Very good question. Turkana is a semidesertic land in the North of Kenya, bordering Ethiopia and Sudan. I have been going there for 10 years now and it feels like home to me, but I guess it probably does not feel like that to most people.
In general, the only signs of life you find there are a few nomad tribes with their almost-dying cattle, goats, camels and donkeys, a few (too many in any case) snakes, scorpions and spiders, and then the people from the Missionary Community St. Paul (MCSPA). Every year my brother José, María, his girlfriend, and I visit Father Fernando, who has lived in Turkana for almost 20 years.
THE TRIP: BEFORE ARRIVING
This time, the trip started before I even knew it had and in the most bizarre way… The day I was meant to leave, Friday 24th of July, I received a phonecall, right when I was about to the airport. Fr. Fernando’s satellite phone calling, I thought, “how nice, he wants to make sure everything is fine, like if it was the first time I go there on my own”…
– “Hola? Fernando?”
– “No, it is Jose (my brother, whom I was due to meet in Turkana with María and another friend)”.
– “Jose? What did you forget? What do you want? Quickly, I am leaving as we speak” (note: yes, I know, very rude of me!)
– “Well, precisely that, I want you not to leave”
– “Yes, there has just been a killing at the Todonyang mission. A worker has been shot in the head, we are here with the dead body and his pregnant wife, expecting to be evacuated very soon”
– “F..k, are you ok? Can I talk to Fr. Fernando? I cannot believe this”
After talking to Fr. Fernando I decided to go anyway, but to postpone the trip for 4 days. Enough time for things to calm down and for people at the mission to get reorganized. The same thing happened a few months ago, for New Years. Just one day before I left, another 3 people were shot dead. Fernando asked me what I wanted to do. “Go wherever you go, if that is OK with you” “Sure, but at your own risk, I cannot guarantee your safety” “Neither can I even in Madrid … I am coming”. That was my New Years (which I leave for another day) and this time, the same… there is always something cooking at the border!
Spoke with Diego, a friend who was going to join us a few days later, and we agreed to go together, at least to Lodwar, capital of Turkana, and then decide whether to go up to Todonyang, at the border with Ethiopia or stay in a safer part of Turkana.
THE TRIP: ARRIVING IN TURKANA
So finally “the day” arrived, we landed in Nairobi after a pretty long trip and… the 12-seater flight to Lodwar was full. Well, at least this time my luggage did not get lost, not so bad… We took the afternoon flight to Lokichoggio, a UN base in the border of Sudan, used for the World Food Program.
From Loki to Lodwar there is the only paved road in the whole of Turkana… Less than 3 hours and you are there… unless you somehow manage to get 3 flat tyres (including one which just burst like a balloon) and no more spare ones… So there we were, after a 27-28 hour trip, lying in the middle of the road looking at the sky remembering the preferred Kenyan expression… Hakuna Matata, no worries…
Someone picked us up, took us to Lodwar and we still managed to get there on time to sing happy birthday to Jose, who was celebrating with a huge cake that could have perfectly been used as a spare tyre! A pity, Jose and the 2 Marias were leaving the following day, so we spent one night together in Lodwar and they set off. I knew I would miss them a lot. It is so great to share Turkana with them…
As a farewell present, Jose left me a ton of work to do… How considerate, I am sure that for my own good because I am slightly hyperactive and he does not want me to get bored… Help the entrepreneurs in Todonyang, Father Ángel with his new Radio Station, buy some handicraft from the women here, do a reiki session to one of the guys… Yes, bwana!
After they left, we stayed a total of 10 days in Turkana, moving between different missions: Todonyang, the mission where Fr Fernando Aguirre and Fr Steve Ocheng are based; Nariokotome, the first mission built by the MCSPA in Turkana and the largest; and Lodwar, for some meetings that the missionaries had to discuss water projects.
I had promised my mother and friends that I would try not to go to Todonyang and stay at other safer places in Turkana. Somehow I knew I would end up going… I would not be who I am if I had not! And well, “trying not to go” does not necessarily imply not going, right? In any case, I am sure they all knew I would end up in Todonyang… Anyone who knows me would!
I must confess, now with hindsight that, although I felt quite relaxed and at home, when I was awaken by gunshots in the middle of my first night, I jumped in fear and sat in my bed not knowing what to do. It was pitch black and I did not want to flash a light. I could not hear anything but the wind, my heart beating at full speed and some steps! Frozen in my tent, I tried to rationalise the whole situation. “Why would anybody bother trying to hurt me? This is not my war, the conflict is inter-tribal, not with white people…” I was probably just awake for about 15-20 minutes, but it felt like an eternity to me. During that time I seriously wondered what the f..k I was doing there and why could I not just go and sit at the beach like most people do! Luckily I fell asleep again…
Note: when I woke up the following morning and asked whether someone had heard any shooting, none of my neighbours in the tents next to mine, Diego and Sean, had heard anything. The rest of the people had heard various shots. “Oh, no problem, it was the Kenyan police testing their new weapons” “Oh, great, and they really need to test them at 2-3am? Jesus!”
The Turkana nomads base their subsistence mainly on their livestock with which they wander around the desert searching for the very scarce pastures. Their wealth is measured in heads, how many animals you own, this is how much you are worth. This determines your family life, which wives you have and how many, children, position in the tribe…
And the same rule applies to the nomads at the other side of the border, the Ethiopian marilles (dasenech), who live a few km away, just where the Omo river reaches into the Turkana lake.
The Ethiopian side, although not very developed, is much richer in natural resources. At least there is plenty of drinking water from the river and the marilles can grow their harvests in very fertile land. The turkanas are way less lucky… The water at the Turkana lake is alkaline and non-drinkable, so you can stare at it, bring your animals to drink, even fish in the lake, but not drink its water (although there are some holes close to the lake with drinking water).
In this desert region, there is rain a few days a year, during July or August. Unfortunately, it has not rained at all for the last 2 years, which has caused a lot of stress in the tribes: diseases, animal death, hunger. A recipe for disaster: draught and two tribes struggling to survive… the perfect environment for conflict.
The Todonyang mission, on the Kenyan side, barely 10 km from the border, was established 3-4 years ago, as an attempt to promote peace and trade in the area. The project was very successful for a couple of years until, last November 2008, after the drought started again, conflict reappeared, shootings started and all progress suddenly stopped.
Since then 53 people have died on the Turkana side, and probably as many on the dasenech side. These days, the dasenech enter into Kenyan territory, hide in the grass and wait for the turkana shepherds and fishermen going to the lake to ambush and kill them.
The response does not await long. The turkanas organize themselves quickly and start killing dasenechs, regardless of whether they were involved or nor in the incident. This obviously triggers another killing from the dasenech and so the story continues.
There is nothing worse than hungry people with a Kalashnikov in their hands and nothing left to lose. It is very sad to see that the shepherds’ walking sticks have been replaced by AK-47s, that the fishermen are afraid to go into the lake, so they just hang around with their rifles, waiting for some action…
Where a fishermen’s village used to be, today there are the ruins of it, a reminiscence of what one day it was. In its place, desert and more desert, some crows in the shade of the very few thatched roofs left and the amazingly beautiful lake. The fishermen? They have all become refugees, moved right next to the Todonyang mission hoping for some protection. In there, they just dry fish (less and less, as they have almost stopped fishing) and spend their time wandering around, AK-47 in hand.
In the middle of this story, there I was, hearing gunshots at night and wondering what can be done to get these tribes back on track… Trade and cooperation was their best shot but they are now too focused on conflict to see anything beyond their rifles. I wished for rain so badly!
Since it was built, Fr. Fernando Aguirre and Fr. Steven Ocheng, the two priests who run the Todonyang mission, have worked non-stop in building dams and water pumps. The idea is for nomads to be always at less than a day’s walk from a water point.
I can now see, from the lake to the mountains the big change that having a few dams has made in the nomad’s lives. Now they can bring their animals to drink and there are fewer and fewer skeletons when driving through the dessert.
Water Projects: building rock dams, water pumps, digging water holes…
It is amazing to see the different in an area before and after a dam is built. The tribespeople have more and healthier animals, children also look healthier, the women and children do not need to walk for hours searching for water, so children can attend school…
In August 09 we visited a rock dam that is being built in the mountains. It is part of a project to build 6 of them. The dams will allow the nomads who live in the mountains to use water from rain (if it ever rains again!) and will not need to walk for two days to reach the lake with all their animals. Before the dams, many animals and some nomads died on the way. Two days walking in the desert without water…
There are also two large dams close to the Todonyang mission and a smaller one. Shepherds go at sunset to allow their animals to drink. Unfortunately, the water is drying very fast… The small dam is already dry and the others need rainwater to continue supplying water…
With the drought, these are some the very few water points in the region, and the lack of water is causing more and more friction in the shepherds for the very scarce resource. Nowadays, every shepherd carries a Kalashnikov with the herd…
For pictures of a step-by-step construction of a rock dam, please visit Fr Fernado’s pictures at Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=logo#/photo.php?pid=358527&id=1121131828
Education projects: schools and special schools
Another of the pillars of the MCSPA action in Turkana rotates around education. From nursery school to primary and secondary school, there are buildings full of children who are learning their lesson and screaming it out loud.
We visited a special school for deaf children and left with them a donation of school pens. It was the beginning of the summer holiday and took some children with us to their families. I could not avoid thinking how difficult life already is in Turkana and I cannot imagine what would have been of these deal children without their special school.
Health projects: dispensaries, moving clinics, hospitals
This is the third pillar of the activity of the MCSPA. Unfortunately this time we could not visit the dispensary at Todonyang, as I normally do, because of the killings. It is too close to what has lately become the battlefield and we were dissuaded from going.
During the year, the missionaries organize mobile clinics which travel around the desert for various medical purposes: eye surgery, dental…
This was part of the homework left by Bwana Jose… talking to the entrepreneurs and helping them with their business plans and ideas.
To my surprise, they seemed to have their ideas quite clear: business opportunities are bringing clothes, drinks and food supplies from Lodwar to Todonyang and send down dry fish and smoked fish. If the route with Ethiopia ever opens again, they will be able to trade also sorghum and other livestock, fruits and vegetables from Ethiopia and sell their dry fish also there.
Their main issues were transportation, which is very expensive and unreliable in this very remote corner of Kenya; storage, for which adequate space is needed (also at risk with the violence in the area), treatment for the perishable goods like fish (they already have the products to extend the life of the dry fish), but, over and above all, the main issue and what they really need is peace to re-open the trade between Kenya and Ethiopia through the Omo river route.
Other projects: Radio Akicha
This is one of the most recent projects, run from Lodwar by Father Ángel. This radio station keeps Turkana connected and links it with the outside world. Broadcasting is in both Turkana and English. There are live programs, music, news…The idea is to reach far enough for nomads in Turkana to be able to listen to the radio and stay connected.
THE TURKANA PEOPLE
Portraits of some of the Turkana people I normally see when I am around…
Pictures of the group of people I spent most time with. Fr Steven Ocheng somehow managed to escape from my permanent click click and is missing from the pictures…