In-depth: Another Kenya - The humanitarian cost of under-development

KENYA: Northern Kenya travelogue: part three

Camels trek in search of water in the Chalbi desert region of northern Kenya
MARSABIT, 18 January 2010 (IRIN) - This is the final part of our travelogue detailing the journey into the heart of northern Kenya by an IRIN reporter.

Desert country

The distance from Marsabit to Moyale is about 300km, with the vegetation changing every 50km or so. We pass an escarpment; we are told there are plans to build a huge dam for Marsabit there. Water scarcity is a perennial problem in the north, and the cause of disease outbreaks as well as conflict.

The temperature suddenly shoots up; we are now entering desert country. Chalbi District is dry and rocky. The only settlements in the distance are some Gabra community houses. What do the people eat? The few goats we see are surprisingly healthy but there are no cows, save for the carcasses by the roadside.

A prolonged drought has led to numerous livestock deaths, with cows and sheep the most affected. Camels are faring better and a few can be seen with their Gabra women herders trekking in search of water.

We get to the outskirts of Moyale town with an afternoon to kill and stop at Odda for an interview with the local assistant chief there.

Life in Moyale, he says, is influenced by its proximity to Ethiopia. Communities there are homogenous, cross-border migration common and sometimes, conflict spills over. Much of the food in Moyale is imported from neighbouring Ethiopia in a vibrant cross-border trade.

False start

Throughout the trip there has been one repeated hint from most of the people we have talked to, that our car is not suitable for the rough northern Kenya terrain. So far, it has been good and our Toyota Prado has braved most of the roads.

Today, it fails us.

We are with an NGO colleague from Concern Worldwide and hope to explore the interior of Moyale. Not far out of town, the pot-holes give way to gaping gullies. Our lead security escort car hits a couple and gets stuck in the mud. The driver is furious and waits for us to make the crossing to reach him; however, we give up after a few false starts to avoid damaging our car and being stranded.


Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
A windmill-powered water pump at a watering point in the north
We are forced to abort our mission to the remote location of Dabel, one of those worst affected by food insecurity and high child malnutrition levels. At least 28,000 Moyale residents rely on food aid under the emergency operations programme. This is about a third of the total district population, according to estimates.

Not to be discouraged, we head back to the Odda Location of Moyale. Moyale, we are told, is experiencing an increasing number of HIV/AIDS cases; the presence of a military camp, the porous border and its location as a busy transit town are among the reasons for this rise, even though HIV prevalence in northern areas is still way below the national 7.4 percent rate.

We then proceed on to a temporary settlement for conflict-displaced residents. They tell us they are used to criss-crossing the Kenya-Ethiopia border due to conflicts between the Gabra and Borana communities. Both are found on either side of the border.

A meeting with the drought management officer, Molu Dira Sora, is the highlight of the day. He says government and NGOs have been trucking water to residents in far-off parts of Moyale due to the water shortage. The start of the rains has recharged a few watering points but this will be inadequate in the coming weeks as most of the initial rains are likely to be lost to seepage. “Drought is now a natural phenomenon and we must deal with it through response and development programmes,” he says.

Despite the rains, next year we will still be trucking water, he says.

Jinxed and jumpy

We are heading back to Marsabit as our reporting trip draws to a close. We have achieved a lot, interviewing many local people and getting a feel for some of the challenges that are a daily part of their life.

We intend to make the 300km trip back to Marsabit a fast one. But this is not meant to be.

Shortly after we leave Marsabit, our vehicle gets a puncture. The security escort has already zoomed past the bend and doesn’t immediately notice that we are no longer trailing them.


Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
The rough northern terrain is taxing for most vehicles
As the IRIN driver is changing the tyre, we see their car heading back towards us, the policemen on high alert with their guns pointing at the horizon.

With the tyre changed, we set off again. My long-needed snooze is interrupted by shouting - we are veering dangerously off the road and land in the bush. Fortunately, the car does not roll.

We are in shock, trying to understand what happened. Apparently, we had another flat tyre; the front wheel is extensively damaged, the tyre beyond repair.

Our escort car finds us again. Fortunately, they brought a mechanic along, who helps to replace the last spare tyre.

The policemen then recommend that we travel ahead of them so that they can keep an eye on us – a bad idea as it soon turns out.

We drive for more than an hour, oblivious to the absence of a trailing security escort car. We decide to stop and wait but after 15 minutes and still no sign of them on the flat horizon, we decide to head back and it takes us 30 minutes to find them. Shortly after we left, they say, the car battery went dead and they had to push the vehicle for almost 1km to get it started.

The day seems jinxed, and we are a worried lot.

The escort vehicle is running out of fuel after the many back-and-forth trips. Our nerves are frayed and we’re jumpy. We are relieved to arrive back in Marsabit without further mishap.

After the near misses, we’re not fussy about where we sleep and find a place not far out of town. Tomorrow, we are southward bound, spending an afternoon in the central northwestern region of Laikipia then back to Nairobi after about one-and-a-half weeks on and off the road.

Homeward bound

I am still a little uneasy after the previous day’s incidents and I keep asking my colleague to slow down.

To make matters worse, our northern Kenya stringer has just called with news that about 10 people were shot by bandits close to Isiolo Town a day earlier. He urges us to leave for Isiolo early and travel in convoy, preferably with the long-distance trucks for more security.

Other colleagues in the field are more encouraging: lightning does not strike the same place twice, they say. The bandits must be resting today since they know the security forces are looking for them. The drive to Isiolo is incident-free and we arrive to find that there is a project to extend the tarmac road a few kilometres north. If only they could go farther - where the tarmac ends, trouble starts.


Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
A river recharges following rains close to the eastern town of Isiolo
We are greeted with more news of banditry in all the places we have visited. It seems they happened a day before or after we had left many of the destinations.

We head south to Laikipia. En route we notice it has rained more heavily in these parts and the landscape is a lovely green. The road is tarmac but in need of repair.

We get a view of Mt Kenya as we approach the main town in Laikipia East District, Nanyuki, where we will be spending the night. There is no shortage of good hotels here, depending on how much one wants to spend.

Journey's end

If the residents had better roads, support for pastoralism and more education opportunities, their lives would greatly improve and help them feel like they were indeed part of Kenya, despite the climatic shocks they will still have to overcome, they say.

By the time this travelogue was published, the much anticipated El-Niño-enhanced October to December short rains had failed to meet expectations, forcing experts to warn of a possible deterioration in the food security situation in the north.

aw/mw

See Part One: Hoping for rain
See Part Two: Heading into bandit country