Kenya ethnic violence: jihad? Well, no….

The African Union is calling for a speedy investigation into the ethnic violence in southeast Kenya's Tana River District (Coast province) that has so far claimed 50 lives. The outbreak began Aug. 22, when some 100 members of the Pokomo people raided Reketa village, inhabited by members of the Orma group. Among those hacked to death were 31 women, 11 children and eight men. The attack was apparently prompted when members of the pastoral Orma strayed into lands claimed by Pokomo farmers. While Pokomo accuse the Orma of allowing livestock to encroach onto their farms and destroy their crops, the Orma complain that Pokomo farmlands encroach on their traditional grazing lands on the banks of the Tana River, and prevent herders from using the river to water their cattle. (Xinhua, Capital FM, Nairobi, via AllAfrica, The Star, Nairobi, Aug. 23; CBC, IRIN, Aug. 22)

Reactionary Islamophobes are having a field day with this—alas, without much attention to accuracy (or punctuation). A commenter on an LA Times account writes:

ah the details – Pokomo tribe, attacked the minority Ormas.

2 minutes of google and you find…the reason why this is called a 'ethinic clash' and not Muslim Extremists.

Pokomo tribe – almost exclusively Christian.
The Orma are 100% Muslim.

Note the most obvious error—the commenter reverses the fact of who was attacked by whom. Pay attention: The Ormas strayed onto lands claimed by Pokomo farmers, who retaliated with a massacre. Nonetheless, this comment and others like it are picked up in gloating manner by various ugly Islamophobic websites. Similar comments abound in an account on Free Republic, along with the usual racist musings about how those darn uncivilized Africans just can't get along (as opposed to Europeans, who of course have a sterling record of getting along with each other).

And (sorry, guys) it turns out the Pokomo are not "almost exclusively Christian." After "two minutes on Google," one can easily find the Kenya: History, Culture, and Current Issues website, which informs us:

The Pokomo are a group of 50,000 Kenyans who live along the Tana River, Kenya's largest river, along the southeastern edge of the country. The Pokomo are divided into the Upper Pokomo, around 75% of the total Pokomo population, and the Lower Pokomo, around 25% of the total population. What divides them is not only geographic, but religious as well. The Upper Pokomo are Muslim, while the Lower Pokomo are Christian. The Lower Pokomo do not practice divorce, while the Upper Pokomo permit it, due to Muslim laws.

It also makes note of the apparently long-standing issue of control of the river banks:

The Pokomo's land typically does not exceed 1 to 2 km away from the river at any point. The Pokomo migrated to the Tana River in the 17th century and have been there ever since. They occupy the lower portion of the river, approx. 400 km. from Kipini to Mbalambala, north of Mombasa. They are an agricultural and fishing community, growing crops such as maize, plantains, and sugarcane. The Pokomo live in small villages of no more than 60 huts and observe collective habits of food growing, especially during the harvest season. The Pokomo rely on the flooding river to irrigate their crops.

Since 2001, the Pokomo have been at odds with the Orma tribe, semi-nomadic herders who also need the Tana River to feed their animals. Conflicts have turned more deadly with the introduction of modern weapons.

Now, after spending considerably longer than two minutes on Google, we were unable to determine with much certainty whether the Pokomo involved in the recent attack are Muslim or Christian. The Ethnologue website informs us that the Pokomo are a Bantu-speaking people, and also notes that they are both Muslim and Christian; while the Orma are a Cushitic-speaking people who are overwhelmingly Muslim. The map of Kenya does not show Reketa village, so we cannot thusly determine if it is in the Upper or Lower Tana River Valley. An account on Nairobi's Standard newspaper places the violence in the "Tana Delta"—which may imply that it is in the Lower part, in which case the Pokomo involved  would indeed be Christian. But the fact that even the Kenyan media are not bothering to mention this indicates that religion is not an overriding factor here.

Anyone who is familiar with Kenyan ethnography and can clear this question up is invited to comment here. (Islamophobes who want to fume that we are jihadist dupes are emphatically not.) 

The Islamophobes are of course blind to the critical question of political ecology at work here. Conflicts between nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists and sedentary agriculturalists are growing across Africa—in Mali, in Nigeria, in the Sudanese border war, and (hello?) in Darfur. With the exception of the Sudanese border war, none of these conflicts involve Muslim attacks on Christians. In all the other cases, the pastoralists and agriculturalists alike are Muslim. Even when religion plays an ostensible role in the conflicts, pointing to it as a causative factor just begs the question of why "religious" conflict is breaking out at this particular moment. 

The case of Darfur is particularly instructive, because it is a conflict which experts have repeatedly linked to climate change. A new report from Germany's University of Bielefeld, "Human Rights, Climate Change, and Climate Policies in Kenya" (PDF), notes that aridification linked to climate change is driving ethnic conflict by pushing pastoralists and agriculturalists onto the same lands, as their traditional territories no longer produce crops or sustain herds as they did.

You wanna do something to help the situation in Kenya, Islamophobes? Get out of your SUVs…