Words from Kenya

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.

The tragedy of rain on degraded rangelands

The rain should have made me feel good. Here, in the arid lands of northern Kenya, rain is what we pray for, and when it comes it brings relief and joy. We have had very little rain in the last few years, rainy season after rainy season has disappointed. Everybody has lost livestock because of the lack of grass and shrubs for browsing. Water sources have dried up. The stress of persistent drought has affected us all.

The forecast for the coming rainy season in North Eastern counties was not good, below average rainfall was predicted. During the last rainy season our village had less than a week of rain. This unexpected dry season rain was surely a blessing. Yet as I watched it fall I felt immensely sad.

Rain on damaged land

Rain on damaged land

I felt sad as I watched dry luggas flood with mud brown water. I felt sad when I saw the water carve out deep gullies across the land, especially in areas that should have become natural temporary wet lands. I watched with a sinking heart as the soil laden water surged dangerously down these new gullies and disappeared in a few short hours.

The land is bare from years of over grazing, compacted to near concrete hardness by too many little hooves. The water hardly penetrates and instead washes away the top layer of dusty soil. Unchecked by vegetation it sweeps with dangerous speed across the land. Carving out new gullies or enlarging old ones. The water becomes a powerful destructive force, washing away buildings and cutting through roads.

Damage after the rain

Damage after the rain

I was cut off by flooded luggas, and impassably muddy roads, twice in the last two weeks. Each time for more than 24 hours. The second time I wondered whether I was really ‘cut off’ or just cowardly. When I eventually got out I discovered how real the danger had been and those that had not won the battle with the floods. A teacher from Leparua Secondary School, died on the road to Isiolo town. A motorcyclist and two children carried away by flood water in Isiolo town itself. Others lost their lives in flood water in Samburu and elsewhere.

Destroying roads

Destroying roads

Apart from a few notable exceptions the roads in northern Kenya are not paved. With little care from the authorities these roads quickly disintegrate into deeply rutted mud when it rains. Vehicles often becoming stuck on them for days at a time. As the water rushes off the surrounding land deep gullies get carved along, or across, the roads.

The main road from Isiolo to Kipsing and Ol Donyiro had been progressively damaged in the last two rainy seasons. This last rain has completely destroyed it, not far beyond Isiolo town. Now all those that rely on this road, for medical care, trade or essential supplies, have to venture out into the surrounding bush to find new ways past deep luggas, taking them through black cotton soil that quickly become impassable when it rains.

Isiolo river flooded with silt laden water

Isiolo river flooded with silt laden water

You would think that at least recent problems with access to water for household use would now be solved. Not long ago water was a scarce commodity that people were walking long distances to find. In rural areas there is indeed an improvement, though the water is so thick with mud it is hard to believe it’s usable even for washing, let along cooking or drinking.

The rain doesn’t seem to have helped the water issues in Isiolo town though. A few weeks ago we were being told that the water shortage was because there was not enough water in the river. Those upstream were not obeying the rules and were taking out too much, leaving Isiolo residents with nothing. Now there is plenty of water in the river but we are told the water is so clogged with mud it can’t be treated for human consumption. So the taps in Isiolo are still dry.

Marsabit town’s water sources are in the forest, but each dry season larger and larger numbers of livestock invade the forest, stripping the ground cover and compacting the soil. Soon it’s reservoirs will also be full of mud whenever it rains.

Flooding in Isiolo Town

Flooding in Isiolo Town

Both these towns are growing rapidly. Alternative plans for water provision in Isiolo, taking it from another community, has already caused conflict. ‘Me first’ and short sighted water plans are going to cause more problems than they solve.

Everything in our environment is interconnected, to make sure that the rain we receive is a benefit not a danger, we must take care of the land. There are lots of ways we can regenerate degraded rangelands, which in turn will reduce dangerous run off, stop gully formation, and let the rivers run clear and clean, but none of them will work unless we keep livestock numbers down. This is something we must do, not because it’s good for conservation, or wildlife (though those are good enough reasons) but for the future health and well-being of the people who live here, and the livestock they rely on. I for one am not keen to go through many more years like the last few we have had here. The hunger, dying livestock and the desperate search for water. I want the rain, when it comes, to be the blessing it should be. A life giving source of joy, a cause for celebration, for all the residents of these northern arid lands, who go so long without it.

School children crossing flooded ground

School children crossing flooded ground

After years of violence and drought there is a renewal of hope in this small community in northern Kenya.

The last 2 years have been very difficult for the community surrounding Olng’arua School. Violence has resulted in two thirds of the people who lived here being displaced, houses and possessions destroyed, livestock stolen and lives lost.

The community was totally unprepared for the violence. Although there have been occasional periods of insecurity in the past (the last of any significance was more than 20 years ago), nobody can remember anything as bad as this. They were also left totally alone in dealing with it. A collection of mostly forgotten villages on the border of Isiolo and Laikipia counties, there was very little support from the police or either of the county governments.

Shortly after the fighting first broke out the community watched around 70% their livestock die from drought, carcasses littered the area, and there were some families that lost every animal they had. A few families managed to restock only to lose the new animals to violent livestock raids.

The last six months have been especially hard. There are drought conditions again and, for the first time in living memory, the springs that supported what was once our marsh have dried up. In the months running up to the the elections, on the 8th of August, insecurity became so bad that people could think of little else except staying alive until the morning.

Many of the men had to leave the area to take the remaining livestock to other places, there was simply nothing to feed them here. This left a heavy burden of security on those that remained. At the school we had to mount a 24 hour guard, nobody ever got enough sleep. We have also had to bring all our water in to the school in 20lt cans from where ever we could get it. In the village the women have been doing the same for their homes, the greater the distance they have to carry the water the less time there is for anything else, and the more exhausted everybody becomes.

However, for the first time is many months, people are starting to feel hopeful again. Locally the elections went well, the presidential elections have not yet been settled but for us it was the county elections that were of most concern, and they were peaceful. There has not been an attack on the community since the beginning of August and, despite a few alerts, there has been a palpable release of tension. When people are near their homes they are no longer checking the bushes every few seconds to see if there is a gun pointed at them. We are all starting to think about more than staying alive until the next day or even the next week.

I can’t say that the election results have solved our problems. There have been no big changes, the causes of the violence have not really been identified (let alone solved) and people are still cautious, but we are starting to regain something of our normal lives.

This is just as well because we still have drought, there is still no water and hunger has become a very pressing issue. The small release of pressure from constant insecurity is giving us a chance to deal with these other very urgent problems. It has also allowed us to plan for the future again, and if anything, these terribly hard years have made all that we are working for at the school feel even more vital.

The community are tired. Resilience is very low, people have used up all their resources just keeping themselves and their livestock alive. The situation at the school is no better. Keeping the school open and safe, providing enough food and water and continuing a remotely normal education program throughout all of the trouble, almost brought it to closure.

Despite the exhaustion and the losses though everybody is grateful to be given a chance to move forward again, to make things better. To make sure that what we have lived through does not become the new normal here. Nobody wants to live like this any more. This makes the school, and community education, even more important to us than before. It really is our chance to make a better future.

If we don’t want to see our community sucked into repeated cycles of violence, like so many across the north of Kenya, we need to help produce strong and conscientious leaders who have the skills to tackle the difficult issues facing this community and the world. The drought conditions we are suffering are largely man made and while climate change is undoubtedly the huge challenge of our times, locally over-grazing and poor water management has as much to do with the destruction of the environment we all rely on as the weather patterns. These are things we can change. With education and support people here can start restoring the local environment now, there is no need or sense in waiting for someone else to come and do it for us.