Words from Kenya

Guns in Northern Kenya

I have mixed feelings about all the guns in northern Kenya. It is obviously scary, and when you hear of people being killed over some dispute in a distant village you instinctively feel that if only all the guns could be taken away things would be so much better. Then someone attacks your village, steals your livestock or asserts rights to land or resources that are vital to you. Then you find yourself looking for some protection. If your village is far from a town there is unlikely to be any police to help you. Then you want the men with guns to be ‘your’ men with guns. The community shares food rations with them, cooks for them, prays for them. Now there are good men with guns and bad men with guns, and it is only a matter of which village you in live that defines them. Without good, reliable, policing there will always be guns in northern Kenya, and for as long as communities need to arm their men to protect themselves there will always be men with guns to be afraid of.

Mount Kenya with Snow

Some days I see my home country everywhere I look. Mount Kenya, covered in snow, on a grey day during the dry season, looks a lot like Scotland; or at least it does to my unaccustomed eyes. The camel gives it away though, I have never seen a camel in Scotland.

Livestock herders dream of grass like this.

This is what the grass looks like in a conservation area. I am a pastoralist by marriage, we love our livestock. Cows, goats, camels; pastoralists love their animals beyond all reason. And that, I guess, is the trouble. There are now so many animals that there is rarely any good grass to be found any more. Poor rains don’t help, but even when the rains are good the grass never gets that way, unless it is in area protected from livestock. The livestock we love is striping northern Kenya bare, and then what will we do? It will be like a drought year every year. We will be picking up animals trying to keep them alive, dragging carcasses out to be scavenged. We will be crushed under the weight of our losses more and more frequently until there is nothing left but bare earth, empty stomachs and sadness.

Hard times in northern Kenya, the long and the short of it.

For most of northern Kenya the long rains aren’t actually any longer than the short rains. This year the long rains (arriving somewhere from late March and rarely staying beyond the first week in May) have been looked for with more than the normal amount of anxious anticipation.

Across the north the short rains (usually occurring between late October and early December) were very poor, or failed completely. This disappointment came after an especially harsh long dry season, where many people lost livestock. The livestock that survived, to stagger through the scarcely wet short rains and the subsequent dry months until now, are a skinny and desperate lot. Good rains were needed this April to save their lives and see them through the coming six months with out rain. So far, for most across the north, the rainfall has been far short of what was needed. The rains are forecast to end for most northern areas in about a weeks time. With some places having seen no more than a couple of light showers, things are looking very grim indeed.

It is hard to imagine, if you have never done it, what it is like to watch your livestock slowly starve to death. If you are a pastoralist here your livestock is your livelihood, your business and your savings all in one. These are animals that you have nurtured and loved since you helped their mothers with their birth. Animals whose existence feeds your family, pays for medical care, clothes you and sends your children to school. Without them you have nothing, you are nothing.

Watching these animals slowly starve, weaken and ultimately lie down one day never to stand again, and a day or two later watching them gasp their last breaths. It is beyond heartbreaking and it is incredibly stressful.

Married to a northern pastoralist I have watched our own animals die this way, exhausted with our efforts to keep them alive, and yet nothing in the end could be done to safe them. Anticipating this event, months in advance, as most of us now do, is to know that the next months will be full of effort, likely doomed to failure, and to hours of stress and anxiety. Yet I know that my situation is nothing to that of many people here. Our loss will not be as heavy as theirs.

It is desperate efforts to avoid this that drives people to push their weak and exhausted animals over great distances to look for water and pasture. Even though they know that the weakest will not survive such journeys, they hope that by doing so they will at least keep a few animals alive.

This desperation to save what animals they can often leads herders to drive their livestock into other people grazing lands or onto private ranches. This in turn can lead to violence. Violence between herders competing for limited water or grazing or, as we have seen over recent months in Laikipia, between herders and private ranch owners.

However, despite the news reports they generates, conflict over resources are the exception not the rule. In the vast majority of cases local agreements are made, permission asked for and granted. Everybody here understands the desperation of such times. It may not make the headlines when communities share what little they have with others, but everyone here knows that one day they too will need the same kindness.

These struggles to survive in northern Kenya do seem to be getting worse however, listening to oral histories or reading colonial accounts will show you that. Even in the ten years that I have been here I have seen land that was regularly lush, with knee high grass and a profusion of wild flowers, turn into a barren wasteland with barely a blade of grass, even during the rains. It is not hard to find where the problems lie but they are not easy problems to manage.

The weather patterns here, as in many parts of the world, are changing. In the past the rainy seasons could be predicted almost to the day. Now they are erratic in timing and in quality. However this is a problem that mobile pastoralists are better adapted to than most. They have a history and culture developed around moving with the rains. Though weather patterns are much less reliable than they used to be, this is a relatively easy problem for them to overcome. At least it would be if their movement hadn’t been so much curtailed over recent years. The best land, the dry season grazing with reliable year round watering points, has gradually been taken up into private ranches. Fences have been erected and, especially near year round water sources, urban settlements have developed and spread.

Northern Kenya has one of the fastest growing populations in the world and this is possibly the biggest problem facing pastoralists. There is a minimum number of animals needed to support each person in this livelihood, so more people mean more animals. Most parts of northern Kenya simply have more livestock than the land and climate can support. This leads to all the problems associated with overgrazing; land degradation, destruction of water sources, spread of diseases and alteration (or destruction) of the local ecology.

Population growth is one of the most difficult problems to tackle anywhere. In an area as marginalized as northern Kenya it is hard to imagine that it can be tackled at all. The means of reducing population growth is though development, provision of key social services and good education at all levels, things that are barely in evidence here.

Many agencies for development, both governmental and NGO, have trumpeted agriculture as a solution to pastoralist problems in the north. Telling people to give up their livestock and turn instead to growing food to feed their families. The people of northern Kenya are not stupid, if it was that simple I can assure you they would already be doing it. When rains are regular many people plant rain fed crops at some point in the year. Those who live near year round water sources, rivers or springs, also plant crops to supplement their livelihood from livestock. However, for most people in the north, this is not an option.

Over the last ten years I have watched many organisations setup agricultural programs here, but to maintain them successfully requires a level of financial commitment simply not realistic outside these flagship projects. It is not just lack of good water (much of the ground water is extremely salty), in many areas the soil simply isn’t up to the job either. With ample funding you can make even a desert productive, but there isn’t ample funding.

For years academics and dry-land experts have been saying that pastoralism is the best and most sustainable use of the land in northern Kenya (and across much of the Horn of Africa) but still few of the main actors here, in government or development, seem to be listening. Very little time and money is put into helping develop sustainable pastoralism in the modern environment, and the development of key social services lags years behind that of other part of the country. This is likely in part because it seems that the government constantly underestimates the value of pastoralism to the economy. As a mobile livelihood, rather than discrete and stationary business, and operating in a vast area far from centres of administration, it is easy to see why it is much harder to calculate the true value pastoralism adds to the economy. Though academics and experts from institutions such as IIED have done just that.

So, with too many animals and too little grass, the dismal long rains of 2015 look likely to be the last straw for many pastoralist families. Families who, in a few months time, seem set to find themselves on the edge of one of the ever expanding urban slums; waiting for food aid from a charity, children malnourished and uneducated, having lost everything but their lives. Some may lose even that.

Killing Suspects

The Kenyan press are regularly reporting the death of ‘suspected’ criminals at the hands of the police or other security enforcement officers. Most of these people are suspected of crimes that would not actually carry the death penalty if they were tried and convicted. KWS for example shoots dead a lot of suspected poachers. Poaching doesn’t carry the death penalty here.

It seems we have a justice system that runs parallel to, but entirely separate from, the legal system of justice. This parallel justice system is pretty much accepted. Most people don’t seem to think there is anything wrong with a death sentence being handed out to people who are ‘suspected’ of a crime. Or see the discrepancy of a much lesser sentence, jail time for example, being handed out to people who are actually convicted of the same crime. Nor do many people have a problem with the notion that police officers get to decide who dies, with or without much in the way of detective work. Most people feel that there is such a high level of crime, often violent, that the police are quite justified in making these decisions.

Many more people have a problem with local justice that doesn’t involve the police, with lynch mobs. However, there are times when people will accept even that with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. That a group of local people can make the judgement that someone has committed a crime, and then kill them for that crime, is seen as a reasonable response to police laxity. Presumably the police in these areas haven’t been killing enough suspects.

The trouble is, despite this zero tolerance approach to crime (or even to the suspicion of crime) the crime rate doesn’t appear to be falling. In and around Isiolo the KWS have a reputation for ruthlessly pursuing poachers. There are many notable cases of poachers, or suspected poachers, disappearing; and it is understood by everyone that KWS helped them disappear. Yet poaching is on the increase.

Shooting people who might have committed crimes isn’t reducing criminal activity. It seems that death isn’t much of a deterrent after all. Perhaps they are shooting the wrong people, maybe all these suspects are only that, suspects, and the actual criminals are living it large. But maybe not.

Perhaps in places where poverty is high, and life is cheap, death is not such a big deal. If life is so marginal then perhaps the rewards of crime outweigh the risks. I’ve seen a man lynched for stealing a pot of cooked rice. It was during a drought and the rice was all that family had to eat that day. The stakes were high for everyone involved.

Maybe, for the people living in desperate situations, these shoot to kill policies just make the situation more desperate. After all if you are a young man living in one of these desperate places, high in poverty, high in crime, you run a good risk of being shot by police (or someone else) even if you don’t commit a crime. How must it feel to be running the same risk of death as those who are committing crimes but not getting any of the benefits of crime. Maybe killing suspects doesn’t improve security, maybe it just makes it worse.

Storm Clouds and Uncertainty over Northern Kenya

The weather in much of northern Kenya is giving all the signs that the seasonal rains have started. This is great news for the many pastoralists that have been struggling to keep their livestock alive through an especially harsh dry season.

It is a little surprising though, as the rains here aren’t due for nearly another 2 months. A few weeks ago, when we were still firmly in the grip of the long dry season, I was in a village on the east side of Lake Turkana, in Marsabit County. There I listened as a Turkana man in his 90s told us about how the weather patterns had changed during his life time. He remembers the rainy seasons being more reliable, predictable almost to the day, you knew where to graze your livestock and when. Not any more. Most of the people in the manyatta where he lives have lost all their livestock to one of the many recent droughts.

We are all glad to see the rain, but when rain comes at unpredictable times or in unmanageable floods it becomes increasingly hard for people to benefit from it. We are told that with global warming we can expect the weather in northern Kenya to become wetter, at least in the short term, but that the rain will come in fewer and heaver downpours. Flooding kills livestock and destroys crops. Without good water harvesting systems the water all washes away in a few hours, leaving behind nothing but death and destruction. The current uncharacteristic weather is making that climate change future seem closer than ever.

An Isiolo Story

“Have you heard the story?” That is how people normally start. A story in these cases is really a news bulletin, passing on the latest information about a local event. However this translation into English as ‘story’, a word that can imply a work of fiction in British or American English usage, is telling. The ‘story’ is normally at least some part fiction and in some cases is little but fiction.

The spread of modern technology, such as mobile phones, hasn’t change the accuracy of the story much but it has change the speed at which the story (or rather stories, there is always more than one version) is spread. You would think that you would have a good chance of separating truth from fiction by comparing the stories, seeing which elements were common to them all, and that can work. However, sometimes a piece of fiction is just so good it gets picked up and used in all the stories.

In most cases though the bulk of the story is true, just with differences in the details, and this is still the only way that local news gets shared in most parts of the north of Kenya. Press coverage of local events is patchy, generally confined to only the most dramatic of happenings and often far less accurate than the stories. For some reason there appear to be very few journalists with good contacts in the north and many local stringers have a notorious bias. Consequently locals still rely on stories for the local news even when they have access to news media and journalists reports.

This is one such story from this week, an example of the local news that is passed around the villages.

A man from Killimani (an area just to the west of Isiolo town) was killed while he was herding and his goats were stolen. He was an old man and they weren’t his goats, he was the shepherd for someone else. He was a Somali (the tribe of each person involved is an essential ingredient in all the stories). Five men came and stole the goats and drove them all the way to Kakili (a area to the south of town). This is where trackers and the police found them. But not all the goats were there, only the skinny goats. The thieves, two Turkana, a Meru and two Samburus, had loaded the best goats, the fattest ones, into two cars and they had been driven away. Car tracks had been seen. The theives were caught (though not the fat goats) and are currently in the Isiolo police cell (this is not a common outcome).

Many trackers here are excellent at what they do. They live up to all the stories I have heard about great Native American or Aboriginal trackers. So I wondered if the trackers had been able to tell what kind of cars had been used. A ‘traditional tracking meets CSI’ kind of thing. But the person who gave me the story didn’t know about that. In my minds eye the fat goats were loaded into Toyota Proboxes, the ubiquitous local taxi, responsible for many deaths as they are poorly maintained, badly driven and always crammed with at least 13 people. With local packing you could get a lot of fat goats into a Toyota Probox.

I have now heard several versions of this story and unfortunately there is one aspect that all agree on, and I feel likely to be true. The old shepherd was indeed killed. He wasn’t shot though, by far the most common type of death for herders caught up in a livestock raid, he had his throat cut.

This kind of story, this type of news, is one of the most common around here. The stealing of livestock, with or with out death (though often with), is what would be the regular headline on a local paper. If any village had one. Where I grew up, in Scotland, the local paper ran stories about the prizes the local children had won at school, or what the amateur dramatics group was putting on at the village hall that week. Here the news is how many livestock were stolen, who died and how. The local version of the ‘..and finally’ or ‘in other news’ item is the amount of fat goats that you can fit into a Toyota Probox.


Sometimes I am absent from this site for quite some time, as they say here in Kenya, ‘I’ve been lost’. It’s not just from this blog either but also from Twitter or even email. People send me messages through Twitter or Facebook and expect an almost instant response. Others send me emails and wonder that I don’t reply for days, on occasions even weeks. People living in a connected world are quite put out about this. I think they feel I am being rather rude. However, it is not that I don’t care or even that I have nothing to say (never that!) But rather it is something much more pragmatic and related to where I live. The truth is that simply getting connected in most parts of northern Kenya can really be a challenge.

First of all, with the exception of a few offices in some of the larger towns, all internet connections are made via the mobile phone network. Mobile phone coverage has increased rapidly in the last few years and you can now get a signal on your phone in many more areas. However, despite the gains, mobile signal is still patchy and in most places you still can’t make or receive a phone call.

If you do manage to find a phone signal it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will be able to connect to the internet. I am told that the phone companies make different allowances on the network for voice and data. In towns the amount of bandwidth available to data is much greater and getting access to the internet is correspondingly easier. In my experience using the internet outside the main urban centres is almost impossible. It is hard to make a connection at all, but when you do manage it data upload and download speeds are so slow that many web pages simply refuse to load.

Of course all that is assuming that you have access to electricity to power your laptop, or battery hungry smart-phone, in the first place. Getting connected is not just about hanging out of a tree or half off a cliff face in an attempt to catch that elusive mobile signal, it’s also a question of finding some solar device to charge your kit. Mains electricity is a rare luxury, exclusive to a few main roads and larger towns.

After you have done all that several hours will have elapsed; first charging your kit slowly on the solar charger, then searching for a spot where you can get mobile coverage and hoping that the email attachment sends before your battery runs out again. In those long hours your delicate technology has be subjected to all sorts of things that are excluded from the warranty; such as bouncing backpacks, rocks, thorny thickets, extreme heat and so much dust (though sometimes the latter is replaced by so much mud and torrential rain).

Consequently many people who want to get connected in northern Kenya have given up the frustrating battle with the fickle mobile coverage and the unforgiving environment and have opted instead to wait until they can visit one of the main towns were it all becomes a lot easer. I say easier, not easy. It is not uncommon to plan a day’s work on your laptop in town only to find that there is no electricity the whole of that day, or that for some reason the mobile signal has gone haywire.

Simple tasks that take moments in a well-equipped office in the city, or in the comfort of a modern home, can literally take days to accomplish in the north of Kenya. So, next time you are waiting with impatience to hear from somebody in a remote and marginalised area, consider that, far from being uncaring in their delay, they could in fact be going to heroic lengths to connect to you and the rest of the world.

Can we help rural primary schools do better?

I have spent the last six weeks with two other people sharing knowledge and skills with the staff and students of Olng’arua Primary School, a remote school in Isiolo County.

Like many primary schools in northern Kenya the school has young and untrained teachers with little experience outside their communities. The school operates on a meagre budget, the teachers don’t have access to computers or the internet to help them develop teaching skills and the school only has very basic equipment.

With little experience of the world, or teaching, it is hard for these young teachers to come up with creative solutions to overcome the lack of resources. This seems to be especially the case in areas such as art and science.

Using our experiences in education and in life we have tried to help the teachers develop ideas to compensate for the lack of equipment, to encourage them to experiment and, where necessary, to learn the subjects alongside their students.

As well as helping to develop the ability of both students and staff in written and spoken English we were particularly concerned with finding practical and accessible solutions to the problems the teachers faced in art and science. We felt it was important to find ways of bringing art and creativity into many more of the school activities; that most lessons could have a creative element and that art projects could be more ambitious than just drawing pictures. By thinking about bringing some component of art into lessons it also helped the teachers to think more creatively about how they taught subjects, this added more variation to the lessons and resulted in the children enjoying their lessons a lot more.

Science can be a difficult subject for teachers who themselves have very limited knowledge, especially when they have no teaching resources beyond a basic textbook. We looked at ways in which students could learn topics from observations of what was around them and from simple experiments. First the students had to learn to ask questions such as ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ Then, by following a trail of observational clues, the students (and sometimes the teachers) made discoveries about the world around them.

Taking natural cycles as the theme groups of students explored the wild environment around the school for evidence of different types of life cycle. They investigated the life cycles of butterflies, frogs and toads, mammals, flowering plants and the water cycle. They were familiar with most of the things that they observed but putting these things into the context of a life cycle was a new idea. Many of the students didn’t know that some parts of certain cycles were even connected. For example many did not know that there was a connection between caterpillars and butterflies or that water evaporated from the ground (rivers, plants, earth etc.) and then condensed to form clouds and rain. By following the trail of observation (and by using a few simple experiments) they were able to convince themselves that these things were actually happening and connected. This also showed how much more compelling observational and experimental science can be compared to text books alone.

At the end of the six weeks the staff and students used their new creative ideas to put up displays for each of the natural cycles they had been investigating. Then they invited the parents to come and see the displays and they explained the cycles to them. It was interesting afterwards to hear from the parents how much they had learned themselves from what the children had told them and to see how well these new ideas for teaching could also be fed into the school’s adult learning program.

There is no doubt that one of the biggest problems for most schools in northern Kenya is the lack of funds, but the lack of knowledge, skills and new ideas is an equally constraining issue. Anybody who knows the north knows how common it is for children here to complete primary education without even attaining basic skills in reading, writing or numeracy. This is not just a funding issue it is also a teaching issue. We could, and should, do a lot more to support the teachers with whom we are entrusting the education of our children. After all, those children are our future.

Flooding in Isiolo Town

Over the last two days the town of Isiolo has experienced damaging floods, though little rain has fallen on the town itself. This strange phenomenon of floods without rain is not so unusual here. Isiolo is located on the northern base of the slopes of Mount Kenya. To the south the land rises and is much more rain prone than the dry and semi desert environment at the foot of the mountain where Isiolo lies. Heavy rain to the south can cause flash floods that pour down the mountain and often pour right through the town.

It is odd, on a completely dry day with blues skies, to find the centre of town awash. The water flooding through the main streets and right across the main north road that travels through the centre of the town. When they upgraded this road, a few years ago, they put in a large drainage ditch which now carries almost all of this water safely through the centre of town; the road no longer floods and business no longer comes to a grinding halt.

However, also during the last few years the town of Isiolo has been expanding at a dramatic rate. Low lying areas to the south of town, that have always been a pathway for any flash floods that come off the mountain, have been extensively built on. In the last two days much of the water that has come off the mountain has flooded through new urban areas. A new petrol station was badly damaged and a couple of large building complexes, built right in the path of what would have been described as a dry lugga (a seasonal river) that accommodates such floods, have been dangerously undermined. Thankfully nobody has died in these recent floods but several families have lost their homes to the water.

These floods were not as bad as some that Isiolo has witnessed in the past. Were a more severe flood to occur, or were the floods to occur at night, it is almost certain that lives would be lost.

Isiolo town has been earmarked for big development projects; a resort city, an oil refinery (if those two can be imagined together) and the hub for a rail, road and oil pipeline network that will connect across East Africa. Land prices have gone through the roof on the mere speculation of these projects. Land has been grabbed indiscriminately by locals and outsiders alike. It seems that almost every plot has at least 3 competing legal claims. Many people think that if they build something on the land quickly (and generally very cheaply and poorly) and live in it (or get some relative to live in it) then their claim to the land will be stronger.

The result is an ugly expansion of urban sprawl, mostly tin shacks and badly built block houses, and often in the most inappropriate places. If Isiolo is really to have the grand future that Kenya’s leaders and developers envisage somebody needs to get a firm grip on the urban planning to avoid serious issues in years to come.