How a boy with a list was a stepping stone to empathy

Imagine the situation if you can. Young men from two tribes in northern Kenya, Samburus from the top of the escarpment and Pokots from down in the heat of the valley, have been killing each other in cattle raiding attacks over several years. Intervention became possible and the peace-making team has managed to get agreement from both sides to work on a small development project that will build a road from the top down into the valley.

This road could become a lived metaphor, connecting the two tribes; the physical connection could support the connection of empathy. How does that become possible? Answer: through small interactions that create the beginnings of trust. 

A boy with a list helped

The ‘road’ is not for traffic but for people to trade, for goats and cattle. A path is made by clearing large stones. 40 young men from each tribe, encouraged by the elders and supported by the peace-making team, assemble for the work. They start down in the valley, working upwards. There is no trust between the two groups and they work separately, in different places:

When we started working on the road, it was still difficult. .. On the first day, you will see the Samburus — if they want to lift a stone, he has to call a fellow Samburu.

.. Samburus are working on that part, Pokots are working on this part.

 The lack of trust and empathy is embodied – it felt dangerous to have the Other, your enemy, close to you but out of your sight, because you remember what can happen.

 When we were working, we just didn’t want anyone to walk behind me, because I thought he would chop my head with a panga.


Language helps as a first step across the divide:   then slowly people started talking. 

But it was a boy with a list who really made a difference. This is how Evans told the story:

 We also invited the women who sell tea, because those people would stay there. so we told them,

“Come with mandazi and porridge and tea, and serve to people.”  

After two days, the old women — because they know these people will be paid at the end of the week — they would extend credit for selling things to the Samburus. So they will take on credit and, at the end of the week, I saw someone with a list, walking. A young man. Somebody pays him, so many shillings, (he ticks that person off the list). 

 And then he took the list and the money to the Pokot woman.

“Here’s your money that we’ve owed you.” 

The women were still giving credit, trusting that this boy will bring (the money). They were paying, all of them. The boy will tell them, “Please come with loose money. Don’t bring notes.”  So they go with it and they pay that lady. 

How important that boy with the list was. He acted as intermediary between the old Pokot women and the Samburu young men who bought their tea. Each side trusted him, and because he carried out his task reliably, he enabled them to begin to trust each other. The Pokot perception of the Samburu young men shifted from ‘enemy’ to people who pay their tea debts.

Here’s what they built on that small bridge:

  • The Samburus started sleeping in the Pokot village down in the valley, instead of going back up to the top each night.
  • The young men from the two tribes exchanged mobile phone numbers.
  • When they got near to the top, the Pokots stayed in the Samburu village.
  • When they stayed overnight, they would talk to the families, recall times before the fighting, speak of people they used to know.
  • The idea of a peace market was introduced; the market was set up.
  • The young men who worked together have kept on meeting:

They started meeting on their own, without us.

They will call (on their mobiles) now, “Where are you today? Let’s meet at a certain point, at that tree.” 

They go to that tree and they meet.

The moral of the story: Don’t underestimate what a boy with a list can do for empathy and conflict transformation. 

He was a first, small, non-threatening connection between the Pokot tea women and the Samburu tea drinkers. With his list, he made sure that the first interactions between them were carried out honourably. The success of those first interactions enabled the rest. Through his work came the beginnings of connecting with the Other.

One Response to “How a boy with a list was a stepping stone to empathy”
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  1. […] in peace building notices and uses the affordances of the situation, even the least promising. Credit for buying tea is an affordance for building trust; development funding for dairy goats becomes an affordance for […]

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