We need to keep the fires of cross-border sol­i­dar­ity burn­ing

The East African - - OPINION -

In 2012, my col­leagues and I were at the Man­dera Tri­an­gle, where the coun­tries of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia meet, an area re­ferred to by the US Depart­ment of State as one of the most con­flict-prone in the world. We were on the Kenyan side, hold­ing peace and se­cu­rity di­a­logues with the res­i­dents on how to end the violent con­flict. The nights were length­ened by sounds of gun­fire as the Ethiopian mil­i­tary and So­mali in­sur­gents en­gaged each other.

In the di­a­logue, the Kenyan res­i­dents said they had in­ter-clan dif­fer­ences but most of the vi­o­lence came from at­tacks from Somalia. “A pos­si­ble clo­sure of the border be­tween Kenya and Somalia would keep Kenyans safe,” one of us quipped. The si­lence that fol­lowed this state­ment was bro­ken by one of the two women in the room. “No,” she said. “The border be­tween Kenya and Somalia should not be closed. Our re­la­tion­ship as Kenyans with Somalia is that of

(ask­ing for fire).” She was de­scrib­ing what peo­ple who grew up in African vil­lages know all about. A fire was never al­lowed to go out be­cause it was dif­fi­cult to light a new one and match­boxes were hard to come by. In the event that the fire went out, a child would be sent to the neigh­bour to beg a burn­ing em­ber.

The child would run back as fast as pos­si­ble, blow­ing fu­ri­ously on the em­ber, thus en­sur­ing it stayed alive long enough to start a new fire. This was This prac­tice em­pha­sised the im­por­tance of good neigh­bourli­ness; you had to be on good terms be­cause you never knew when you would need fire from your neigh­bour.

How is Africa to deal with the dilemma of strength­en­ing re­la­tion­ships and curb­ing in­se­cu­rity that come with soft bor­ders that are open but reg­u­lated as op­posed to hard mil­i­tarised bor­ders that in­clude walls and fences?

Kenya and Uganda per­son­ify the colo­nial-bound­ary re­la­tion­ship quag­mire through the ex­am­ple of the Awori fam­ily, which saw two broth­ers end­ing up as Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment one in Uganda and the other in Kenya. Ag­grey Awori ac­tu­ally ran for pres­i­dent in Uganda in 2001, while his brother Moody served as Kenya’s vice-pres­i­dent from 2003 to 2007. In those days, we would imag­ine how it would be if, for in­stance, Kenya and Uganda had pres­i­dents who shared a mother and fa­ther.

I was re­minded of this busi­ness in a con­ver­sa­tion on the side­lines of the 2nd Un/igad Peace and Se­cu­rity High Level Di­a­logue in Kam­pala last week. Some par­tic­i­pants had wit­nessed the re­cent re­open­ing of the Ethiopian and Eritrean bor­ders first hand.

As soon as the an­nounce­ment was made, no­body flocked to any gov­ern­ment of­fice to seek le­gal pa­pers. Peo­ple just walked across the bor­ders, re­sum­ing a life their an­ces­tors had been used to. Trade and re­la­tion­ships have blos­somed. Eritre­ans and Ethiopi­ans can now again.

In the evening, we went to see the world-renowned Ndere troupe, which de­scribes it­self as Africa’s danc­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dia, show­cas­ing breath­tak­ing dances from all parts of Uganda. Rwangezyi Stephen, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ndere Cen­tre in­ter­posed the dances with a rich nar­ra­tive. I was sur­prised when Rwangezyi used the term “soft bor­ders” to en­gage the au­di­ence.

Rwangezyi said the abil­ity to re­spect dif­fer­ence is ex­plained by a pas­toral­ist proverb that says, “Those who do not value cows may mis­take a full ud­der for an ab­scess.” Rwangezyi then asked the au­di­ence what the most im­por­tant part of the body was. “Heart”! “Mouth”! “Spinal cord”! Dif­fer­ent voices piped up.

He then asked each of us to imag­ine a glass of wa­ter in front of us, stretch out our hands and hold it, which we did. He then asked us to pick up the imag­i­nary glass and bring it to our mouths for a sip, with­out bend­ing our el­bows. None of us could do so! He then asked us again to say which part of the body was most im­por­tant. Laugh­ing, we all shouted, “El­bow”!

The moral of the ex­er­cise, Rwangezyi said, was that it did not mat­ter which coun­tries we came from, we were all hu­man be­ings de­serv­ing re­spect even if we were dif­fer­ent as we all needed each other! The el­bow must be re­spected as much as the heart and spinal cord were.

How­ever, many Africans are not both­ered by the lack of a kuom­bana moto of­fi­cial for­eign pol­icy as they rou­tinely ig­nore bor­ders and move with­out le­gal doc­u­ments such as pass­ports. In a plu­ral­is­tic recognition of the value of what oth­ers have that they do not, ex­changes have taken place for cen­turies be­tween pas­toral­ists, farm­ers and traders across what we now call bor­ders.

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