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Curbing conflict via SMS

Euna LheeFebruary 24, 2015

Misinformation and hate speech in Kenya’s Tana River Delta have led to heightened inter-communal conflict and several massacres since 2012. A Canadian organization is now using SMS messages to defuse tensions.

Close up of hand holding a mobile phone
Image: Victorgrigas/CC-BY-SA 3.0

When John Green checked his mobile phone for new messages one morning earlier this month, he saw a strange SMS.

"Yesterday in Kipao there was a burial and the chiefs from Chara location were chased away by the people," it read.

Such messages require immediate action, so Green wasted no time. He is what you might call a rumor investigator, charged with assessing the credibility of hearsay doing the rounds in Kenya's Tana River Delta. He called his volunteer contacts - or community ambassadors as they are formally known - in Kipao, a remote coastal village in the delta.

Conflict between two ethnic tribes - the majority Muslim, pastoralist Orma community and the mainly Christian, agricultural Pokomo group - has plagued the region for decades, but has intensified in the past few years.

In the latter half of 2012 and early 2013, the situation spiralled out of hand. The exact number of deaths is not known, but media reports at the time put the toll between 120 and 220. They spoke of victims being shot, hit by arrows and spears, of burning alive while trapped inside their blazing houses, and being hacked to death by machetes.

Exactly which event triggered that particular round of fighting remains unclear, but the two tribes have long been involved in tit-for-tat violence relating to clashes over resources, particularly land rights for livestock and water.

Conspiracy theories

Development in the Tana River Delta has also not helped matters. Agricultural endeavors, such as irrigation for rice and sugarcane fields, have backfired, sometimes turning biodiverse wetlands into wasteland.

Most of the schemes didn’t really work and made land more scarce," Thomas Zitelmann, a lecturer at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Berlin’s Freie Universität told Global Ideas. He believes the projects increased competition between the two tribes, further straining relations.

Christopher Tuckwood is executive director of The Sentinel Project, a Canadian non-profit organization that works with technology and people on the ground to support communities threatened by mass atrocities around the world. In early 2013, he went to the delta to talk to locals about the conflict.

"Everybody had a different story on what was behind the violence," he said. "There are a lot of conspiracy theories."

During his travels, Tuckwood became aware of how information, or rather misinformation, was playing a role in the violence and how local politicians were fanning the flames in trying to use the disputes to their own advantage when an election was on the horizon.

One rumor going around was that the Ormas were purchasing AK-47s to destroy Pokomo communities. Another detailed a Pokomo posing as a health worker, who had been arrested for injecting Orma children with poison.

"These are some of the extreme cases, and I’m willing to bet they’re not true," Tuckwood said. "But the important thing is whether people believe these rumors."

Taking action

His observations led him and his colleagues to launch an endeavor called "Una Hakika," which is Swahili for "Are you Sure?" Set up in January 2014, and true to the organization’s mission, the project relies on cell phone technology, using toll-free text messaging to dispel rumors, and instead distribute neutral and accurate information to the community.

The project is made possible by the ubiquity of mobile phones in the Tana River Delta. A survey by The Sentinel Project found 81 percent of respondents owned mobile phones, in which a little less than half were Internet-enabled.

Kode Komora, a Pokomo manager of a cyber café and one of some 200 community ambassador, believes "Una Hakika" has made a palpable difference. "People hear rumors and jump to conclusions, and you just see the tension," he said, adding that there is no longer the same panic reflex.

Anyone who hears a rumor can report it by phone, SMS or online. Some even seek out "Una Hakika" project coordinator John Green to tell him in person.

As for the text message about the burial in Kipao, Green spoke to his sources and was able to send out the following response: "Thank you for contacting Una Hakika. We have been able to verify the rumor you sent us, and the information was false… No chief was chased away."

Encouraged by the project’s early successes, Tuckwood hopes to expand it to other parts of Kenya ahead of the country’s 2017 general election. He also advises caution when receiving second-hand news, and tells people to ask one thing.

"Una Hakika?" Tuckwood said. "Are you sure?"

A man and a woman posing for photo. Several houses in the background.
Community managers are the vital link between the project and the peopleImage: Adrian Gregorich
A group of people posing for a group photograph
The Una Hakika community. Their misson: Getting in touch with people on the ground in conflict areasImage: Adrian Gregorich
People and their cattle crossing a river
Many rumors are travelling up and down the Tana river. They can be a source of inter-communal conflict.Image: Adrian Gregorich