Does Community Saving Foster Conflict Transformation? The Debate and Evidence from Kenya’s ASAL Counties of West Pokot and Turkana

Caleb Wafula is a PhD student at the University of Nairobi and a former Research Award Recipient at IDRC. Caleb is interested in innovative, multidisciplinary research and development approaches; aimed at enhancing community resilience and expanding the horizons of sustainable development, among traditionally marginalised groups, in increasingly fragile contexts.


The worldwide breakthrough of micro-finance has revolutionised lives of traditionally marginalised group; that few will dare dispute. Nowhere are the changes more sweeping than in Kenya, a country where significant adoption of community savings initiatives (Chamaas) is being witnessed.Chamaas builds on the traditional Rotating Savings and Credit Association (ROSCA) methodology and implemented as a social safety net to support communities address livelihood challenges. Despite the centrality of Chamaas in socio-economic strengthening, very little has been studied about their potential to contribute towards social cohesion and conflict transformation. This study sought to examine how Chamaas go beyond fostering economic empowerment, to enhance community member’s interaction, address communal conflicts and strengthen social bonds. This study is based on qualitative field research, undertaken in Kenya’s West Pokot and Turkana counties and focuses on how community savings contribute to conflict transformation, with especial attention to women’s issues. Importantly, it would be remiss of this study if there was no discussion on challenges that confront members of community savings schemes. Ultimately, the research will focus on how community savings can be strengthened and supported to fully integrate peacebuilding in their processes.

1. Introduction

The study interest lies in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs), a region highly susceptible to protracted conflicts and general state of fragility. The increasing threats presented by fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV), take place at a time when there is a worldwide breakthrough of micro-finance and its associated services, locally, manifested by community savings initiatives (Chamaas) that are increasingly being witnessed and revolutionising lives of traditionally marginalised groups – which include women. This begs the question: Does community saving foster conflict transformation? This article sets out to examine this question, with special attention to Kenya’s ASAL counties of West Pokot and Turkana. 

2. Context and Rationale 

To say that Kenya’s ASAL counties of West Pokot and Turkana, are highly susceptible to protracted conflicts and to a general state of fragility is an understatement. The gravity and intensity of the conflict has persisted over time (Triche, 2014). This poses a deadly threat to not only the thousands of local people, especially women and children, but also threatens to stunt prospects of development – especially the devolution agenda, that is still at nascent stage. This will further entrench poverty and inequality (Elfversson, 2019). 

It is not possible to discuss the area’s state of fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV), without first referring to what Herskovits (1926:252), calls the ‘cattle complex’ (Pastoralism). The two arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) or counties, border each other in north-western Kenya and derive their names from two dominant local communities, namely, Turkana and Pokot, both of whom, practice pastoralism as a source of livelihood. The type of pastoralism is mainly nomadic transhumance, characterised by mobility, communal land ownership and keeping large herd sizes of cattle (Triche, 2014). In terms of size and demography, West Pokot measures 8 418 km² and a population of 621 241 (1.31%); while Turkana measures approximately 77 000 km2 and a population of 926 976 (1.95%) of the total population of Kenya (47 564 296) according to 2019 census (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics 2019).

This article has no pretension to exhaustively discuss all the causes of conflict, but it is safe to state that there has been a long-standing interest in the issue, among scholars and practitioners. Some of the dominant explanatory perspective is illicit proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), (Mkutu, 2008) and the conflict manifests in form of: ‘rustling’ and ‘raiding’ depicting the practice as something cultural and thus intrinsic to these societies. Schilling et al (2012:1) intimate that traditionally, various pastoral communities used raiding as a cultural practice for restocking of herds, after periods of drought or disease outbreak.

In the words of Triche (2014: 89), One community’s hostile action is mimicked on the receiving end, in a never-ending cycle,’ thus ethnic intolerance as a causal perspective. Closely related is the long-standing issues of boundary disputes and territorial claims of land, that remain unresolved (Mkutu, 2007:48), where pastoralists routinely cross from one side to the other, while sometimes straddling the border (Mkutu, 2007:48).

Equally important and widely acknowledged, is competition over scarce and diminishing water and pasturelands (Okumu, 2014:224). Yet, other scholars such as Okumu et al (2017) suggest that weakened traditional governance systems, breakdown of intercommunal social contracts, elders’ loss of control over the youths, the persistence of moran (warrior) culture, and politicisation of peacemaking processes have also gained traction in explaining the increasingly intractable nature of the conflicts. Furthermore, FCV tends to be exacerbated by crippling poverty, underdevelopment, marginalisation, and routine displacements (Kaimba et al, 2011), all of which contribute to a heightened level of fragility and elevated risk of conflict relapse. These are not the only causes of conflict to look at of course, but they provide a clear pointer that, conflict causes in the region are extraordinarily complex and multi-layered.

The increasing threats presented by FCV, take place at a time when there is a worldwide breakthrough of micro-finance and its associated services that are revolutionising the lives of traditionally marginalised groups such as women, who in most cases lack alternative sources of income (Kato and Kratzer, 2013). Nowhere are the changes more sweeping than in Kenya, a country that is making headlines and that has recently emerged as a globally recognised leader in financial inclusion, according to the Brookings Financial and Digital Inclusion Project (FDIP) report (Lewis et al, 2017). This is mainly manifested by grassroots community savings groups, popularly known as Chamaas, that have been hailed as informal social protection systems by key policy regulatory and institutional frameworks, including the Kenya national economic development blueprint-vision 2030 (Getu et al, 2013; Government of the Republic of Kenya, 2007).

But what are community savings? Community savings remains ambiguous, with differing definitions, parameters, applications, and characteristics. This study adopts one of the best brief attempts in defining Chamaas by Johnson and Sharma (2004:4) who note that Chamaas builds on the Rotating Savings and Credit Association (ROSCA) methodology, wherein groups of people pool their savings to have a source of lending funds. Members make an agreed minimum amount of savings contributions to the pool and can also borrow from it during regular meetings on a rotational basis. The Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA, 2021); Saving and Internal Lending Communities (SILC, 2021) and Saving for Changes (SfC, 2021), are the best-known models. The members, who vary from a minimum of 15 and maximum of 35 are often linked together informally and tend to include families, friends, and social networks based on common bonds, such as tribe, neighbourhood, or age (Endeley and Thompson 2007).

It is against this background that this article set out to examine how community savings contribute to conflict transformation. Among other development aspirations, the article is consistent with Kenya’s economic blueprint vision 2030 (Government of Kenya, 2007), that views sustainable peace and security as a basis for the achievement of the targeted growth of double digits in the economy; the continental silencing of the guns agenda, which aims to promote prevention, management and resolution of conflicts in Africa; the implementation of United National Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on women and peace and security; and lastly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – in particular, goal 16 on peaceful, just and inclusive societies.

3. Statement of the Problem

Acknowledging the growing recognition of the cross-sectoral nature of peacebuilding or what Zelizer (2013) terms ‘integrated peacebuilding’, the question to ask then is: How important is the microfinance revolution to the peace and conflict discourse? This article is devoted to examining these questions, by taking a closer look at community savings in the aforementioned counties of Kenya. It argues that, even though community savings have gained traction as informal social protection systems, there is limited understanding and appreciation of how community saving contributes to conflict transformation. What do exist are fragmented and oversimplified accounts in the literature, that tend to be skewed toward the hype that has accompanied community savings; and little attempt has been made to provide a sustained and systematic analysis of how the community savings contribute to conflict transformation. It is also fair to say that there is a notable paucity of extant literature that deals specifically with the challenges that confront community savings, in a way that advances the conflict transformation agenda while ensuring that the full power of women’s talent, creativity and innovation for peace and stability is fully harnessed. Thus, the need for further investigation is underscored, in order to emerge with a more nuanced analysis and appreciation of how community savings contribute to conflict transformation. Ultimately, the article focuses on how community savings can be strengthened and supported to integrate conflict transformation in their processes.

4. Research Objective and Questions 

The underlying objective of this article is to examine how community savings initiatives, contribute towards conflict transformation in the ASALs of Kenya’s Counties of West Pokot and Turkana. In so doing, the study sought to inform changes in policy and practice, at the local, regional, and national levels, so that the largely pastoral communities are better equipped to face the peace and security challenges in the future. Specifically, the article seeks to address the following pertinent questions:

  1. How do community savings initiatives contribute to conflict transformation among the ASAL communities of Kenya, with special attention to the incorporation of traditionally marginalised groups, such as women?
  2. What are the challenges facing community savings initiatives as an essential tool for conflict transformation?
  3. How can community savings be strengthened and supported to integrate conflict transformation in their processes?

5. Theoretical Framework

This article takes seriously the conflict transformation theory, ascribed to Lederach (1997), which is drawn from earlier theories of conflict escalation, conflict management and conflict resolution (Galtung, 1995; Väyrynen 1991) and has now become an integral part of the lexicon used within the broader field of peace and conflict management. As posed by Christopher Mitchell: What does conflict transformation actually transform? (Mitchell, 2002:1–23). Lederach (1997) proposes central and guiding conceptual elements of this process as marked by changes in personal, structural, relational, and cultural aspects of conflict.

Personal transformation involves strengthening peoples’ capacity to resolve conflict. Transformation is expected to restore individual sense of their ability to handle conflicts and a willingness to search for durable peace Mitchelle, 2002). In our context, how are community savings activities positioning members to search for durable peace? 

At the relational level, conflictual relationships between rival groups are expected to be transformed into peaceful relationships, characterised by co-operation and mutual efforts to resolve conflict. In this case, how has enhanced interactions through community savings helped reduce prejudice between the warring parties? 

The structural dimension links conflict to the political, economic, and social structures in the community. Transformation of these structures is aimed at fostering the meeting of basic human needs and participation in decision making by community members (Lederach, 1997: Rupesinghe, 1995). This dimension is important in understanding women’s incremental participation in decision making at household level, and at communal level, where peacebuilding issues are discussed. 

Culturally, transformation involves understanding how culture affects conflict. It involves identification of cultural patterns that contribute to conflict formation and those that can be harnessed to facilitate the cessation of conflict (Lederach. 1997). In this respect, the dimension helps provide answers on how cultural aspects such as intermarriage, tying of the traditional rope (Leketyo) and pastoralism are being harnessed by savings group members to foster conflict transformation. 

6. Methodology 

The study was informed by both secondary and primary data sources. The secondary sources included a review of literature sourced from articles in academic textbooks, popular writings, and journals, which provided the foundation for the argument. Later, primary data sources guided by reputational approach, purposive and snowball sampling methods captured largely qualitative data, including numerous transect walks; 30 semi-structured interviews; six focus group discussions, non-participant observation and six key informant interviews. The study findings were subjected to a rigorous and systematic analysis using NVivo pro software for qualitative data. Based on these methodological underpinning, the triangulation ensured that the study analysis and recommendations are sound and built on diverse perspectives. 

Primary data was collected in the period of July 2019 and took place in Alale, Loima and Nauyapong in the North-western tip of West Pokot, on the border with Uganda, and in Kainuk, Lorogon and Turkwell border areas of Turkana County. The small number of interviews conducted may impose limitations on the generalisability and reliability of the conclusions drawn, however, the research aimed to capitalise on the benefits of obtaining rich, in-depth qualitative data on perceptions and experiences of community savings as a tool for conflict transformation. Future research should seek to expand the scope of the perspectives gathered.

The study remained cognisant of the various ethical considerations associated with conducting research in such fragile contexts. Supervised and guided by his mentor (Dr Martha Mutisi, Senior Programme Officer at IDRC); the researcher observed ethical research standards and requirements of IDRC’s Advisory Committee on Research Ethics (ACRE).  Importantly, the researcher submitted an ethics clearance application to a local Ethics Review Board in Kenya, namely Daystar University for clearance. The researcher also applied for and received a research permit from the Kenya National Commission for Science, Technology, and Innovation (NACOSTI). 

7. Study Findings 

From the women who have organised themselves into Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) to Saving and Internal Lending Communities (SILC), Saving for Changes (SfC) and all models of community savings; a range of strategies have been devised, developed, and adopted in ways to foster conflict transformation. Meeting and interacting with some of the community savings groups, one can realise how groups are harnessing the transformative power of their local social networks to proactively create innovative and localised solutions that are progressively transforming the conflict. This section shares the study findings and discussions guided by the specific research questions and conceptual elements of change in conflict transformation: personal, structural, relational, and cultural aspects of conflict (Lederach, 1997).

8. Personal Transformation 

Several views regarding the extent to which the community savings have transformed community members at personal level were noted. Evidently, the routine meetings are both business and festive occasions to aggregate savings, celebrate members’ successes, collect loan repayments, and immediately lend the money to one or some willing members. Sometimes it also involves solving disputes among members, as explained by one of the NGO representatives supporting peace and women empowerment projects in the study area. 

The study results strongly demonstrate the personal values that community savings promotes. The elements of leadership, respect, freedom of expression and solidarity developed among members indicate a very significant level of transformation. During my non-participant observation of the group meetings, members under the leadership of the group leader, interacted and communicated with respect as they tried to chat about the best way to go about their savings initiatives. This interaction sometimes produced disagreements among members, especially on issues surrounding joint investments. Luckily, the group leader/chairperson would quickly address any verbal altercations. Additionally, the well-established unwritten constitution forces members to exhibit respect so that they avoid being suspended from the group or pay a fine. 

Overall, one aspect of the personal transformation component worth mentioning is that it requires a great deal of time and effort (Botes 2003). Many respondents stressed that women join community savings for the long haul, clearly speaking to the idea propagated by some of the transformationalist scholarship – that conflict transformation is an ongoing, never-ending process (Galtung, 1995 Lederach, 1997). In this regard, group meetings serve as a session for training, as evidenced by my interactions with the Chesa women group in Alale area. Central to the group’s approach is the integration of community savings with a structured informal learning program, so that by the time members borrow money from the group to venture into business, they have, at least, mastered some basic reading, writing, and mathematics so as to cope with the business operating requirements.

Most of our members are illiterate, so we have a special component of adult literacy to equip such participating members with basic and financial literacy skills. These trainings are carried out on every Wednesday and Friday afternoons.[1]

From the field sources, it was clear that literacy training is without doubt a key pathway that has empowered members to make their small-scale businesses more productive, as interviewees reported making profits and harbouring plans to expand their businesses. 

But again, women’s own articulations of their Chamaa experiences are in themselves part of the implications for personal change. Experts acknowledge that the literacy training plays a critical role in many social change efforts, including fostering peace and conflict transformation as shown below:

Through training, the once disadvantaged and despondent women turn out to feel capable of serving society and contributing to their socio-economic emancipation as well as participating effectively in societal community’s development.[2]

From this perspective, the words of Edward Schwerin (1995), one of the transformational theorists, are pertinent and reinforcing in noting that empowerment is the ‘core concept or value of transformational politics,’ (1995:6) and furthermore, that ‘empowerment is central to the theoretical and ideological concerns of most transformationalist groups and movements,’ (Schwerin 1995:6).

Equally important, during semi-structured interviews, a handful of respondents alluded to increased self-esteem and self-confidence in activities such as marketing their produce. Thus they do not have to rely on costly middlemen. Further reinforcing this idea, many respondents talked about having been shy and soft-spoken, but through the demands of active participation in group meetings they have learned to express themselves and know their rights. 

Consistent with this notion of rights, it was quite noticeable that some women’s general frame of reference was beyond personal transformation. They emphasised how they leverage their lived experience and resources to support girls to stay in school, overcome unwanted pregnancy, and delay early child marriage – informed by the knowledge gathered from their group interactions.

Such endeavours have the potential of being catalysts for change as respondents reported greater knowledge of saving and business management and how to diversify into more profitable products and value chains. Demonstrating their understanding of their business ventures, respondents talked about how they invest in small livestock when prices are low, keep them until the prices rise, at which point they sell to make profit. Especially relevant is the fact that women members learned new social and leadership skills in these groups – as individuals interacted with the rest of the members, took up leadership positions, or just participated as active members of their groups.  

On the flipside, physical records on actual profits and business performance were not available. This may call into question the type of trainings that group members undergo. Though on further probing, study participants were quick to point out that there was no need of keeping records and that all their business transactions were based on mutual trust and transparency, it is important to keep in mind that community savings and the values it promotes is highly dependent on the particular personalities involved. Therefore, one cannot assume that the core values championed are consistent in all the groups, or even on everyone in each group.

Whilst women have been able to organise themselves through the community savings, the unanswered question, is why their ability to organise has also not translated into political influence? To cut to the point, Nordstrom (1995) while highlighting some of the sophisticated work by local-level citizen groups in fomenting conflict cessation and transformation, regrets that much of the work often goes unrecognized and unsupported…’ and in this respect terms it as one of the ‘saddest barriers to conflict transformation’ (1995:110). In fact, there remain mixed opinion on the issue of women taking up leadership positions. Some scholars have argued that those elected to the management committee of group savings are often already leaders in other domains such as church or community groups which calls into question whether, if indeed community savings specifically nurture women leadership capability (Gash et al., 2017).

While community savings may be viewed to be resting on a linear approach, in practice it can be far messier, especially during active conflict. Women reported being harassed by police during security operations, to the extent that they could not access the market centre or even undertake their merry-go-round visits. Climate-induced displacement, particularly because of drought, also leads to disruption of saving activities as members migrate to far off places in search of water and pasture for their livestock.

Thus far, the above information on personal transformation, could be deemed relevant to the larger body of literature on community savings, especially in explaining how community savings contribute to conflict transformation. To reach an accurate understanding of its contribution, it is important to examine this claim in further detail under the relational transformation and conceptual element of conflict transformation, in the next section.

9. Relational Transformation 

Relationship building is at the heart of the conflict transformation process. Community savings have been used as a magnet, a tool that brings people from the two warring communities together, and in the process fostering relational transformation. For instance, this was exemplified in an interview with one of the oldest members of Ayuno women group, who had this to say: 

In the past, when we were growing up, we were told all the bad things against the Pokot: That the Pokot are bad people, they killed our great grandparents. However, through the merry-go rounds and our continued interactions during market days, we have come to learn good things about our neighbours and now appreciate that they are just humans like us.[3]

Focus Group Discussion (FGD) participants were also in broad agreement that they had become closer to and less prejudiced towards their neighbouring community, thanks to participating in the merry go round model of community savings, as they spoke in near unison about how their regular interactions provided them with a platform to share their experiences of the conflict.

We have no hard feelings for our neighbours, we interact during merry go rounds. We invite them to come to our side and we also visit their side. That togetherness enables us to travel far and wide in the locality, and in so doing enhance chances of peace. There was a time we travelled up to Chepareria and Sigor in West Pokot.[4]

From this relationship-building context, Kriesberg (1998) argues that the precise point at which intractable, never-ending, conflicts – for example linked to ethnic and other identity-based issues – become tractable or can be transformed is often only visible years after the process has been concluded. A conversation with one of the area chiefs, further confirms that community savings have contributed to peace and stability:

Communities within the corridor have become almost like a family. The Pokot’s freely come here to buy camel and goats while our women go to buy cereals on the Pokot side. We have seen populations increase; market centres are growing without fear unlike in the past when they risked being displaced by conflict.[5]

What is even more fascinating is the fact that, thanks to income from community savings and related entrepreneurial activities, women can support their children in school. Here, the close communal relations are cultivating a culture of peace among children as pointed out by one of the transect walk participants, while pointing to a nearby school. As such, there is no doubt that the school going children, have a close and extended opportunity to deepen community relations.

The income from the groups have helped many of us to take our children to school, where they not only study and interact with other children from other communities, but they are also being taught not to hate. I am sure they will be good future leaders to our community.[6]

The relational dimension of conflict transformation brings us closer to decades long of research on the role of intergroup contact in reducing intergroup prejudices. For example, Amir (1969) through his contact hypothesis, suggests that ‘changes in ethnic relations will occur following intergroup contact’ (1969:319). Further examination of the study findings shows that in the course of their involvement in the community savings, women are using their newly gained knowledge to improve their relationships at household level. They spoke strongly of increased love, respect, and cooperation, including shared responsibility of household expenses, from their husbands. These observations were corroborated by some of the study participants at the Kainuk area during the Focus Group Discussion, who noted that a majority of the women were engaged in small scale business activities to make themselves more economically empowered, more independent from their husbands, and more in control over their lives and livelihoods. 

The key words here are ‘economically empowered’, in the sense that, women gain the dignity of no longer having to rely solely on their husbands for subsistence, as explained by one of the study experts[7]

Reflecting on the casual conversations with one of the women group leaders, as I criss-crossed the villages (transect walk), one could get the feeling that vertical relationships, are also slowly being strengthened:  

Recently, one person was killed in the Kalapata area. We brought it to the attention of the elders, area chief and the police and took them to the scene of the incident.[8]

Essentially, this account illuminates that by locating women at the centre of the community savings process, space is created for a cadre of women leaders to evolve and participate more actively in other development issues, including conflicts. As in the case above, these actions seem to suggest that the women had managed to envisage possible counter attacks and defuse a potentially violent incident.

Local chiefs do acknowledge that the voice and knowledge of women in their various groups was key to cultivating peace in the area. One of the area chiefs noted that there is mutual consensus across the communities through the ‘Nyumba Kumi initiatives’ and community policing committees where some of the Chamaas group leaders had been co-opted: 

We celebrate the power and strength of our women leaders, who are creating change around our communities and whom we continue to work together towards a shared goal of peace and prosperity of our region.[9]

Attributing the changes to participation in community savings, one key informant noted:

Women are increasingly participating in peace forum meetings, measured in speaking up, sharing opinions, by challenging the local administrators and elders during community meetings.[10]

Complementing local authorities’ efforts at enhancing peace and stability, was the observation that many local chiefs used public resources to support Chamaas in practical ways, including availing their offices as Chamaas meeting points. Group expenses were thereby defrayed. It must be stressed at this point that some of the local leaders were members of Chamaas in their own individual capacity. The point is that Chamaas can inspire and create opportunities even for those in positions of power, a perspective that appear to be advanced by one of the key informants:

Unlike the past where women had been immersed in a ‘culture of silence,’ they are no longer the ‘Unheard Voices’. Instead, beyond conglomerating in their community savings, they have come out strongly to advocate for peace, considering recurrent conflicts. They are popularly referred to as the women crusaders and have been exemplary in pushing men (elders and youth-warriors) into committing themselves to resolutions reached during peace dialogues.[11]

In line with transformationalist’s Botes’ (2003) facilitated dialogues, where third parties encourage the conflicting parties to deal with the concerns of the opposing party, such dialogues can create moments of transition or become vehicles for transformative insights and actions by the participants. However, what Matt Warner terms ‘the outsider’s dilemma’ (Warner, 2017) calls into question the collaboration with external supporters including NGOs involved in facilitating the merry-go-round visits. In this regard, although it is not the objective of this study to focus on the NGOs and other externally driven support, but it is worth noting that more powerful collaborators may undermine community initiatives by meddling, co-opting them, drawing them into inappropriate activities meant to advance their own selfish agendas or providing them with forms of support on which they become over reliant – thus harming their sustainability and effectiveness. This, in turn, leaves us with the question: Is there a way to support the community savings without ‘interfering’?

Other shortcomings include some female respondents claiming that, in many cases, their men either misappropriate the meagre resources through drinking or have reduced their contributions to household needs. Put another way, traditional gender norms that promote men’s roles as heads of households and economic providers undermine women’s ability to fully benefit from participation in community savings because decision-making power is still in men’s hands. This assertion is in line with a growing body of literature that indicates that access to financial services does not necessarily translate to control over financial resources, or other forms of empowerment (Taylor and Boubakri, 2013; Vaessen et al., 2014).  

More troubling than this is the increasing concern that there is a ‘double burden’ on women, who are taking greater responsibility for managing financial services and investments in income-generating activities, with no reduction in the workload associated with caring for children and managing the household (Slegh et al 2013). This assertion is supported by Hanak (2000:313) who also explains an important truth about the disproportionate burden that local women bear in repaying heavy loans over which they may not have had full control. On the same note, in the context of pastoral communities, Ayuko and Chopra (2008) note that women still lack support from their male counterparts. They and further note that some men view women’s peace groups as places for mere gossip and do not perceive them as useful.

To further discuss community savings, it is imperative to examine the structural conceptual element, in order to understand how community savings, contribute to conflict transformation in the study area.

10. Structural Transformation 

Taking their cue from the previous relational transformation, respondents shared their experiences on how they started small businesses with a single product. A turning point came when they joined the group savings and for the first time began to stock various kinds of merchandise, or even diversify into new businesses.  

I was sceptical about how the community savings could improve my life. To test the waters, I started borrowing small loans from my group. One small loan led to another. I invested the loans in small income-generating projects such as buying and selling household items such as sugar, salt, soap and so on. The small businesses gradually grew. Now I am a cross-border trader, buying cereals from Uganda and selling them in Kenya.[12]

In the same vein: 

I saw it as a chance for me to expand my business. Chamaa proceeds helps me to buy materials for my tailoring business. And with the proceeds I buy food and clothing for my children and take them to school.[13]

From the foregoing, the inescapable finding is that women’s activities are going beyond the quest for peace and security to foster regional economic integration. It was also notable that group members were slowly shifting their mind-set from ‘if I can’ to increasingly talk of ‘how I can’ scale or diversify their commodities. For similar reasons Gasper (2004) asserts that by facilitating savings and access to small loans, community savings groups enable members to plan, cope with household emergencies, develop their livelihoods and invest in the health and education of their children.In the words of Schwerin (1998:116), ‘major structural transformations are necessary to obtain greater social justice, more participatory democracy, environmentally sustainable economic development, peace, and prosperity.’ Closely related is Lederach (1998), who in augmenting his conflict transformation framework, envisions peacebuilding as a web of interdependent activities and people. On the same note Väyrynen (1999:151) notes that a normative approach to conflict transformation runs the risk of becoming a movement for the general improvement of society rather than just mitigating and redefining the conflict.’ 

It is worth noting that stories like the above were frequent, and a clear indication that women were leading the way with their informal economic model that enables them to not only meet their household needs but also grow their own businesses without relying on men or formal banks. Conversations from the FGDs only hint at the community savings transformational effect, one would likely hear a common refrain: ‘The group has helped us … do this and that…’. These suggest and underscore economic and social developments which can act as prerequisites for the success of the conflict transformation process. Further to this, and probably one of the most striking narratives, was how women have become involved in small livestock trade, travelling in small groups to other villages to buy small livestock for resale.  

Some women in Kainuk area, for example, were running a bakery business and producing handicrafts, such as embroidery. These were bought and resold by middlemen in nearby towns, earning a good profit. Visiting and interacting with some of the women in their market stalls revealed one aspect of the conflict transformation that warrants mentioning: While relying heavily on this sector, the women demonstrate a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit and perseverance. In the words of one of the key informants:

The logic behind engaging in petty trade is that, in principle, it is open to everybody: not so much capital is required, they can be carried out at any time and for any length of time, and, finally, the lapse of time between investment and income is considerably shorter.[14]

A further subtle example, which highlights the idea of how community savings contributes to conflict transformation, is the message from one of the study experts, who noted that community savings is more than just borrowing money and engaging in small scale business to meet household needs.[15]

This is quite telling, as it demonstrates that women not only establish social connections within and outside the market space, but also use these networks to maintain a chain of customers and trust building, ensuring they stay in business. In particular, they gather early warning/intelligence information on threats and opportunities for their communities.

These critical perspectives notwithstanding, it remains to be seen why a woman who borrows a significant amount of money cannot invest in a big business. This brings us to the issue of poverty. There is no doubt that overcoming poverty is one of the main challenges facing community savings. Interviews showed that often group members live from hand to mouth, and would redirect their borrowed money into meeting basic needs instead of using it as capital for their entrepreneurial activities – leading to an ever-increasing default rate. The consequences become dire for women who belong to several groups.  

There are some who fail to repay the loans or submit their monthly contributions or general lack of commitment to the group activities, which is against the group rules. For instance, at start, we were 50 members. However, some were not able to make timely contributions, so much so that we had to offload them. We are now only 30 of us.[16]

Here, we draw on the work of Stuart Rutherford’s essay on, ‘The Poor and their Money’ that argued against promoting access to credit for the specific purposes of microenterprise development. Instead, his position is that what poor people need is access to amounts of money greater than their usual (small) income streams which he termed ‘usefully large lump sums’ (Rutherford 2000:1). The needs for such lump sums emanate from three main sources: life-cycle events such as births, deaths, marriages, and education; to protect oneself against risk, i.e. emergencies such as ill-health, death, or loss of assets; and to respond to investment opportunities, such as being able to purchase an asset or start/expand a business. He further argued that savings is the most beneficial way for poor people to gain access to such ‘usefully large lump sums’ (Rutherford 2000:1). 

Renowned economist Kabeer (1999) while reflecting on the measurement of women’s empowerment, avers that for poorer women who are struggling to make their enterprises viable, financial services on their own are unlikely to be enough, and may even end up plunging them into debt. These women would need financial services as part of a larger package of supportive measures which address: their human capital deficits, their unpaid domestic responsibilities, and perhaps also their lack of self-confidence and fear of taking risks. 

Closely related is the issue of seasonality and lack of diversity. The argument, of course, is that while women are involved in various entrepreneurial activities, it conceals the fact that many of their various entrepreneurial activities are seasonal. Furthermore, women often work under dire conditions, such as selling their wares under the hot sun.

The next section will therefore highlight the contributory role of community savings to conflict transformation from the cultural element. 

11. Cultural Transformation

The study highlights the fact that women have used their positions as matriarchs to negotiate for space and agency in a way that allows them to be consulted and to be participants in community affairs. One FGD participant had this to say: 

As mothers, we strive to preach the message of peace, we go deep into the bushes to persuade the warriors to stop cattle raiding and committing revenge killings.[17]

For example, Pokot, women are at least implicitly involved in peace processes, as reflected in the Leketyo/Leketio belt tradition. Leketyo is a kind of belt with cultural attachment, worn by women to protect their sons from external harm. In close connection, one aspect of the field process that deserves mention was having an impressive conversation with women group leaders, who talked about how they trained young mothers within their groups, on how to tie the Leketyo as a way of protecting their children (sons). They explained that before warriors set out for a raid, each of them informs their mothers to tie the belts when they are going out for the raids. But what are the implications of a mother refusing to tie the belt? Would the warrior still go raiding? For some of the FGD participants, the answer is clear: 

They cannot afford to defy their mothers.[18]

Writing on the same subject, Hamasi (2017) observes that, Leketyo is tied around the stomach on top of a khanga, which makes it a public ornament that would be significant and communicate its meaning to large crowds. In this context, women disseminate their information on the need for everyone to maintain peace with each other. The belt is, therefore, used by the Pokot women as an instrument for imposing peace. This shows women’s involvement in peace processes (or conflict escalation) as embedded in cultural practices. Corroborating the above view is Schilling et al (2012) who notes that women are found to have an influence on the raiding activity of their men. They either encourage their men, preparing meals after a successful raid, or play a discouraging role, for example, by expressing their fear to lose their man.

Among the pastoralists, ties of kinship, friendship and mainly marriage often bind people in communities and their neighbours. For instance, in reference to a response from one of the elderly woman group leaders in the area, her short answer is that women play a critical role in bridging intercommunal divides through marriage.[19]

From the above, we can infer that when woman marry out of their clan, they provide inter-clan networks which in turn serve as crucial communication channels between warring parties. Underlining the important role played by community savings, the elderly woman noted that the intermarriages are a by-product of the mutual friendship and routine merry-go-round visits. This finding is similar to Gordon and Gordon (1996:235) observation that, ‘when people of different descent groups must marry, live among, and cooperate with one another, their cross-cutting ties together with the pervasive fear of feud constitute an important mechanism for the maintenance of social order.’

Furthermore, it emerged that the culture of women singing, and dancing helps foster peace. One of the study respondents indicated that in their group, women have composed songs to raise awareness on the need for peace, persuaded warriors to refrain from violence, and created merry-go-rounds with other women in neighbouring communities.[20] We discuss peace and we drive the point home using songs. A good example is: 

….Amani Amani Amani   

Amani ni muhimu kwa wanadamu 

Vita huleta, umaskini bila amani tutabaki nyuma.

Loosely translated as:

….Peace peace peace

Peace is important for human beings

Conflict leads to poverty, without peace, we will be left behind.

Moreover, the songs are sung during peace forums, where they engage their neighbouring communities as they sing along. In connection to this, Jama (2010), writing in the context of Somali women, notes that women in organised groups have used their traditional skills in poetry, singing and dancing to appeal to community elders and negotiators to enter into a truce for the sake of peace.

Noting that one of the strongest strands among pastoral communities is the culture of pastoralism, women have also not been left behind, especially investing their savings proceeds in small livestock and resale to neighbouring communities at a profit:

Personally, I belong to a group of 10 women and with our borrowed money, we jointly buy small livestock such as goats at lower prices and sell them in far off markets, at a profit.[21]

Broadly speaking, the above findings are shared by Augsberger (1992), who addresses the need for ‘cultural relevance’ in transforming conflict by suggesting that these ‘cultural modalities and resources for handling conflict in a given setting are not only important to identify but should be seen as foundational for building a comprehensive transformative framework’ (1992:213). This view is reinforced by Burton and Dukes (1990), who affirm that indigenous societies were more inclined toward rituals that led to co-operative problem solving than to the type of confrontation and power bargaining advocated by the western world.

12. Conclusion and Recommendations

This section brings us back to the question Do community savings initiatives contribute towards conflict transformation in the Kenya’s ASAL counties of West Pokot and Turkana? Specifically, how can community savings be strengthened and supported to integrate conflict transformation in their processes? It remains impossible to say with absolute certainty that community savings significantly contribute to conflict transformation in the study area. On one hand, members seem to be determined to bring an end to the protracted conflicts. They proactively engage in pragmatic long-term practices that facilitate wide scale social change in diverse social economic sectors. In the process, they are uniquely harnessing the transformative power of their different local and social networks to progressively transform the protracted conflicts at personal, relational, structural, and cultural levels which are the central and guiding conceptual elements of conflict transformation.

On the other hand, the contribution of these initiatives to long-term and sustainable conflict transformation is questionable. This is due to the manifold challenges facing community savings – ranging from the fragile context, harassment from the security agencies, climate induced displacement, poverty, capacity issues, patriarchy, and gender related challenges among many others. This creates an urgent and daunting collective task for state and non-state actors to not only ensure that community savings thrive, but that the vision of sustainable peace is also realized. 

In addressing the ‘outsider’s dilemma’ challenge, there is need for an appropriate level of external assistance by relooking at the ‘do no harm,’ principle. This clearly states that outsiders including government agencies must be sensitive when supporting Chamaas, including facilitating merry-go-rounds, lest they risk imposing their values of what conflict transformation, in the words of Kabeer (1999) ‘ought to be or ‘look like’.

As the success of community savings is paramount, there is the need to strengthen and support the capacities of Chamaas members – providing them with both soft skills and technical know-how on how to start and run innovative, diversified and profit oriented entrepreneurial practices successfully. Additionally, support should be offered for value chain development away from the rudimentary, trial and error, and one size-fit-all approach to running their small-scale businesses.

There is need to strengthen horizontal relationships and create collaborative environments by engaging men in deliberate questioning of gender norms and power dynamics, so that they can better embrace co-operation and sharing of community savings activities at the household level.  

Staying with collaboration, there is need for greater partnership between community savings groups and other community stakeholders, including: local government agencies; public actors; development aid donors; private sector players and academia. These can further unlock new opportunities and spur policy and legislative changes for enhanced functioning of community savings – contributing, in turn, to enhanced conflict transformation.


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[1] Non-attributable comment, July 2019, Alale.

[2] Non-attributable comment, July 2019, Lodwar.

[3]Non-attributable comment1, July 2019, Lorengipi.

[4]Non-attributable comment1, July 2019, Turkwel Gorge.

[5] Non-attributable comment1, July 2019, Lorogon.

[6] Non-attributable comment2, July 2019, Lorengipi.

[7] Non-attributable comment, July 2019, Kapenguria.

[8] Non-attributable comment2, July 2019, Alale.

[9] Non-attributable comment3, July 2019, Lorengipi.

[10]Non-attributable comment4, July 2019, Lorengipi.

[11]Non-attributable comment2, July 2019, Kapenguria.

[12] Non-attributable comment3, July 2019, Alale.

[13] Non-attributable comment2, July 2019, Lorogon.

[14] Non-attributable comment1, July 2019, Nairobi.

[15] Non-attributable comment3, July 2019, Kapenguria.

[16] Non-attributable comment1, July 2019, Kainuk.

[17] Non-attributable comment1, July 2019, Loima.

[18] Non-attributable comment1, July 2019, Nauyapong.

[19] Non-attributable comment2, July 2019, Loima.

[20] Non-attributable comment2, July 2019, Kainuk.

[21] Non-attributable comment3, July 2019, Lorogon.


Caleb Wafula
PhD student at the University of Nairobi and a former Research Award Recipient at IDRC