Darkness on the Delta: Tribal tensions flare in Kenya


Blood stains the floor of a classroom in Kilelengwani village in the Tana river Delta on September 12, 2012. Orma tribe villagers and the Red Cross claim 8 children were slaughtered in the classroom by members of the Pokomo tribe during an attack by 300 tribesmen on the village which left 38 people dead,167 houses burnt to the ground, and scores of slaughtered cattle. The Kenyan government has authorised a deployment of 1,300 General Service Unit (GSU) officers, the Kenyan specialist riot police squad, in the area and a dusk to dawn curfew, after 112 people were killed in clashes between the Pokomo and Orma tribes since late August 2012.



Jason Patinkin is a freelance writer and photographer from Chicago, Illinois. After graduating from Columbia University in New York City, he taught middle school science for three years to some extremely brilliant young adults on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Jason is now based in Nairobi, Kenya where he believes he has found the world’s best cup of coffee.

NAIROBI, Kenya – Three days after the massacre, I finally convinced someone to take me to the scene. I only knew his first name—Robert. He was in his twenties, lived a few miles from the site of the attack, and eked out a living by driving a rented motorcycle for hire. We wound our way through the dense coastal jungle for about 20 minutes until we reached a clearing. In the distance, buzzards circled dozens of fire-blackened huts. As we approached, a hot breeze carried the smell of burnt flesh.

Welcome to Kilelengwani: a village divided by ethnicity. A thousand Orma and Pokomo tribespeople once lived here, yet we didn’t meet a soul.

Half of the village—the Pokomo side—was untouched. But on the Orma side, the only building still standing was the mosque. Inside, blood stained the women’s prayer room. Outside, white ash sprinkled the charred Earth. Nearby, a pile of dead goats decomposed in the heat.

The Pokomo are farmers, the Orma herders. They’d lived together in Kenya’s Tana Delta for decades until a series of tit-for-tat massacres erupted in August, leaving over a hundred dead. The killings supposedly took place over access to dwindling water resources, but almost everyone suspects political involvement.

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In the early morning of Monday, September 10, hundreds of Pokomo tribesmen swarmed the village, slaughtering the Orma with machetes, spears, and guns. They came in three groups: one to overwhelm police, one to kill villagers, one to burn huts. They hacked women and children in the mosque. When it was over, 38 people were dead, including nine policemen. People said they could see the smoke for miles.

Government troops now enforce peace. But in the month of violence before their arrival, over 10,000 people fled the region, fearing their village would be next. I saw the exodus when I arrived in Witu town on Tuesday, September 11. Witu was a hub for escaping villagers of all tribes—even those unaffiliated with Orma and Pokomo. When our bus stopped, villagers surrounded us, passing children through windows. ravelers thrust money at the conductor, hoping for an aisle spot. I had to push my way off.

When I got off the bus, I asked a motorcycle driver if he’d take me to Kilelengwani. He laughed, shaking his head. “Kilelengwani is still burning,” he said. “Too dangerous.” Nearby villagers claimed police had abandoned the village in the hands of an armed militia.

Another motorcycle driver—Robert—suggested we visit Didewaride, home of many fleeing Orma. On the way, motorcycles streamed past us in the other direction, some carrying four people plus their belongings. They headed for Witu. I expected a ghost town.

But in Didewaride we found hundreds of men, women, and children on the sandy ground, on wooden benches, and under wiry trees. They were Kilelengwani’s Orma survivors. They arrived that morning by foot.

A group of men stood guard, gripping machetes, spears, and bow-and-arrows. There were no police in the camp, but the men didn’t want them. The police fled Kilelengwani during the attack, they said.

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A shaken 16-year-old stepped forward. The attackers killed his father and grandfather. His mother died years ago. He had no siblings. “I am completely alone,” he said.

Eventually Robert said, “Let’s go please.” As we drove away, he shouted over the engine that the men were asking about his language. Robert is neither Orma nor Pokomo, but his tribe are farmers. The battle lines are long.

Indeed, the next morning Robert took me to a relative’s home where a middle-aged man showed us a large bandage over his right ear. Along the top of his head, stitches crisscrossed a four-inch gash. The man said he was in his farm around dusk the day before when some Orma entered with livestock. He tried to drive the animals off. The Orma took out their machetes.

His family went to the police twice, but were ignored both times. Everyone I met, Orma or Pokomo, said similar skirmishes have gone unsolved for about ten years.

Despite such history, the tribes are not age-old enemies. They maintained friendships, even intermarried. A high school teacher in Witu said his Orma and Pokomo students got along well, and parents worked together at school meetings.

I returned to Didewaride on Thursday. By then, about 30 policemen had arrived, but the Orma scoffed at their presence. They said there were around 30 policemen guarding Kilelengwani when it was overrun.

I met an elder named Omare Shure, whose wife was murdered. “They were our friends,” he said of Kilelengwani’s Pokomo. “We are very, very sad to see that we are fighting with our neighbors.” He struggled to explain the actions of some of his village’s Pokomo residents who participated in the slaughter. “I don’t know what it is now. They knew my wife, they knew my children.”

He guessed politicians might be to blame because the attack was well organized. With elections approaching, political instigation of ethnic rivalries is common in Kenya—especially in poor areas like Tana Delta. A few local Pokomo politicians have been arrested, and there is widespread suspicion of attempted land grabbing by officials with Orma ties. Government and corporate interests covet the delta’s undeveloped water resources, raising tension.

After leaving the camp, Robert and I finally reached Kilelengwani before sunset. Besides the buzzards and some skinny dogs, we were the only ones there.

On Friday, I was almost ready to leave the delta. I wanted the Pokomo perspective, so I visited another displaced persons camp in Tarasaa town. There, I spoke to Said Shika, whose village was destroyed by the Orma in revenge for the Kilelengwani attack. Mr. Shika bitterly recalled the attackers’ taunts to “wipe you out and send you back to where you belong.” He was shocked and angry—many of the Orma were his friends.

“I had their numbers in my phone,” he said.

After the attack, he deleted those numbers.

I asked him, “Is peace possible?”

“Would we be fit to leave without getting revenge?” he responded.

The sun hung low when Mr. Shika finished. The buses had stopped for the state-imposed curfew. I flagged down a truck and climbed in back. The ocean came into view. I watched the delta fall into darkness.