~ Posted by Robert Butler, August 22nd 2012

Today, the BBC reported that "at least 48 people have been killed in ethnic clashes in south-eastern Kenya". This happened last night. The news agency Agence France-Presse quotes the regional deputy police chief Joseph Kitur as saying those killed were either hacked to death with machetes or burned alive in their huts. The violence took place in the Tana river district, and the attacks were carried out by the Pokomo against the Orma. The cause is thought to be a dispute over grazing rights for cattle.

It's easy to read a news story that comes off the wires like this one with a sense of incomprehension. But a recent piece we published provides some context. In our March/April issue we ran an article by The Economist's East Africa correspondent J.M. Ledgard about the Tana river, and the people who live on and around it—including the Pokomo and the Orma.

Ledgard's account balances three aspects of the area: the paradisal qualities of the Tana—the fulvous weaver birds, blue kingfishers and the chocolate-brown river; the opportunities and threats from economic development; and the harsh poverty and gut sickness from foul water. The pressures on those that live there ranged from deforestation and mindless hunters to hippos trampling crops at night. Ledgard states bluntly about his visit to a village called Ozi: "there is not enough land and work to go around."

His conclusion was bleak: "I had a dark sense of inevitability; I thought, I am in a place where calamity is about to occur."

We have put his article "Kenya's secret river" back on the homepage for those looking for some insight into where today's news story has come from.

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life