Some youths in northern Kenya are abandoning banditry for alternative ways of earning a living. More than 500 men from the Samburu indigenous group, traditionally known as morans, are enrolled in vocational training, such as carpentry, keeping them from what authorities say is the smuggling of guns from neighboring Ethiopia for cattle rustling.
Twenty-eight-year-old Simon Lepramarai recalled the day in 2019 when he and a friend were nearly shot after stealing cattle from a rival community in Samburu.
"We went for a raid; we went to steal," he aid. "Before we got to our destination, they ambushed us, they shot at us, we ran; each one went their way. We had to save our lives," Simon said. "I was on my own and there was no hospital around. I decided that I don't want to do this anymore."
Simon, now a motorcycle repairman in his village, said he enrolled in vocational training for a decent livelihood.
He's among more than 500 youths in northern Kenya taking part in what is known as “ujuzi manyatani,” meaning skills in the community in Swahili.
Authorities say the program is helping to diversify livelihoods among young morans, including women.
"This is a program that is being fashioned to suit pastoral communities’ lifestyle because the tools and trainers are actually mobile; they move from one village to another," Program Director Boru Ture said. "Through, this program a number of youths and women who were engaged in unproductive activities such as banditry, highway robbery, are turning their skills into business."
National data indicates northern Kenyan regions plagued by arid weather, sparse populations and pastoral activities have the highest unemployment, with rates of up to 62%.
Kenyan government spokesperson Cyrus Oguna told VOA in a phone interview that the state is supporting the education of northern communities, especially against the traditional cattle rustling practice.
“Sometimes they rustle either to get dowry; only a few times they rustle for economic reasons," Oguna said. "So, the government strategy is to educate most of these people so that rustling as a cultural practice is completely abandoned and done away with as new ways of doing things, new ways of looking at social issues are introduced to them through education."
Community elders like Purandi Lenaigwanai, who are leading peace talks involving rival groups in the region, say the vocational training can be a real shot in the arm if more youths become involved.
"They are repairing motorbikes and making some money," Lenaigwanai said. "Their mindset has changed from rustling, but those who are not trained are still in the bush practicing the vice.”
Dozens of people in northern Kenya lose their lives to ethnic rivalry, according to security authorities. Officials have voiced hope that initiatives such as job skills training will help to stop the crimes in the future.