It was a memo from an intergovernmental security commission that summarized a recent spike in fighting between nomads in the Turkana region. In one skirmish "Toposa bandits" had maneuvered 25 stolen donkeys belonging to a Mr. Namocho toward the Sudanese border. Armed Turkana "warriors" gave chase, cutting off the rustlers and igniting a firefight with "negative impact on human lives." Another raid at a settlement called Kibish involved a herd of pigs. Two thieves were shot dead "as intensive cross-fire exploded in the air."
The bloodiest episode by far was the coldblooded murder, nine days before, of eight ethnic Turkana women in the Todonyang area near the border with Ethiopia. The aggressors were Merille from Ethiopia -- kin to the Daasanach. Snapshots accompanying the report, all the more wrenching for their amateur quality, featured crude graves and babies with horribly bruised faces. Their dead mothers had dropped them trying to escape the gunfire. The extreme brutality of such attacks baffled me until a Turkana businessman who ran a development organization in Lodwar explained their logic. "Nothing demoralizes the enemy more than killing their women," he said. "Women are targeted because it is a war of ethnic survival. And between the Merille and Turkana, access to shrinking pasturelands equals survival." Roughly a hundred nomads annually, from various ethnic groups, have died in battles in the Turkana region in recent years.
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Outsiders tend to see their pet causes played out in African famines. Everyone brings something to hunger's table.
Anti-globalization groups condemn stock market speculators for jacking up the costs of the world's food staples (thus pricing the poor out of their next meal). Washington worries about famine's role in political instability, particularly if relief is diverted to terrorist groups. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was obliged last summer to rescind the threat of legal sanctions against aid groups working in parts of Somalia controlled by the Islamist al-Shabab guerrillas; millions of civilians might have died otherwise.) Nowadays, the latest meta-concern to be piggybacked onto the backs of the starving is global warming. Some reporters, agreeing with Richard Leakey, have labeled the bloody clashes in the Turkana Basin one of the world's first "climate-change conflicts." Like most other imposed narratives, though, this one is blinkered.
"At this stage, I don't think there is any hard evidence to show conclusively that droughts are getting worse in the region, compared with the past," Philip Thornton, a leading climate scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, wrote me in an email. "To call this a 'climate change war' may well be simply wrong."
Nobody disputes that the Horn of Africa is reeling through a period of harrowing droughts. Water levels in Lake Turkana have sunk 50 feet over the past 40 years. And Mister Inas and other herders insisted that the recent dry seasons have broken all records for longevity. But the point Thornton and other climate scientists make is that events in one lifetime aren't a reliable enough gauge of what droughts loom ahead. Long-term rainfall statistics collected in the region -- going back to British colonial times -- are ambiguous, sometimes oscillating just as radically as today. And according to the most recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international agency spearheading the study of the man-made pollutants that cause global warming, East Africa is expected to get wetter, not dryer, in coming decades. "Even if East Africa does become wetter, this does not imply that the climate will be more conducive for agricultural production," Thornton cautioned. Increases in temperature are likely to lead to decreased crop yields.
In Lodwar, the people closest to the violence naturally had their own interpretations.
"I would put climate change second or third," said Epem Esekon, a senior administrator at Lodwar's hospital. "The redrawing of land boundaries under Kenya's new constitution comes first, then maybe climate, then maybe guns." Local violence has erupted in Kenya over political boundaries overhauled in 2010. In addition, Esekon said, pastoral groups had clashed and stolen each others' livestock using spears. Now an abundance of cheap assault rifles from wars both defunct and active in South Sudan and Uganda had upped the ante of such raids.
Esekon's hospital had already discharged the survivors of the assault on Todonyang. But other victims of such carnage were lying about. One Turkana man, shot through the back by competing Pokots, curled glassy-eyed with pain in bed No. 20. The bullet's exit would was two inches above his navel. He had limped four days to seek medical help.