Peace and Poison Arrows in Kenya

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Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Getty

An arrow maker displays his wares in the Orongai village in Masai Mara, Kenya.

Sharpened machetes were no longer deadly enough weapons for rural Kenyans during the ethnic warfare that scourged their country following December's flawed election. So they replaced them with poisoned bows and arrows — and an arms industry of sorts has sprung up to produce them.

In a small town in Kenya's lush Rift Valley, arrows are scattered around a dusty, hay-littered compound. Men in plaid-checkered shirts construct bows and say they were forced to arm themselves for war. "We were using swords but they were not effective," says Sylvester, 24, slashing a knife in the air. "In a day we can make between 80 and 100 [arrows]," he adds, refusing to give his last name out of fear. Community members pool money together to buy the necessary tools in secret; the arrows are then distributed within the neighborhood. Local leaders know about the arrow factories, but police forces do not.

Making bows and arrows has become a communal task. Although women and girls do not fight, they assist in collecting materials for the weapons. Five bow-and-arrow construction groups of 10 members each are scattered around the town. Weapon-makers first cut the head off a 4-inch nail, which is then chiseled with a heavy hammer into a sharp edge. The nail is then coiled to fit onto 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 is 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 bow that can shoot an arrow for over 1,500 feet.

Shooters say the advantage of arrows is that people often do not see the weapon coming, leaving victims vulnerable. "Before this conflict, arrows were not used for these kind of recent attacks. They were mainly used for activities such as hunting," says former Rift Valley police commander Everett Wasige. "This is obviously something very wrong and very new."

December's election saw incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, who belongs to the Kikuyu tribe, defeat opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo, in a contest that opposition supporters said was rigged. Kenyans, who often vote along tribal lines, then found themselves caught in ethnic clashes marked by swinging machetes, soaring stones and flying arrows that have left hundreds dead. Hospitals and morgues saw instance after instance of victims with arrows lodged in their heads and chests. A peace deal was struck Thursday between Kibaki and Odinga, establishing a coalition government. But some Kenyans fear the violence is not yet over, blaming century-old land disputes. "We have been making arrows since we were attacked a month ago," Sylvester says, amid the sound of hammers clanging against steel nails. "It's for our own self-defense." "We cannot know the time of day when they [the Kalenjin, another rival tribe] will come. If they catch you off guard, you're dead," says Samuel, 25, holding a bundle of ready arrows.

The violence has bred a fear that cannot be easily erased, even by the peace agreement. Rift Valley tourist towns, known for their wild flamingos, were particularly hard-struck by bloodshed. A house in Naivasha was deliberately set on fire, killing 14 people inside. Idyllic little towns like Njoro are now divided along distinct tribal lines. Meanwhile, unkempt fields littered with corn stalks line both sides of roads that wind through the territory of various ethnic groups. Farmers say they are too afraid to prepare their harvests for fear of being attacked.