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On the Great North Road into forgotten Kenya

July 9, 2008

kenya_northernroad_resized.jpgMARSABIT, Kenya – We are in two Land Rover Defenders, headed north to Ethiopia through one of Kenya’s remotest and harshest areas.

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.kenya_northernroad_group_resized.jpg

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.

kenya_northernroad_donkeys1.jpgViolence here is regular and can easily spill over into outright warfare. Banditry has also blossomed in these badlands.

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.

Local people speak of Kenya Mbili – Two Kenyas – the developed southern half, and theirs, the forgotten and neglected one.kenya_northernroad_camels2_resized1.jpg

“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?


Woi, Bryson, that is the life we have lived for decades. Our people have been forgotten by the successive governments. We hope this time……things will change for we too are Kenyans.

Posted by Rob Jillo | Report as abusive

Northern Kenya is the most awe inspiring place I know. A lot has to do with that nature seems undisturbed. It is good to hear that the Kenyan government remembers that there is a northern part to their beautiful country – my only hope is that when the roads are tarmacked and the banditry is tamed that this happpens with the people who live there and in an environmentally responsible way.

Posted by evy | Report as abusive

reuters have done us the best by highlighting our problem which was neglegted by our own govt and this is the highest time the donors to divert the finance to newly created ministry of northern kenya development so that we can enjoy the so called fruits of independence the rest of kenya juu are enjoying.

Posted by ali nur mumin/haki aga | Report as abusive

It’s great news that atlast there might be development to this region, however one must not forget that if at all the Chinese find oil then may we Kenyans braise ourselves, as it’s a well known fact that wherever there is oil on this continent conflits/war always avails!!
I would hope that the new ministry will be mature enough and make strategic plans as to ensure that not only the “new found” resources are adequately managed and distributed but above all the local community must be the 1st beneficiaries, especially when it comes to educating them.

We want a united Kenya and not the “Kenya Mbili”

Posted by Lloyhaki | Report as abusive

Fascinating, descriptive account of a beautiful part of the country. Hope it is soon open to commerce, both for the sake of the locals, who could enjoy some prosperity, and for the sake of the tourists, who could experience some spectacular, unspoiled terrain.


Woah…nice blog…you guys must’ve had loads of fun(or not) id like to see that side of my country…great job guys keep it up.

Posted by Njuwa Maina | Report as abusive

Great article that invites one to travel with you to the so called “Kenya Mbili”. Also I see you had a navigator—and this makes it sound like Crossing the Sahara desert where we have the Tuaregs as the navigators. Maybe the government should take the Safari Rally to the region.
Kudos team!!!!

Posted by Mukoya | Report as abusive

The article was inspiring and a lot has been said.

The people of Northern Kenya, Somalis, Boranas, Rendilles, Turkana, Gabbra, Samburu have been marginalized for long and everyone knows that. Somalis/Boranas were “severely” marginalized because of their religion, Islam.

What would you expect to do if your child scraps through a Kenya National Examination where he has to compete nationally with students from the “Other Kenya” who enjoy teachers, Laboratories, books, Supervision, Nice weather/Environment?

That is the nature of things down there and this time, for good, for worse, we need change badly.


its the hope of every son of northen kenya too see that there really an oilfor prospeity will soon be isovered,
may GOD FORIDoil curse for our region


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