Kenya: How Fishing at Turkwel Dam Has Restored Peace in Pokot

Miriam Nabwire from Busia County, fries fish caught at Turkwel Dam in West Pokot County at the shores of the dam on October 29.
6 November 2020

There is a place called Kosovo, but it is not the one in Southeastern Europe. It is in Kenya, in Riting and Reres areas in West Pokot County.

It was nicknamed Kosovo because of the bloodshed that the community has endured for decades, due to cattle rustling and banditry.

The government has used various strategies that explore diplomacy and community engagement to end the war.

What has yielded the most effective results, though, in restoring peace in the communities is, wait for it, fishing. Turkana and Pokot communities have taken advantage of the Turkwel Dam to get water for the ponds.

The Governor of West Pokot County John Lonyangapuo allocated money for fingerlings so that the communities can spend time in an income-generating activity that can sort out some of the problems such as unequal distribution of resources.

The county government has even set up the Turkwel Beach Management Unit (BMU). BMU's manager Lopuo Lotelekwang says the project has also boosted security in the region because the young men who used to engage in cattle rustling now focus on fishing to earn a living.

Mr Lotelekwang said the Turkana and Pokot communities have agreed to do business together, and a household can earn as much as Sh3,000 a day.

Deadly conflicts

When the county government initiated the project in 2017, the team needed patience more than technical skills for the project to succeed. The Turkana and Pokot are a Nilotic community and are traditionally nomadic pastoralists.

However, recurrent drought has consumed all the pasture for their livestock. As conditions change, the two ethnic groups have had to embrace activities that were unheard of not so long ago, such as fishing.

"Before 2017, most Pokot were unaware of the importance of this dam, but after the county brought over 5,000 fingerlings here two years ago, they have embraced fishing to help them meet their daily needs," Mr Lotelekwang said.

The daily needs that Mr Lotelekwang mentions are as essential as water and healthcare. These are services that the area has lived without due to systemic neglect that has condemned the North West to poverty.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) reported that in 2016, Turkana County had the highest number of poor people, eight in 10 (79 per cent). The county itself accounted for more than 15 per cent of those in extreme poverty in Kenya.

The inequalities have fuelled the deadly conflicts between the Turkana and the Pokot in Kenya since the 60s. These conflicts have often spilled over across the border into Ethiopia and Uganda, as the two communities compete for dwindling food supply.

With all attention focused on war, in a dry climate, children's and women's nutritional status took a blow. The 2014 Kenya Demographic Health Survey, the latest of the document, ranked West Pokot County alongside Kitui with nearly one in every two (46 per cent) of the children under five stunted. Almost one in four children in Turkana (23 per cent) are wasted, too thin due to lack of food.

Paulina Joram, a mother of eight and a trader, appreciates the business because she is making money and feeding her children with the same products.

She said other Nilotic community from far away counties, such as the Luo, have been making trips to West Pokot to purchase fish.

Fishing business

"Luos are the ones who used to come here to fish and also buy, but now we have also learnt the art and the value of fish as well," she told the Nation.

Women like Paulina can educate and feed their children from the money they earn from fishing. There are also other women, such as Miriam Nabwire, who have relocated from far off counties such as Busia and settled in Riting, lured by the thriving fishing business.

"I heard this area used to be very dangerous, but when I came here a year ago, I found peace among the locals and carried on with my business," says Ms Nabwire.

The fish industry has also given birth to auxiliary businesses. Lochero Losemwai, 25, operates a boat, which earns him an income from delivering fish.

In a day Lochero can make as much as Sh4,000 as he delivers fish to neighbouring Kang'oletiang, Chepokachim, Murkorio and Kudung'ole areas.

The boat also transports tourists who enjoy the scene in the dam. Lochero got his boat as a gift from his father, but the other young men got loan facilities from the county government to buy their motorboats.

Governor Lonyangapuo told the Nation that he is keen to see the dam used safely to change the lives of the locals.

"There are serious traders here now supplying fish as far as Kapenguria and other major towns in western Kenya," said the governor who has since banned washing of clothes and motorbikes in the dam for environmental safety.

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