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Bows and arrows: deadly weapons of rural Kenya's war

A member of the Kalenjin points his bow and arrow as he battles against warriors from the Kisii tribe during ethnic clashes in the western Kenyan town of Chebilat 03 February 2008. Chebilat was the scene of pitched bow and arrow battles between Kalenjin and Kisii tribes people. At least 13 people were killed overnight in tribal fighting and a police crackdown in western Kenya, police said Sunday, in a further blow to hopes raised by a peace deal between political rivals. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Njoro, Kenya (AFP) Feb 2, 2008
Six men sit chiselling arrows inside a dusty, wooden-gated compound in rural Kenya. As they sharpen the blades and construct bows, the men say they are preparing for war.

"We have been making arrows since we were attacked a month ago," says Sylvester, 24, amid the sound of hammers clanging against steel nails. "It's for our own self-defence."

Sylvester is a Kikuyu, the ethnic group of President Mwai Kibaki that has been battling other tribes such as the Luos and the Kalenjins in Kenya's lush Rift Valley since December's widely-contested presidential polls.

The closely-fought race that saw Kibaki defeat opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo, was declared by opposition supporters as rigged.

Violent ethnic clashes marked by swinging machetes, flying stones and the whiz of arrows have since left hundreds dead. Victims with arrows, sometimes poisoned, lodged in their heads and chests have become increasingly common, say officials in Rift Valley hospitals.

In the bow-and-arrow compound, roosters and dogs roam around timber and hay at the makeshift workshop.

"In a day we can make between 80 and 100," Sylvester says. Community volunteers pool money together to buy the necessary tools.

First, the head is cut off a four-inch nail, which is then chiseled with a heavy hammer into a sharp edge. The nail is then coiled to fit on to a bamboo stick.

A groove is cut into the bottom of the stick in order to add paraffin paper wings for the arrow to have better flight. Sometimes, the arrow can be dipped into frog or snake poison before being released.

The bow is made by forcefully bending hard wood and adding string and springs. The result is a four-foot (1.2-metre) weapon that can shoot an arrow more than 550 yards (500 metres).

"We cannot know the time of day when they (Kalenjins) will come. If they catch you off guard, you're dead," says Samuel, 25, holding a bundle of ready arrows.

Tourist towns Nakuru and Naivasha, known for their wild flamingos, saw some of the worst scenes of recent ethnic clashes.

In Njoro, a tiny town outside of Nakuru, in the western Rift Valley, distinct lines divide warring groups.

"The Kalenjins have been attacking us," says 27-year-old Gideon, a Kikuyu, as he points to Kalenjin homes across a dirt road that winds past picket fences, gold-coloured weeds and scraggly plants.

"They want us to move so they can take our land and our property."

Unkempt fields littered with corn stalks line either side of the road on both Kikuyu and Kalenjin territory. Farmers say they are too afraid to prepare their harvests for fear of being attacked.

"We were using swords but they were not effective," Sylvester says, slashing a knife through the air, its blade glinting in the light.

Kalenjin elders train their boys how to use bows and arrows from an early age, the Kikuyu men say. But Kikuyus have had to learn quickly to fight back with the same tools.

Now, nearly 100 arrows are distributed among Njoro Kikuyus every day.

Women and girls, who do not fight, assist in collecting materials for the weapons.

Community leaders know about the secret arrow factories, but police forces do not. Five bow-and-arrow construction groups of 10 members each pepper the town.

Everett Wasige, Rift Valley police commander until this week, said that police were surprised by the rising popularity of bows and arrows.

"It was very unexpected," Wasige told AFP. "Before this conflict, arrows were not used for these kind of recent attacks. They were mainly used for activities such as hunting."

"This is obviously something very wrong and very new."

Shooters say the advantage of arrows is that their victims often do not see them coming.

And despite the latest Kofi Annan-led push for an end to the violence, they believe the Rift Valley clashes will continue and their arrows will be needed.

His yard transformed into an arrow-making factory, Sylvester sighs as he looks at the scattered tools.

"We have no other choice for now," he says.

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