Words from Kenya

Turkana Oil Protests

Turkana Pastoralist's House

Poverty and inequity make oil protests inevitable in Turkana, unless both government and oil companies take great care to support local communities in the early stages of exploration and extraction.

Putting aside for a moment all other issues, legitimate or otherwise, that surround oil exploration in Turkana there is a fundamental problem that has not been sufficiently addressed. That problem is a perception of inequality arising from extreme poverty and marginalisation and, in the broadest sense, from a lack of cultural understanding.

The Turkana people who live in the exploration areas are mostly pastoralists, and extremely poor. Most live in crude houses made of sticks, grass and mud. They work from sunrise to well after sunset, herding livestock many miles in search of scarce pasture and even scarcer water. Herders generally don’t eat all day and often don’t have anything to drink. Most eat only once, at either the very start or end of the day. There is little in the way of medical care, generally it is very far away and they probably couldn’t afford it anyway. Many children still don’t go to school and most of the schools that do exist are of poor quality. People have few possessions, often just one set of mismatched clothes and a blanket. Clothes are worn until they literally disintegrate.

When the ‘oil people’ come this is what the local people see. They see people in cars, in lorries and other large machines, even airplanes. They see people who have nice clothes, who are clean and obviously have enough water to do more than just drink it. They are healthy; they eat well, probably more than once a day. Even the plastic biro in the pocket of a workman is a luxury item to the Turkana pastoralists who are watching the exploration work unfold.

This is why there is a problem even after the companies have held all the community sensitisation meetings and made all the community agreements. Even after they have employed some of the local men and women and even sent some of the young people to university. It is not enough to tell a man that in ten years from now there will be a hospital and he will be able to afford to take his dying daughter there, when his daughter is dying today. It is not enough to tell a woman that in 2 years from now there will be plenty of water for all, when she and her children are desperately thirsty now.

If a pastoralist has herded his livestock across a certain piece of land at a certain time of year all his life, and the well-being of his livestock are his only means of ensuring his family’s existence, he will find it very hard to understand why he can’t herd his livestock there today. What is it that these people are doing that is worth more to him than the health of his livestock and his family? Many pastoralists have given their lives to protect their livestock, water and grazing, in the endless conflicts that plague this part of the country. It is something he is prepared to die for.

The local people are told to wait because the oil people haven’t made any money yet (lets ignore improved share price for the moment) but every day the oil people, even the lowliest workers, eat and drink and live a life of unimaginable richness to the average Turkana pastoralist.

People whose life is so hard and so dangerous that they can do no more than survive each day as it comes do not set much store in promises of things that will happen in years from now.

The mistake so far is that not enough effort has been made to deal with people’s current needs in advance of the vast show of wealth that is an oil exploration project. The local people have also been made to feel like trespassers in their own lands. Just imagine all this happening in your back garden and think how you would feel.

The oil companies may be quite right to say that the current state of poverty and marginalisation of the Turkana people is not their fault, however it is likely to become a problem for them nonetheless and a wise strategist would see that putting the right measures in place at the start would go a long way to minimising future animosity.

The current protest about jobs has so much fire because it is based on this perception of inequality. Local leaders may indeed have incited people to demonstrate but the people were easy to incite because of their perception of unfairness.

Oil companies and the government must address this on the ground and in reality now, or the current bad feeling will multiply and the consequences could be very serious.


  1. Chris Ekuttan says

    There is a misconception of the oil companies thinking the Turkana land is free land which they can criss-cross, dig and raise dust without being questioned leave alone compensate. Which land in Kenya can they do that even when harvesting murrum? Let them try that in Kiambu for even parking space. If Tullow was to be told to compensate for trespass, they will be out business the next day. They should then work with the locals, giving jobs and business opportunities as they prospect.

  2. Emathe Namuar says

    It is amazing reading this script and watching how Tullow Plc and the government of Kenya are trying to suppress the truth. I would imagine how Kenyans in Central province would address this issue in their backyard. Soon Tullow Plc and Kenyan government will realize that what is given without strings will always be yours even in death.
    See the Chiefs in Ghana are rising against Tullow in what they term lack of inclusion in employment. The same scenario in Kenya. The questions is, who dines with this “monster”? The community and youth will easily and always choose the absurd, even when they are normal, when they receive a spate that is contrary to their expectation when they land is taken away and their rights are turned into privileges.
    It cannot happen now and even in the future…they either choose to take up their required Corporate Social Responsibility or spend resources mark timing with their so called oil find.

    • Lokidor Anne says

      Corporate social responsibility is key and any wise man knows that you can’t tell a hungry man let me plant crops in your land and I will give you some after I have haversted enough…..

  3. Kalemunyangs symeons says

    Tullow oil plc has abad history in dealing with the indigenious pple where oil exploration is done.same case happened in western region of ghana afew yrs ago.it is high tyme the turkana resist any attempts of blackmail and short changing before its too late.

Speak Your Mind