In 2012, my colleagues and I were at the Mandera Triangle, where the countries of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia meet, an area referred to by the US Department of State as one of the most conflict-prone in the world.
We were on the Kenyan side, holding peace and security dialogues with the residents on how to end the violent conflict.
The nights were lengthened by sounds of gunfire as the Ethiopian military and Somali insurgents engaged each other.
In the dialogue, the Kenyan residents said they had inter-clan differences but most of the violence came from attacks from Somalia.
“A possible closure of the border between Kenya and Somalia would keep Kenyans safe,” one of us quipped. The silence that followed this statement was broken by one of the two women in the room. “No,” she said.
“The border between Kenya and Somalia should not be closed. Our relationship as Kenyans with Somalia is that of kuombana moto (asking for fire).”
She was describing what people who grew up in African villages know all about.
A fire was never allowed to go out because it was difficult to light a new one and matchboxes were hard to come by.
In the event that the fire went out, a child would be sent to the neighbour to beg a burning ember.
The child would run back as fast as possible, blowing furiously on the ember, thus ensuring it stayed alive long enough to start a new fire.
This was kuombana moto. This practice emphasised the importance of good neighbourliness; you had to be on good terms because you never knew when you would need fire from your neighbour.
How is Africa to deal with the dilemma of strengthening relationships and curbing insecurity that come with soft borders that are open but regulated as opposed to hard militarised borders that include walls and fences?
Kenya and Uganda personify the colonial-boundary relationship quagmire through the example of the Awori family, which saw two brothers ending up as Members of Parliament one in Uganda and the other in Kenya.
Aggrey Awori actually ran for president in Uganda in 2001, while his brother Moody served as Kenya’s vice-president from 2003 to 2007.
In those days, we would imagine how it would be if, for instance, Kenya and Uganda had presidents who shared a mother and father.
I was reminded of this kuombana moto business in a conversation on the sidelines of the 2nd UN/Igad Peace and Security High Level Dialogue in Kampala last week.
Some participants had witnessed the recent reopening of the Ethiopian and Eritrean borders first hand.
As soon as the announcement was made, nobody flocked to any government office to seek legal papers.
People just walked across the borders, resuming a life their ancestors had been used to. Trade and relationships have blossomed. Eritreans and Ethiopians can now ombana moto again.
In the evening, we went to see the world-renowned Ndere troupe, which describes itself as Africa’s dancing encyclopaedia, showcasing breathtaking dances from all parts of Uganda.
Rwangezyi Stephen, executive director of Ndere Centre interposed the dances with a rich narrative. I was surprised when Rwangezyi used the term “soft borders” to engage the audience.
Rwangezyi said the ability to respect difference is explained by a pastoralist proverb that says, “Those who do not value cows may mistake a full udder for an abscess.” Rwangezyi then asked the audience what the most important part of the body was.
“Heart”! “Mouth”! “Spinal cord”! Different voices piped up.
He then asked each of us to imagine a glass of water in front of us, stretch out our hands and hold it, which we did.
He then asked us to pick up the imaginary glass and bring it to our mouths for a sip, without bending our elbows. None of us could do so! He then asked us again to say which part of the body was most important. Laughing, we all shouted, “Elbow”!
The moral of the exercise, Rwangezyi said, was that it did not matter which countries we came from, we were all human beings deserving respect even if we were different as we all needed each other! The elbow must be respected as much as the heart and spinal cord were.
However, many Africans are not bothered by the lack of a kuombana moto official foreign policy as they routinely ignore borders and move without legal documents such as passports.
In a pluralistic recognition of the value of what others have that they do not, exchanges have taken place for centuries between pastoralists, farmers and traders across what we now call borders.
Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides.