Words from Kenya

The Great North Road – A trip through the wild splendour of northern Kenya.

The ‘great north road’, also known (less romantically) as the A2, links Nairobi, and the rest of East Africa, with Ethiopia. It does so by traversing some of the most dramatic and inhospitable parts of the northern half of Kenya. The 507kms between Isiolo and Moyale take you through the Kaisuit Desert, over 1500m of volcanic mountain (topped by thick forest) and on through the Dida Galgalu Desert and the Shinil Plains, before climbing again into the low hills around Moyale, where the road passes into Ethiopia.

When I first travelled this road you considered things were going well if you made the trip from Isiolo to Moyale in 2 days. The rough corrugated dirt road, strewn with either rocks or a fine clinging dust, was hard work in the dry season. During the rains however it was almost impossible. It wasn’t unheard of for the journey to stretch to a week, as buses and lorries became stuck in mud over their axles, and completely blocked the road.

Moyale Bus

Moyale Bus

The heat of the desert stretches is intense so it was normal for vehicles to travel at night. More comfortable for the drivers and passengers but it also helped to reduce the number of tire blow-outs and punctures. Poor quality tires, in extreme heat and on sharp volcanic rock, is a recipe for endless tire changing.

Upgrading the road

Moyale road cleared for development

Moyale road cleared for development

The project, to upgrade the stretch of the A2 from Isiolo town to the Ethiopian border at Moyale, spanned 3 presidents and construction took 9 years. The finished product is one of the best roads in the country though, reducing travel time from Nairobi to Moyale from 3 days to around 12 hours.

It’s not likely to appeal to petrol heads however, one of its defining features is how very straight most of it is, hardly even any undulations, and bends mostly occur in long gentle curves. The most challenging aspect of this road are the frequent speed bumps. Every hamlet quite rightly has them, to protect people and animals from speeding vehicles. It is easy for your speed to creep up on the long straight stretches of road, there are few land marks to give you any indication of how fast you are going.

Straight through the Dida Galgalu Desert

Straight through the Dida Galgalu Desert

Economic Development

Already the road has had an impact on the communities it passes through. Villages have rapidly expanded into small towns, shops and cafes have opened up where none were before and traditional housing is being replaced by buildings using modern materials. There are also cars, actual cars, not just Landcruisers or Landrovers or beaten up old lorries. There are big cars and small cars, hatchbacks, saloons, estates, 2 doors, 4 doors, very cheap cars and some very expensive ones too (county government staff one assumes!) It’s a brave new world where this ribbon of tarmac passes through.

Turbi is growing rapidly

Turbi is growing rapidly

….but will it last?

It is worth considering the fate of another ‘great north road’, the A1 between Kitale and Lodwar. This road was once also a masterpiece of smooth tarmac. During the 80’s tour operators would take visitors from Kitale to Lake Turkana for a boat trip, and be back in Kitale again in time for supper. Now it’s hard to believe there was ever a modern road here at all. The only signs that remain, of this once excellent road, is the odd patch of sharp edged tarmac, standing proud in the corrugated dirt, and just waiting to tear your tires to shreds.

Trucks on the road to Lodwar

Trucks on the road to Lodwar

Currently it takes a long day of dust and hard slog to get from Kitale to Lodwar by road (dry season timing), never mind continuing on to the lake. So I guess a road is only as good as the maintenance schedule.

Worryingly there are already patches of the new A2 that are showing wear. Considering how long it took to build this road and that almost all the contractors (and funding) were foreign, I am a little concerned that maintenance might not have been given much thought.

Dust devil just after Laisamis

Dust devil just after Laisamis

So, just in case the new A2 goes the way of the Kitale to Lodwar road, you should plan to enjoy it sooner rather than later. Visit Samburu National Park, climb Ololokwe, stop off in the cool and verdant Marsabit forest and get your fill of desert vistas, marvelling at the incredible people who manage to live in this extreme environment. Finally end up in Moyale and, if you hold a Kenyan I.D. card, stroll across the border into Ethiopia for some Ethiopian food before you wend your way back south again.

Gabra women walking through a desert of volcanic rock

Gabra women walking through a desert of volcanic rock


Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale all have banks, fuel stations and shops selling most things you might need.

Even new cars can break down or get flat tires and there are still plenty of places with no phone signal. For the most part this road goes through very hot areas with no shade, so be prepared and make sure you have enough water with you.

This trip can also now be done by bus or matatu, you no longer have to travel on the top of a lorry (unless you want to).

You need a 4×4 vehicle to visit any of the national parks but, if you are staying in one of the lodges, most of them will provide transport to and from the gate and offer game drives.

Houses near the Sololo junction

Houses near the Sololo junction

Where to go and stay

Samburu National Park
Buffalo Springs National Reserve
Shaba National Reserves

These three parks are close together and all little more than 30 mins up the road from Isiolo. They are all worth visiting. The parks have tourist lodges and permitted camping areas. However, the easy distance to Isiolo makes staying in one of the many hotels there also an option. Check out TripAdvisor.com for suggestions and reviews.

Ololokwe at Sunset

Ololokwe at Sunset


Ololokwe, a spectacular mass of rock rising out of the plains, lies just to the left of the road about 20 mins north of Arches Post. It is sacred to the Samburu people but you can hire a guide to take you up the mountain. Enquire at Sapache Eco Lodge, which is sign posted on the road as you pass below the mountain.

Mist over Marsabit Forest

Mist over Marsabit Forest

Marsabit National Park

This forest park is a world away from the hot desert areas that surround the Mt Marsabit. Cool, thick forest with a surprising variety of wildlife, this is a real balm to mind and body after a day in the desert. The park has one lodge, Marsabit Lodge, and 2 permitted camping areas, one at the main park gate, which is close to the centre of Marsabit, and one on the shores of Lake Paradise. As the park entrance is literally in town it is also possible to make a day visit and stay in one of the hotels in town (again check TripAdvisor.com for suggestions and latest reviews). However, I would strongly recommend Marsabit Lodge; simple, friendly and reasonably priced, the lodge sits on the edge of a volcanic crater lake. From the picture window in your room (or the balcony) you can watch the animals as they come out of the forest to drink, it’s a little bit of peaceful heaven.

Elephants coming out of the forest to drink in Lake Paradise

Elephants coming out of the forest to drink in Lake Paradise


Accommodation options in Moyale are still quite limited, however with the improved road and impressive new border point I expect that will change. Currently you can camp at the KWS compound, stay in the Arid Lands guest house (both on the edge of town) or stay in the Al-Yusra Hotel (easy to find, a large multi story orange building a couple of streets to the right of the main round about as you come into town). I am not a fan of the Al-Yusra Hotel, a rather unfriendly place with claustrophobic bedrooms and bathrooms that are often dirty, but it is the only place in town that can currently be described as a hotel.

Moyale at dawn

Moyale at dawn

If you have a Kenyan I.D. card you can just walk across the border into Ethiopia here (day trips only). The Ethiopian side of Moyale is larger and more bustling than the Kenyan side with many small bars and restaurants. The best is the Koket Borena Hotel near the top of the hill on the left, as you go up the main road through town. It serves good food and coffee and has a nice leafy environment to eat and drink in.

An uneasy silence has settled over the village as we wait to see if the election will bring peace or chaos.

In the village on the border of Isiolo and Laikipia counties the last two weeks have been relatively quiet. With just a few minor livestock raids in the area and whole days without the sound of gunfire, by the standards everybody has become used to, this has been a peaceful time. It is a blessed relief to be able to walk a short way beyond the homesteads without searching the bushes constantly to see if a gun is trained on you. To even step outside at night, almost casually.

The days are getting harder in other ways, the water is gone, people are trekking just to get something muddy and stinking, but better than nothing. Hunger is creeping in as well. The livestock is too skinny to produce milk (or meat) and those who used to farm, by the once year round rivers, have nothing in their dry shambas. All food must now be bought in town and transport paid for to bring it back to the village. Most don’t have money for that. There was a relief food delivery a couple of weeks ago, that has helped, but the food won’t last long. Despite the increasing stress of daily life though, the reduction in violence is like a balm on us all.

There is no sense that the community is returning to normal however. It just feels like there is a collective holding of breath. We are all waiting for the 8th of August, for the election. In remote rural areas the frenetic campaigning happening across the country is not in evidence. There have been a couple of rallies in our area, people went to them and got given 200ksh, 500ksh if they were lucky. That was what people talked about afterwards, how much they were given, some were not even sure who the candidates were or what parties they belonged to. In remote rural areas the politics that effects people is usually very local, the people who push violence or bring justice and support are at the most local and lowest level of political establishment such as sub chiefs and elders. Governors, senators even MPs are remote and unknown figures.

Everyone knows that the violence is tied to the elections though and nobody will trust these days of quiet, days with few gunshots, loss of livestock or death, until they have seen how the elections go. Will this be the beginning of peace? The start of people moving back to their homes, to spend their time and energy fighting drought and hunger rather than raiders. Or is this just the calm before a worse storm?

So we wait.

Brazen and deadly: Today’s livestock raiders are often acting with extensive support and powerful backing.

This morning’s livestock raid in Burat, Isiolo County, was unusually brazen and ambitions. At around 7am a group of men attacked bomas at the western end of the hills that make the fine backdrop to Isiolo town. Reports suggest that there may have been as many as 100 involved in the raid and subsequent ambushes. Over 200 head of cattle were taken. Certainly they needed both a significant number of well armed men, and a great deal of confidence, to pull off such a large scale raid in broad daylight. Especially one so close to Isiolo town and all the security forces located there.

Normally raids are undertaken at night, often around midnight, giving the raiders plenty of time (under the cover and confusion of darkness) to get the livestock away from any pursuers. To raid livestock during the day, particularly in the morning when followers have the whole day before them, is generally only undertaken by people extremely confident in their supremacy in fire-power, or in their impunity.

When you take that many animals you can’t help but leave a very clear trail behind you. The attackers knew that they would be tracked and they prepared in advance, laying 3 separate ambushes along roads the trackers would need to follow. The trail ultimately led across the Ewaso Nyiro and on towards Wamba in Samburu East.

This was a well planned and executed attack. Which seems to fit with the theory that many of the people causing violence in Isiolo and Laikipia Counties in the last few months have had tactical training and financial support. It also says a lot about the current state of law and order in the area, and the apparent impunity of certain groups.

Isiolo’s County Commissioner George Natembeya blamed politicians for the deadly raid two weeks ago at Barchuma, on the Isiolo Marsabit border, that left 10 dead – Police blame politicians for Isiolo, Marsabit attacks.

The report – Cattle Barons: Political Violence, Land Invasions and Forced Displacement in Kenya’s Laikipia County – published earlier this week in the Star newspaper, looks in detail at the extent to which the violence seen in and around Laikipia North and neighbouring areas is supported by politicians and other powerful people.

There is also a great deal of doubt about the impartiality of organisations that are responsible for providing security, both those mandated by the government and those supported by NGOs. Local people seem to be left with little option but to protect themselves as best they can or to flee.

As I write the death toll from today’s raid is believed to stand at 6 people, with an unknown number of injured. At least one of those injured at the boma this morning was a child.

Could community buyouts help deal with the land problem in Laikipia?

In an in-depth article for The Elephant I discuss whether the kind of community buyouts that have helped to deal with a history of land injustice in Scotland could work in Laikipia and elsewhere in northern Kenya.

LAND REFORM: Could the Scottish Model Work in Kenya’s Northern Rangelands?

Focusing on the violent attacks against white ranchers in Kenya is a dangerous mistake

The shooting of Kuki Gallman was a terrible thing and it made international news. It was not terrible because she is white, or Italian (though now a Kenyan citizen) or because she is famous (Kim Basinger played her in the movie) or because she is rich (I don’t actually know if she is but it certainly appears that way). It’s not even terrible because she has made an important contribution to wildlife conservation in Kenya. It’s terrible because it was a violent crime and all violent crime is terrible.

Since the ranch invasions in Laikipia made the headlines many people have voiced the opinion that the violence is in some way understandable, or even justified, because “colonial white settlers” have stolen ancestral land. This view would have had a great deal of sympathy from me if it wasn’t for the fact that Kenyans have been fully in charge of Kenya for more than 50 years. This Mugabesque tactic is a very convenient way of hiding a much bigger problem behind an emotive issue.

The day before Kuki Gallman was shot I was also confronted by armed and aggressive herders. Beyond the fact that I too have looked down the wrong end of a gun there is no similarity between Kuki Gallman and myself. Admittedly I am white, and I am also female, however I do not own any land in Kenya and being married to a local Kenyan I don’t run in the same social circles as most white Kenyan families. I don’t own a plane and I regard smart shopping as going to the AKK supermarket in Isiolo town. In short most would struggle to class me as a white colonial oppressor of the Kenyan people.

And this is the point, the noise being made about the few wealthy (and mostly white) ranchers that are being subjected to violence, obscures the fact that thousands of ordinary people are also being subjected to this kind of violence, and in many cases much worse.

On that Saturday I was attempting to keep around 2000 cattle, and a large number of aggressive and illegally armed men, out of the last remaining spring in the small village that I live in. Because of the drought all other water sources in the area have dried up and the fragile spring is all that is left. The steep dry sides of the spring could easily collapse and destroy our only water source. It would take far less than 2000 cows to make this happen and for that very reason the local community are careful to keep their own animals out of it. Without the spring the local school would have to close and the whole community would have to move away to somewhere else where they could get access to water.

So, when the cattle started to arrive, I stood with the one Kenya Police Reservist stationed in the community, and attempted to save the spring. We stood alone against the invasion because the rest of the community were far too afraid of the men who came with the cows to stand with us. I don’t blame them. Members of the same group have, over the past two years, repeatedly stolen livestock from our own and neighbouring villages, they have shot at homesteads containing women and children and ambushed and murdered local men out with their livestock, the most recent case being an old man who simply could not run away fast enough.

In the remote Kenyan bush nobody really expects to suddenly come across an angry white woman and that might go some way to explaining why just the two of us, against such well armed opposition, succeeded in keeping the cattle out of the spring and not get shot. Though had it been the day after Kuki Gallman was attacked, rather than before, I might not have been quite so brave in the face of so many guns.

This is not the first time this year that we have had to save the spring from destruction by invading herds nor do I expect it will be the last. Local people water their animals where the spring flows out into a sandy seasonal river bed, there the livestock can drink without damaging the spring itself. The herders who came that day, who have been repeatedly invading the area over the last two years, must surely also know this. To try to take their animals into the spring itself suggest that not just water but also destruction, intimidation and the removal of the local community from this area must be their ultimate aim.

We should not be blinded by reporting that might suggest a righteous black struggle against a white colonial oppressor. The violence of Kenyan against Kenyan, criminal against innocent victim, is so much more extensive and much more significant to the future of Kenyans, both locally and nationally. The big story here is the thousands of ordinary Kenyans who are being affected by this violence; ordinary homes being destroyed, livestock stolen, shambas stripped bare, children huddled in fear as they listen to gun shots night after night. Woman raped by armed men confident that no one will stop them, women, children, the elderly and unarmed, shot, injured and killed. Arrests for these crimes are so rare as to be non-existent, shooting a white person might get you into a bit of trouble but you can attack other Kenyans with impunity.

I have been watching this unfold in our area for the last 2 years and I wonder, where are the journalist who are prepared to name the instigators of this violence or those that ensure the criminals can act without consequence to themselves? Because most of these people are known to the communities involved. Where are the police who are prepared to maintain the rule of law regardless of any pressure on them to turn a blind eye? And where is the Kenyan government who should put the safety and security of their people before all other considerations?

Mugabe used this trick to distract the citizens of Zimbabwe from his failures in governance by blaming the few remaining white ranchers for all the country’s many problems. I hope that Kenyans are not so easily duped. White owned ranches are not the story or the problem. Dispossess the white ranchers and give the land over to pastoralists and they will succeed no better than the Zimbabwean farmers did. This is because the government will still not be supplying quality education, growth or development in the pastoralist lands of Kenya. Rangelands will continue to be degraded, man made droughts will increase and the horror of mass livestock death and human suffering continue.

This is what every pastoralist should be thinking of as we head into the elections. When you watch your animals die is it really because some white person owns a ranch or because your own government has ignored you for decades?

I know I am going to watch our livestock die this year (the animals we have left, the ones that haven’t been stolen). I’ve watched them die before, in previous droughts, and the pain, futility and hopelessness of it is almost indescribable, but all pastoralists know it. Instead of fighting amongst ourselves, or against some fabricated enemy, we should be coming together to hold the government to account and to demand the kind of development and support we need to ensure that we don’t have to go through that pain again.