburu warriors attempting to offset their cattle losses themselves. This time, the event registered as a blip in the Kenyan news media and remained, as so many events in Kenya and elsewhere do, beneath the global radar.2

Government-sponsored moves and violence against the Samburu were not responses to “tribal warfare.” So-called tribal warfare has been the culture card played predominantly by some members of the Kikuyu ethnic majority and white landowners in Laikipia in the context of historically complex, contested land claims interpolated by political rivalries. The 2007 elections on the horizon were critical to the control over Laikipia. Yet marginalized groups like the Samburu and Pokot did not figure in the postelection global media coverage. Rather, particularly as they were not among those violently responding to the elections en masse, Samburu were unmentioned, along with the violence that continues to affect Samburu and Pokot as I write. In some instances, their erasure was complete. Thus, on the ethnic map of Kenya broadly disseminated by the BBC in the midst of the postelection violence, Samburu do not even exist (BBC 2008).


An unwieldy combination of indigenous raiding practices, national politics, and small-arms proliferation is reverberating across central and northern Kenya like an uncanny echo, to produce, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes puts it and I concur, “invisible genocides”—“everyday forms of violence and suffering in the third world” (1996:889).Whether Samburu and Pokot die in threes, sevens, or seventies, and Gabra and Borana in eighties and nineties, or whether thousands of Maa speakers are once again, as in the colonial period, forcibly removed from Laikipia's rich grazing lands, certain marginalized groups are being victimized. This is because—as the writer to the Daily Nation said—”they were born into a particular ethnic group” (Oriang' 2005). Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1996) has been cautious in referring to phenomena like these as “invisible genocides.” As I conclude, I want to identify the features contributing to what I see not only as violence as routine (Broch-Due 2005) but also as violence made acceptable, dismissible, and forgettable.

One feature—and this would seem the most banal because it is the most obvious since writers like Foucault (e.g., 1970, 1977) and Said (e.g., 1978, 1979)—is a geopolitical structure that operates as a zero-sum game, within which marginalization appears as necessary to the political, economic, and social order (see also Bay 2006). This is the game that goes beyond merely robbing people of history (Wolf 1982); it makes particularity beside the point. Thus, anthropologists may attempt to particularize the marginalized; nevertheless, people “elsewhere,” especially people of color, and “exotics,” have a tenuous hold on particularity. Does anyone care about the Gabra, the Borana, the Pokot, or the Samburu? According to the rules of this game, even marginalized states like Kenya internally marginalize certain groups within their borders in an ironic move that has the texture of political and economic indirect rule (see also Bay 2006; Cooper 2002; Donham 2006). Thus, marginal ethnic groups are manipulated—and small wars funded—by political elites. This is part of the fabric of Kenya that facilitated the postelection backlash against the politically dominant Kikuyu.

A second feature is discursive, as the cultural aspects of violence assume virtuous and timeless dimensions even when cast in the new clothes of globalization and small-arms proliferation. This is the “how” question as applied to “small wars” (Scheper-Hughes 1996) globally: How can “small wars” be dismissed and ignored? How can they slip into invisibility? How do they play into the geopolitical game of structural marginalization and violence? One way is that the culture card is played against the victims, and for this reason it is a card that anthropologists must negotiate delicately and at the peril of their interlocutors (Harvey and Gow 1994; Scheper-Hughes 2000). Yet they must do so.

Neil Whitehead has rightly observed that:

largely absent from prior discussions of violence and warfare, has been explicit consideration of how “traditional” violence plays into the advent of modernity/colonialism and their post facto results. . . . If Sorel (quoted above) and Foucault (1977) are right, then the monopoly of violence established by the colonial and nation-states of Europe and America has led to a progressive enfeeblement of the individual in the face of violence, which in turn is a condition of a modernity that produces increasing dependency on the exercise of violence by the state. [Whitehead 2004:72–73]

Although a consideration of the interface between “traditional violence” and the state is indeed called for here, in the case of Kenya, at least, there is not so much a dependency on formal state-sponsored violence as a manipulation of hybrid forms of indigenous violence for the goals of the politically dominant.

It is no longer enough to describe the historical particularities of Samburu or other indigenous forms of interethnic violence as they are newly transformed with the advent of global small arms. It is crucial to do this while simultaneously addressing how these hybrid conflicts serve elite or national goals of, for example, disenfranchising certain voters while empowering others. Let me note that key aspects of this kind of analysis are already being accomplished (e.g., Bay 2006; Donham 2006; Scheper-Hughes 1996; Simpson 2006; Whitehead 2004). Yet for scholarship to address both structural and discursive features of violence as forgettable, it must illuminate the ways in which “small wars” are brilliant, culturally honed vehicles that turn perpetually scarce resources at the local level into political and economic leverage at national and global levels. It is necessary, that is, to retool a political-economy approach, with certain inflections that demonstrate rigorously and specifically the ways in which hybrid indigenous wars and the politics of marginalization mutually produce one another.

There are no small wars. There is one war that translates structural violence into large-scale physical violence and displacement. There is one global war against marginalized groups—however piecemeal, chaotic, and unintended—that is self-perpetuating because it masquerades as a plethora of small wars and benefits from its own effects. In the 21st century it is crucial to point out that displaced persons do not vote.3 In northern Kenya alone there were 164,457 displaced persons as of 2003. Most of them were unable to vote in the 2002 Kenyan general elections (Pkalya et al. 2003). The aftermath of the 2007 elections adds stark, exclamatory emphasis to the costs of disenfranchisement.


  • Acknowledgments. This article and the ethnographic field notes it contains are based on individual research projects funded by Western Michigan University, and on my analyses of my interviews conducted during collaborative research with Jon Holtzman, generously funded by Western Michigan University Faculty Research and Creative Activities Award and National Science Foundation Senior Research Grant #0413431. In addition, I would like to thank Neil Whitehead, Michael Harkin, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and Carolyn Nordstrom for incisive comments and encouragement.

  • 1

    See Nordstrom 2004 on “flavor of the month” wars.

  • 2

    The May 2007 massacre of Samburu warriors was reported briefly in the Kenya Daily Nation on May 30, 2007, and mentioned in passing in a May 24 article (Kariuki and Mwathi 2007).

  • 3

    Often, displaced persons also do not go to school—another consequence that becomes productive and causal of continued poverty and conflict.