ILEMI TRIANGLE, Kenya (Reuters) - First, the scouts saw a footprint, then a suspected spy from a rival ethnic group, scuttling off into the bush.
Expecting an attack, young men grabbed their guns and mothers grabbed their children - there are few state security forces in this remote area of northern Kenya.
The Ilemi Triangle, a disputed sliver of land along the border with Ethiopia and South Sudan, is the northernmost tip of Turkana, Kenya’s poorest county.
A series of deadly clashes between the Turkana community and other ethnic groups that they said had crossed from South Sudan have put people on edge, to the point of posting lookouts.
As in many regions across Africa, farmers and nomads frequently clash over limited resources, be it land, cattle or water. Cows and bulls are the most important currency here, not cash.
When danger looms, locals say the police are usually far away and neighbors are the only ones they can turn to.
In the Turkana community where I was staying, the danger was real. I saw seven or eight places scattered with skulls or bones with shredded clothing during the three weeks I spent in the region. There are a lot of wild animals so bodies left outside don’t stay intact for long.
Kenya has found oil in Turkana, but while politicians in the capital Nairobi haggle over who gets the revenue, the discovery has had little effect on the county so far.
Where I visited, families drink from the same muddy pools as their livestock. There are few schools - children instead help herd the precious cows to nearby watering holes.
Chief Eipa Choro, 74, said the community felt abandoned by the government; clean water from an aid group’s borehole was two hours’ drive away. The nearest police station was several hours away over dusty tracks.
Nairobi says the county government is responsible for providing many important frontline services like health, early education and roads. The county government says Nairobi doesn’t give it enough money to do so. While they argue, people suffer.
SPOILING FOR A FIGHT
When it looked like an attack was imminent, some of the young men I witnessed seemed more excited than dismayed by the prospect of a clash with those they feared were after their livestock.
As part of their preparations, they slaughtered a bull then plunged their hands into its stomach to draw out the half-digested grass. They rubbed this over their heads and chests, part of their preparations to fight.
We weren’t attacked during the time I spent with them, but each time we moved, the community sent out scouts to secure the way and try to spot potential ambushes from cattle raiders.
One of the most dangerous times was when they took the cows up to a watering hole right next to the border with Ethiopia. Cattle raiding parties sometimes attack and drive the herd deep into foreign territory.
One day a shaman came to read the entrails of a goat. He predicted rain and fighting. The rain came, but no fighting.
Instead, news trickled in over scratchy phone lines that the group the men thought were targeting them had attacked another community nearby, carrying off around 600 animals. Reuters could not independently verify the incident.
Such raids can be a disaster for a community. There’s little money here. All serious transactions are done with livestock. Warrior Matthew Logel Matteze told me he had to pay his wife’s family 16 cows and 60 goats to marry her.
Kenya and South Sudan have set up a joint commission to try to agree on the disputed border.
Mawien Makol, a spokesman for South Sudan’s Foreign Ministry said the work might be finished by the end of the year.
Irene Akao Agum, a spokeswoman for Kenya’s Attorney General’s Office, said authorities were trying to gather information from both communities about the border.
My hosts want to stay in Kenya, but these days in the Ilemi Triangle, there is little peace.
Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Mark Heinrich
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