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Warring Communities in Kenya's Rift Valley Gather for Peace Race


In Kenya's Rift Valley, the Turkana and Pokot ethnic groups have long battled over resources, such as cattle and land. But they recently put aside their differences for a day to take part in a race organized by one of Kenya's top athletes as a way of bringing the groups together and easing tensions.

Turkana and Pokot warriors singing, dancing and chatting side-by-side is a rare sight in Kenya's central Rift Valley.

But that is what happened on International Peace Day, as they along with the Marakwet and some members of Uganda's Karamajong ethnic group, focused on a common goal: to win the 10-kilometer race.

For runner Peter Loupe, this was a special day. He says this race, along with other sports projects recently introduced into the area, has improved the lives of community members.

Loupe says Pokot, Turkana and Marakwet families are living more peacefully together because of coming together at sports events such as the race. Through these initiatives, he says, people have also discovered talents they did not know they had, which has helped them economically.

More than 400 Turkana, Pokot, Marakwet and Karamajong men and women gathered in the early hours at the start line, some stretching or doing jumping jacks to warm up their muscles.

And then, they were off. The runners pushed themselves to the limit on the grueling track in an area that can reach up to 38 degrees Celcius.

The September 23 race was the brainchild of Kenyan athlete Tegla Loroupe. Born in West Pokot Division, Loroupe won at least a half-dozen world marathons, including the New York City Marathon in 1994 and 1995.

She went on to establish the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, which supports projects that promote conflict resolution, peace building and poverty eradication initiatives.

Loroupe tells VOA the race is meant to cultivate understanding and friendship among the warring communities. Her motivation, she says, comes from her own volatile childhood.

"I come from West Pokot myself," she said. "Through my young age, I went through hell, like the other children are going [through] at the moment. We used to run away when the problem comes. We could stay [away for] one month, and you have to come back and sit in examinations, whereby you are sitting with someone who is staying in Nairobi, having their full-time education. As an athlete, running across the borders for many years, I realized that people love sports. I said, 'OK, I have a name as Tegla Loroupe. I have to come back from Europe or America to bring attention to our people.'"

Cattle raiding has been a long-standing practice among the Turkana, Pokot and other groups in the area, with attacks and revenge attacks claiming many lives.

Reverend Julius Murgor is a pastor with the Africa Inland Church, who heads the church's Pokot Outreach Ministries.

He explains that poverty and cultural practices are among the major factors in the clashes.

"Somebody wants a cow, or cows, for various reasons: economical reasons and also for marriage, to give out as a bride price," he explained. "So, they go down south to Pokot and take some, or up north to Turkana and take some, and give to the in-laws as bride price. Also, the fact [is] that the area is dry. Most people don't have cows, and even if they do, there comes a time when there is starvation all over, so a lot of people lose cows. By the end of a season, one is poor, and so they think of going to get some stock from the neighboring tribe. There is [also] tribal pride in subduing your enemy, and being able to snatch away something they possess."

Murgor says one solution is for the communities to start small-scale businesses or trading as a way of fighting poverty and idleness.

For Tegla Loroupe, a race is a solid first step in breaking down cultural and economic barriers.

"Normally, in races there is no person who is better than another," she noted. "You can always mix rich, poor, children. People come together. Today, this is something special, because we are doing [the event] in the community, in the crowd, where it is open for everybody. Did you see insecurity today? No. People are happy. They want to listen and learn from one another."

Loroupe says that, without peace among the ethnic groups, there can be no lasting and effective development in the area.

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