Hard science, hard peace

From vaccine development to conflict resolution in northern Kenya

Darlington Akabwai will introduce himself to you as a pastoralist. Not as a faculty member at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, which he is, nor as a veterinary scientist, which he is.

Darlington has been working in northern Kenya for more than 10 years now. He started off on a hard science project to develop a heat-stable vaccine to combat the deadliest disease of African cattle and is now the linchpin of one of the most innovative and successful conflict resolution programs in this area of Africa. He is also, through his work, challenging Tufts to reassess how its "added value" is measured. What are we, a Boston-based university, doing driving a conflict resolution program among cattle-raiding communities in East Africa?

So here's the story.

A tribe in East Africa. © Peter Walker

Heat-stable vaccine
Rinderpest is a cattle disease spread from cow to cow, and it kills. Cattle are the very heart of the economy and community in this region where Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan share borders. Rinderpest was introduced into the region in colonial times, and by the 1980s, was one of the biggest drains on the economies of the communities that comprise the Karamajong cluster.

Using a long-known-about but neglected technique, Dr. Jeff Mariner, a former faculty member at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, developed a heat-stable form of vaccine for rinderpest. You might be tempted to ask: So what? Well, here's the problem. The communities of the Karamajong cluster are highly armed cattle-raiders; they also inhabit a war zone in a tropical climate. Normal vaccines need to be kept at near freezing from the time they are manufactured until they are injected into the cattle. This means you need a cold chain—a series of refrigerators and cold boxes—to get the vaccine from the factory, maybe in South Africa, to the cattle, which are a 10-hour drive (if you can get through) from the nearest source of electricity. Bottom line: The cold chain can't work. If you have a heat-stable vaccine, you do not need a cold chain. That's the so what.

Community vet development
Having developed the vaccine, it soon became clear that the lack of a cold chain was not the only barrier to vaccination. The normal veterinary services of the Sudan, Kenya and Uganda employed veterinarians trained in the capital cities who do not come from these conflict-ridden regions and who were neither able nor willing to travel to dangerous areas to administer the vaccines. So the Tufts team developed a system whereby cattle-owning communities could choose one of their members to be trained in basic disease identification and treatment and the administration of vaccines. We call them "community vets." They were the end-point deliverers, backed up by a more traditional system of veterinary supervision and practice.

Recalls Darlington, "My role was to convince the pastoralists to accept vaccinating their animals in large numbers using this heat-stable vaccine that would be delivered to their herds by their own trained sons and daughters. My critical role was to train those sons and daughters in collaboration with their traditional leadership."

Trusted community vets delivering the heat-stable rinderpest vaccine has almost eliminated the lethal disease from East Africa. A huge success story by any measure. So successful that cattle illness is no longer the main "disease" of the region. As one elder put it, "We will never really move forward until we can tackle the disease of violence and conflict, and that cannot be done by you vets." Well, maybe he was wrong.

Cattle-raiding in this region is endemic and traditional. It's part of normality. What is not normal is the change in how it happens. In 1979, the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, was overthrown, and the Kalashnikov AK47s with which he had armed his militia flowed into the open market. Before the fall of Amin, an automatic rifle cost the equivalent of 45 cattle. Today it's one gun for one cow. Before 1979, cattle-raiding rarely involved death. Now death is common. The Kalashnikov AK47 fires 10 rounds a second and doubles as a sniper's weapon. Ammunition sells for less than 20 cents a round. The wars in the Sudan, in Ethiopia and in Somalia have continued to pump these lethal weapons into the market. And now, across the region, the traditional activity of cattle-raiding has taken on a deadly dimension.

Making a stand against this violence is the challenge that Darlington and his team have accepted. They are not just veterinarians; they are themselves from pastoralist groups in the region. They know and understand pastoralism, the way of life, the way of thinking, and it shows. People trust them, not just because they are vets, but because they demonstrate the same love and empathy for livestock as for the tribes of the region, the Turkana, the Toposa, the Karamajong and the Pokot.

The team took up the challenge, and in 1999, organized the first meeting to bring together the elders of the Turkana and Toposa to discuss ways of reducing violence. The meeting went well, but as the leaders of the groups pointed out, the real people you need to get around the table are the young men from each community who actually do the raiding and shooting. Get them to agree to put down their arms, and you've got it made. So they brought the youth together.

© Peter Walker

The story repeats itself, with a subtle twist: "We could put aside the violence, but we are pushed by our mothers to go cattle-raiding. They need cattle as dowries for their daughters. If they don't have good dowries to give, their daughters will be married into poor families and find themselves in destitution," they say. So the team brings together the older women from two of the tribes. They say, "Yes we need the cattle for dowries, but we do not need killing like this. We have never had any opportunity to stop it."

Now there is an opportunity. But as they talk, the tone changes. "It's no good talking here in the town and getting an agreement; no one will respect that. We have to go out there, along the border between our two communities and engage with the young men on each side who are actually doing the killing. We have to go right along the border talking to group after group as we meet them. We have to tell them our own stories, not some plea to the greater good, but a plea to their hearts as sons, as husbands, as pastoralists."

And that is how the women's crusade began.

Peace crusaders
They are on their third crusade now. Here's how it works. Darlington and the community vets help select maybe 30 women from two tribes, 30 women who can tell their stories and who are committed to peace. The team provides transportation to take them from place to place along the border, a cook to prepare two meals a day, a public address system and a video camera and TV.

The crusade spends about 10 days on the road, 10 days away from their families and children. One of the team goes ahead of the crusade and finds the elders from both sides in a particular area. They tell them of the women's mission and ask them to come along and listen and that they should bring their wives and children with them. The whole thing is so novel and unusual that there is no problem gathering a crowd.

I caught up with them at Sabaktuk, a two-hour drive off the main road into the Acacia scrubland of the Rift Valley. Under a tree beside a dried-up river bed were about 70 people from the Turkana and Pokot tribes.

Ekale Arumo, a woman from the Pokot, was relating her story. No elaboration, no spin, just a clear, personal story. She had four brothers; they had been traveling in a pickup truck with some cattle. The Turkana attacked, and all her brothers were killed. She does not want revenge, or justice, just an end to the killing. Then Cheptoyo Molare from the Pokot stands up. "We have a vegetable garden down by the river. That morning I sent the children to work in the garden while I took the goats up the valley where there was some grazing. I came back in the evening and could not find my children. There had been a Turkana cattle raid. My children had been killed. I do not want revenge. I just want peace. No mother should have to suffer like this."

It was told a simply as that. And so it went throughout the afternoon, first one side, then the other, telling their stories. A Turkana youth says, "I am one of the best snipers in my tribe, but the women are talking sense. We should not be killing our brothers like this." Lokwakori, a Pokot youth, stands up, almost overcome with emotion. "I recognize you! I've seen you at a distance in the bush through the sights of my rifle. I am a Pokot sniper. We have tried to kill each other, and here we are face to face. Who is this foreigner, the rifle, which has come amongst us? Why do we let it destroy our lives?"

The afternoon continues with traditional dances and songs adapted to tell the story of the killing and violence. By the end of the day, the two communities agreed to meet more formally to see if they can set aside the arms and return to the way it was before the guns arrived.

Where's the added value?
So a project that started out as pure veterinary science has ended up as community conflict resolution. I was impressed. Impressed by the integrity and commitment of all the people involved, by the work being carried out, by the ability to drive innovation, by the fact that lives are being directly saved in myriad ways through the work. But I also found my self asking, "Why is a Boston-based university doing this? Surely this is the work of an NGO, a consultancy or a government department?" To put it bluntly, how does Tufts' Alan Shawn Feinstein International Famine Center add value?

After talking with the staff in the field, with the African-based institution they work with, after talking with the major funders of the work and the aid agencies, I was struck by how much they all value the university's input. Tufts has no public profile in Nairobi, no logos on cars, baseball caps and T-shirts, yet it has an incredibly high reputation among professional aid workers and veterinarians in the region. They value our involvement precisely because we are not an NGO or a consultancy. We bring objectivity and rigor. We bring the ability to pull in diverse opinions from within the Feinstein Famine Center to focus on difficult issues, and we bring credibility to the work, untainted by organizational agendas or profit margins.

And for us? How does this add value to us as an academic center? For me, the key is credibility and innovation. We could have handed over our work once the heat-stable vaccine had been developed, or once the community vet system had been developed, or once the women's peace crusades had been developed. But to do so would have been to cease to learn. These programs are our lab bench. Encouraging the program to run and innovate is our real-time computer model. By carrying on with this form of engaged research, we are adding to our knowledge, feeding directly back into the quality of our teaching and developing powerful tools to promote institutional change among those who eventually will have to take over the programs and innovations.

Tufts and the Feinstein Famine Center have been involved in East Africa for more than five years now. I see no reason why we should not be looking at five more years of innovation, development and success.

Peter Walker is the director of the Alan Shawn Feinstein International Famine Center and an associate professor at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.