Being a Kenyan means you must visit the good folks up country in December. It’s just one of those things that are quintessentially Kenyan, like being world beaters in athletics or voting along tribal lines. This is why journeys that usually take 4 hours ended up taking 12 last month. Being the Kenyan that I am, I made my way to my home town of Merti in Isiolo County on Boxing day.
The drive to Isiolo takes you through Kiambu, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Laikipia and Meru Counties. The majestic Mt. Kenya towers the Eastern horizon while the Aberdares (they should have named it after MauMau heroes by now) rise high in the West. I’m left green with envy at all the greenery and lushness around me knowing how arid my destination is. Considering how cushites were the first to migrate into Kenya, I always kept asking myself why my ancestors saw it fit to settle in the arid and semi-arid part of the country and stopped just short of the highlands. As I came to learn later, pastoralism thrived in the arid northern expanse before the decimation of livestock in the Shifta war and onset of erratic weather attributed to climate change threatened the sustainability of this form of livelihood.
As you approach Isiolo, there’s a drastic change in altitude and weather from Subuiga (near the Meru-Isiolo Y junction) past Lewa Downs to Isiolo town. Chilly weather and extensive plantations give way to the dry heat of Isiolo.
Isiolo town, the headquarter of the County is smack in the middle of Kenya and marks the entry point to Northern Kenya. The central location of the town has seen it touted as a future capital city of Kenya. The town has experienced some growth in the last few years but residents are purturbed by one particular issue. Isiolo town is a catographic anomaly of the highest order. The town is located on the Southern fringes of the County close to the boundary with Meru County. The proximity of Isiolo town to Meru County hits home when you walk west for ten minutes from the CBD and you are in Meru County. Isiolo airport perhaps typifies this situation where the administrative block and half of the runway lie in Isiolo County while the other half of the runway is in Meru County.
Given that Isiolo town is envisioned as a future resort city, a railway center, an oil depot and the center point of the LAPPSET project, there has been alot of interest in the surrounding land. Naturally, Isiolo and Meru County have been involved in a row over the boundary between the two counties as the planned projects will be set up in areas claimed by both Counties. Isiolo residents claim that the 1963 map of the 47 Kenyan districts upon which the current Counties are based was altered and parts of Isiolo town hived off to Meru County. They claim that this happened during the reign of the then powerful Lands Minister and Meru political supremo, Jackson Angaine. The residents want the boundaries to reflect the independence boundaries. Meru County deny this claim and assert that the boundaries have always been where they are today. As seen in the case of Baringo and Turkana Counties, such boundary rows can escalate into violent conflict. It is prudent that the boundary adjudication be dealt with as a matter of urgency to avoid conflict.
Isiolo County is largely hot and dry in keeping with the North’s arid terrain. The large expanse of dry areas are dissected diagonally by the Ewaso Nyiro river. The river is to Isiolo County what the Nile is to Egypt. It is the only permanent river in Northern Kenya and the primary source of water for man, cattle and wildlife. Just as is the case along the Egyptian Nile valley, settlements and towns are located along the edges of the riverine forest; close enough to access the river water and far enough to avoid the flooding of the river during the rainy season.
The river shapes life in the County in a major way and the planned damming of the river upstream to provide water for the resort city has caused alarm among the residents. Apart from water for subsistence use and for livestock, the riverine ecosystem provides material for building houses and enables farming among the communities living nearby. The river also sustains wildlife in Shaba and Samburu National Reserves as well as the many conservancies in and around Isiolo County. Conservationist and residents have opposed the project due to the negative effects that reduced flow of water downstream will have on residents as well as wildlife. There are fears that reduced access to water may see an escalation of water-related conflict.
The journey from Isiolo town to Merti town is a journey next to the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river. Merti town is located at the edge of the Lorian swamp where the river drains its water. There are two routes to Merti both of which entail crossing the Ewaso Nyiro river. The Archer’s post route is longer but has the advantage of safe crossing of the river over the Archer’s post bridge. The shorter route through Gotu has a makeshift ‘bridge’ that can only be crossed when the volume of the river is low.
Gotu is a place associated with tragedy. Many accidents have occurred here during the rainy season as a result of neglect more than any other factor. The Ewaso Nyiro river is approaching the Lorian Swamp and is quite wide at this point with a lot of water, especially during the rainy season. The bridge used to cross the river is a narrow concrete road without side railings. Swelling of the river during the rainy season submerges the ‘bridge’ and travelers are left stranded here for days. Those who are brave/stupid/impatient enough to attempt crossing this bridge are often swept away by the raging waters of the river. Hundreds have died here over the years. Attempts to build a proper bridge over the river have been unsuccessful. A company that was awarded a contract to build the bridge in 2012 erected pillars and abandoned the site leading to demonstration by residents of the area. The National government tendered for construction of the bridge in April 2014 but work is yet to begin.
Gotu should perhaps be known for positive reasons. A spring is located right next to the river. The spring has been dammed and tapped to provide water to residents and travelers who stop here to take photos of the picturesque surroundings. A settlement as well as an AP camp are situated near the Spring taking advantage of this permanent source of clean water.
The drive along both routes is on a murram road and a 4×4 vehicle is the preferred means of travel. Buses are also available as are lorries where you are packed with goods and at times animals for the long journey north-east. The relatively faster and more comfortable Landcruisers are the means of choice for us urban folks whenever we travel to Merti. There are only two Landcruisers and as I always travel during the festive season, which is the high season, getting a seat can be quite a problem. Booking and paying in advance does nothing to guarantee you will travel. Brokers at the stage – similar to those who arbitrarily hike fares at stages in Nairobi’s CBD – who are more aggressive, rude and conniving than their Nairobi counterparts, might give away your seat or the driver might decide to play you. Drivers in fact act as Kings of their small towns and are courted with miraa and other niceties to ensure you travel the next day. I’ve had to spend two extra days on previous occasions after missing a seat on the Landcruiser but I was lucky to avoid such misfortune this time round.
That you drive parallel to the Ewaso Nyiro means you will come across many seasonal streams that feed the river, cutting across the road. These dry river beds – or ‘laghas’ in the Oromo language spoken in Isiolo – can be up to 20 m wide and travel can be disrupted during the rainy season.
Merti town is bordered by a hill on one side and the Lorian swamp on the other. The town was the location of one of the fourteen concentration camps during the Shita war. Residents were rounded up and confined within a 5km radius from the camp and anyone found outside this zone was considered a ‘shifta’, fighters who were waging a seccesionist war against Kenya. With their large number of livestock in a limited radius and their nomadic lifestyle curtailed, the pastoralists lost a lot of animals through starvation. Between starvation, confiscation of animals by security forces and theft by the ‘Shiftas’, pastoralism suffered greatly in what has been referred to as ‘an assault on the pastoralist way of life.’ (If I’m ever to become a published writer, I’ll write on the Shifta War and its legacy). The town got electricity in the recent past and life has been transformed. I’m now able to hop on a bodaboda and ride to the town from my village to catch Man United play whenever I’m there. This is a luxury that I could only dream of in previous trips.
From Merti town, you drive a few kilometres to my village. The Lorian swamp and the pastures around provide ideal conditions for the thriving of pastoralism. The river which pours into the flood plain provides a reliable source of water sustaining life for all living things. Pastoralism is a harsh way of life I’ll have to admit. Young men of my age trek for days in the scorching heat and spend nights in the wild to enable their animals to graze. The riverine forest and surrounding areas pose danger from the many wild animals which prey on livestock. In another life, I’d have been roaming the wilderness with cattle, wary of lions and hyenas, but I’m grateful that my father went to school and relocated to Nairobi.
At night, the sky comes to life. Lack of city lights and the clear skies of arid areas provides a magnificent view of the cosmos. An ugly orchestra of laughing hyenas, barking dogs and braying donkeys is the soundtrack of village nights. Hyenas being the opportunist beasts that they are, scavenge for food by breaking into cattle sheds and killing animals. My evenings were spent chasing away hyenas, engaging in conversation, drinking copious amounts of milk and gazing endlessly at the scarcely believable number of stars. Villagers found my fascination with the sky funny but I ignored them knowing they’d be equally fascinated with city lights if they set foot in Nairobi. They equally ridiculed my limited knowledge of the Oromo language, which I plan to learn, as youthful abandon gives way to maturity and a realization that you need to learn the language of your people.
Village life made for a welcome and refreshing break from the hustle of Nairobi. I left Merti feeling revitalized, humbled at the simple way of life, happy to have connected with my roots and ready to face another year toiling in the big city.