African business, politics and lifestyle
On the Great North Road into forgotten Kenya
Our route is along the Great North Road, the famed Cape Town-to-Cairo highway on what is said to be the only untarmacked stretch on the whole continent – roughly 550 kilometres from where the highway ends at Isiolo town north to Moyale on the Ethiopian border. It has all the wildlife and stunning scenery Kenya is world-famous for, but few tourists ever see it.
This is part of the old Northern Frontier District, the arid top half of Kenya which was closed to visitors by the British colonial government because of its inaccessibility, harsh conditions and endless banditry. Little has changed since independence in 1963.
To call the wide track of dirt, ruts and rocks a road is an insult to other roads. It demands a four-wheel drive vehicle, and punishes any that comes with an endless succession of shuddering bumps, heat and fine dust that penetrates every corner. It has taken us two days to reach Marsabit, a mere 600 km from Nairobi. But out here, trips are measured by time, not by distance.
We – Reuters TV producer Patrick Muiruri, Reuters photographer Antony Njuguna, navigator Michael Githaiga and mechanics Frederick “British” Gappy, Lawrence “Jughead” Waithaka and myself – are rolling in convoy in case one vehicle develops a problem. There is another reason to move together – safety in numbers. Cattle-rustling is still a rite of passage for young warriors among the nomadic peoples that roam the dry plains with herds of cattle, goats, camels and sheep. It has intensified in recent decades thanks to an influx of automatic weapons from conflicts in neighbouring Somalia and Sudan.
The government presence here is thinly stretched and usually without the equipment needed to police the problem, leaving police and paramilitary soldiers in a reactive position. Electricty, water and functioning telephones are rare sights, and in most places were never brought by the state-owned utilities. Schools are there, but it is difficult for teachers to get students from wandering clans. Most schoolchildren in other parts of Kenya are speaking English and Swahili by the age of 5; here, it is common to find boys of 15 who cannot speak Swahili – the lingua franca of a nation with more than 42 different ethnic groups.
“When someone leaves for Nairobi, people say he has gone to Kenya.
There is a sense of being second class, neglected,” said Hussein Sasura, a native of the Marsabit area, told us. Sasura is also the assistant minister in the new Ministry for Northern and Arid Lands, which aims to bring development to this vast region.
He’s optimistic that things are finally changing after 45 years of independence, from which the north has rarely tasted any fruits.
Two big developments are already inching their way north. Chinese engineers are beginning to lay 136 km of asphalt from Isiolo to near the Merille River, the first phase of a plan to finish the road to Moyale. Already, tourist lodges and wildlife managers are planning for an upsurge in tourists to an area that usually is reached by light aircraft or those willing to make the punishing trip to see some of Kenya’s still-unspoiled beauty.
Moving faster is a team of engineers laying a fibre optic cable alongside the road, working under a Ministry of Information and Communication contract to bring internet and telephone service to all corners of the country. Digging with a 10-metre long cable-laying machine, they say they expect to hit the border in about two months.
And oil men from China are already prospecting in Merti, and have plans to look elsewhere in a region rumoured for decades to have oil. All this means more people will be in the district, but will it bring all the attendant commerce and development? Can the highway bring more tourists and help tame the insecurity? Will the road and communications infrastructure finally unite the Two Kenyas?