How guns changed a way of life

Before guns, in this corner of north Kenya, there were spears and pangas.




Every evening, the cows and goats of a pastoralist family are gathered in behind the fences of the homestead to protect them from wild animals and from raiders. Cattle raiding was a traditional practice carried out by one community on another. Under cover of night, and armed with spears, young men would creep up to steal a few cows or goats from a homestead in another community and take them back to their place. Raiding was a communal affair. Although the young men carried out the raid, they did so on behalf of their community: the elders would have decided when and where a raid would take place; the young women would have sung praise songs that made the young men feel brave and determined, ready for action; the older women would receive the stolen cattle and milk them.

It was probably inevitable that guns would reach the area. They were brought down from countries further north — from Sudan or Somalia — by people who thought it a good idea, for political and/or financial reasons. At first, families were persuaded to buy guns to defend themselves, their cattle and community. Once bought, it was probably inevitable that the guns would be used, and absolutely inevitable that, when used, they would cause serious wounds and deaths. Cattle raiding changed, and violence escalated through revenge attacks.

Introducing guns changed the complex social system of the communities and the empathy dynamics of this system.

The Other seen through the sights of a gun is no longer just a young man like yourself sent to seize a few cows but is reduced to a target. The person who shoots is also changed: young men practiced with guns, learnt how to look after them, how to move through the landscape with them, how to use them. Some of them ‘love their guns’. The guns become integrated into constructs of strength and courage, into masculinities.

The young men also died in numbers they had not imagined:

when we started this war, 

we started something that we never knew, 

and that we have never seen.

In that war 

so many friends, 

so many young people, 


So many people died in this war.


The guns changed how people lived in their landscape:

before the war, 

people were staying scattered everywhere… 

everyone stays on his own, 


with his own livestock, 

taking care of his own livestock


now.. we are all forced to stay in one village, 


but we have no alternative 

because of this gun 

The arrival of guns changed the local economy. The blacksmiths in each community lost their traditional role. Because the guns need ‘feeding’, cattle have to be driven north to be exchanged for expensive bullets; a local system became connected into an unstable international system, with attendant risks.

The guns changed lives. As they became part of the physical landscape, so they changed the social, economic, cultural and empathic landscapes of communities. To initiate change and reduce violence requires intervening in this web of connections… to be continued 

3 Responses to “How guns changed a way of life”
  1. This is so tragic. I long to know if some interventions have been successful, and who intervenes?

    • Lynne Cameron says:

      I saw excellent, and brave, work by the peace-building team in Maralal. I will mark earlier posts where I described some of this. I am also writing about how to move on from guns and will publish soon.

      And N Ireland, despite its ongoing problems, shows that people can move beyond violence.


  2. You could take this scene to any urban neighborhood in this country…fistfights > knives> stupid macho posturing with guns. But the NRA would be all over you…

    I’ll be interested to see the continuation of this post, to learn whether an intervention happened. Or was successful.

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