Words from Kenya

Archives for May 2018

Shooting Elders

A group of elders narrowly escaped death this morning. They were shot at shorty after they arrived for a peace meeting on the Isiolo – Laikipia border. This should be evidence enough, for those that still need it, that elders no longer command the authority and respect that they once did among this community, and so many others like it across northern Kenya.

Kenyans are not alone in their love for the pomp and ceremony of traditional leadership roles in society; the ceremonial oaths and promises, the clothes, the prayers, the hallowed words of their elders. Sadly the truth is these positions, and these ceremonies, have long ago been devalued by ruthless politicians from all ranks. We are left with occasions that spawn meaningless words. Elders that no longer hold any authority over their communities and leaders whose words can rarely be trusted to mean what they say.

Those well meaning groups who organise peace meeting here in northern Kenya achieve little more than to provide self interested politicians with a platform in front of the cameras. For most of the leaders attending these events it is just another way to bolster their importance without actually doing their job. How many of these meeting have led to any genuine improvement in security? Most people in the country have no idea because after the meeting the press leave. They don’t return for one death, or even two. For a herd of cows stolen here, or some goats there. There needs to be a certain number of dead, all in one go, before the press return. When they do they rarely look back beyond a day or two, their previous coverage of a peace meeting a couple of months before is forgotten and they thoughtlessly cover the next peace meeting as if it was the first ever held. The same leaders and elders turn up, the same promise are made but everyone goes home and counts their bullets.

I wish those that fund these peace efforts would take the time to do it properly. Spend time finding out who the real instigators of peace and violence are in the communities. Stop using people from the communities involved as your negotiators, bring in people who are experienced but who can clearly be seen to be impartial. Respect traditions but understand that the violence we see in most places today happens far outside the traditional codes of conduct of these communities. Most of all look for the link between the violent actors in the communities and outside criminal organisations or, sadly, politicians. Work at cutting those links.

The community as a whole is not violent but they have probably suffered heavy losses that have not been resolved. Love ones have been killed, homes and livelihoods may have been stolen or destroyed. The ceremonial slaughter of an animal with some elders blessing isn’t going to make all that better. Real restitution, along with cutting links to those funding and inciting violence from outside, is the only way to start putting out the embers that constantly reignite in violence and retaliation across so much of northern Kenya.

(Note: The organisers of today’s peace meeting relocated and held the meeting with only one community present, the issue of the earlier shooting was not discussed, even when brought up by some of the elders who had been shot at.)

After the rain

The rains have wreaked havoc across East Africa. Our part of northern Kenya is no exception, however, here at least it seems that the rains are now abating. The ‘long rains’ are normally not that long for us, the forecast and the weather signs seem to indicate that they are now coming to an end.

Though these unexpected and excessive rains have left a trail of destruction and heart break, it has also left us with a lush and verdant landscape, of a kind not seen here for a decade at least. Children and teenagers have no memory of seeing such long grass or so many flowers. Rivers have carved new channels and places that never had water now do (at least for a while). Our village has two noisy new waterfalls along a new river, it used to be a small stream during the rainy season, though even that has been dry for the last few years.

A new river - Isiolo County

A new river – Isiolo County

Traditionally during the school holidays children take over much of the herding duties. The frequent flash floods along dry river beds have had all parents in a state of constant worry, fearing that their children would be caught unawares and washed away. There is so much grass though that children have been able to herd their livestock within a few feet of home, and under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Grass and flowers haven't been seen like this in a decade

Grass and flowers haven’t been seen like this in a decade – Isiolo County

Our area is semi-arid (which is a lot more arid than the name suggests!) The heat of the tropical sun that powers such rapid growth when it rains also drys out soil and plants very quickly when the rain stops. We normally estimate that the grass will start drying around a week after the last rain. The shrubs last a little longer and then the rivers will gradually dry up. In the mean time though, in this period between too much water and not enough, we are basking in the glory of all this grass, the meadows of flowers, the sound of water running past in the rivers day and night and rain water tanks full of clean water for drinking. The cows and goats have milk to spare and children drink until they are full. At times like this the life of a pastoralist in northern Kenya is one of the best there is.

Sunset over an unusually wet and verdant Isiolo County

Sunset over an unusually wet and verdant Isiolo County

Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

In the last 8 weeks there has been unusually heavy rain over most of East Africa. In Northern Kenya we have seen very little rain during the last 3 years. Life has been dominated by drought, with recent rainy seasons providing no more than a few odd showers. Then in March this year the heavens opened.

The forecast for the April rains had once again been bad for most of the northern and eastern parts of Kenya. We were told to expect poor rains and everyone was gearing up for the worsening, drought driven, humanitarian crisis. So it took us all by surprise when, even before the rainy season was due, it started to pour down.

Heavy rain falling over Il'Ngwesi - Laikipia East

Heavy rain falling over Il’Ngwesi – Laikipia East


Floods are dangerous, unexpected floods doubly so. People and livestock were swept away by the immense power of fast moving water, in both urban and rural areas. Homes and livelihoods were destroyed.

Our village was repeatedly cut off by rivers that reached record heights. The only roads linking the area were cut by major flood damage and most vehicles attempting to find alternative, off-road, routes got bogged down for days. This meant that food and medical supplies began to run low and access to hospital was completely impossible for days at a time.

Isiolo to Kipsing road destroyed by flood waters at Burat - Isiolo County

Isiolo to Kipsing road destroyed by flood waters at Burat – Isiolo County


Floods in a dry land are hard to imagine if you have never experienced it. They can come out of nowhere and there is often no warning. Even when no rain has been falling in your own area a dry river bed can, in less than a minute or two, transform into a raging torrent with enough power to sweep a vehicle away, let alone a child.

Flooding river in Isiolo County

Flooding in Isiolo County


With the victims of yesterday’s dam burst in Nakuru, officials report that at least 145 people have died and some 260,000 have been displaced during this unexpectedly heavy rainy season.

The Star – Death toll hits 113 as 10 counties flooded

The Star – Death toll from Nakuru dam tragedy rises to 32

These numbers are very real to us, people we knew were killed. In time houses can be rebuilt, crops replanted and livestock replaced, but the loved ones who died will never come back.

School children walking across flooded land - Isiolo County

School children walking across flooded land – Isiolo County


Ironically many of the areas in Kenya that have been worst hit by the heavy rains are those that suffered most during the biting drought of the last 3 years. Climate change aside, this could just be bad luck. What makes these areas so vulnerable to such weather events however, has nothing to do with luck.

The reason these area have suffered so badly is because they are desperately poor and marginalized; to all intents and purposes completely ignored by their government. The roads are dirt and are easily destroyed, hospitals are hours of difficult travel away even under the best of conditions, there is no support for commerce and nobody is insured, losses are total.

There are many here who have just watched what little they had left, after years of drought, get washed away in a flood. A red cross aid parcel doesn’t make up for that. Only a meaningful commitment and proper investment in these areas, on the part of the government, will help people develop a long term resilience to such events.