By M. Khadar Yussuf:
I have always wanted to travel to and write about North Eastern region of Kenya, a province inhabited by the Somali community (my people). It is my only way of telling the world the type of neglect, hatred and torture the region is facing from the Kenyan government and the other communities living in Kenya. Communities that believe we (the people of the North) belong to a lesser world of a lesser god.
All I ever wanted to do is write about this unfortunate state of neglect. Neglect from a country and a government we feel we belong to. Neglect from communities we feel and believe we share the same country and government. It is my only respite from this unpleasant treatment inside the country we feel we belong to.
It is on a journey to this part of the country when one will feel and see the reality about this overlooked region. So when a local daily sent me to do a story in the area, I knew I would encounter a lot and it would be the perfect time to highlight it.
I leave the capital, Nairobi one Tuesday morning with a local bus that plies the Nairobi – Garissa route (Garissa is the headquarter of North Eastern province and links the region to the capital) ready for a long drive that would later involve numerous security checks, bad roads, overcrowding passengers (this starts after you leave Garissa to the next destination) and unbearable hot weather that will see you sweating all over the body.
The road from Nairobi to Garissa is tarmacked but unlike other tarmac roads in Kenya, it is narrow and has cracks which makes it dangerous for speeding and overtaking vehicles.
After nearly an hour and a half, we come across the wreckage of a saloon car that is lying on the left side of the road. The car was trying to overtake a lorry in front of it when it collided with an oncoming bus.
We reach Garissa town after six hours and before we enter the town, we are stopped at a roadblock manned by security officers. They stop the bus and tell all of us to alight and stand in two lines — one for men and the other for the women — with our identification cards/passports in hand (in Kenya, all vehicles coming from and going to the Northern part are inspected). Two of the officers go inside the bus to frisk our luggage, one goes round the bus with a metal detector to see if there are explosives carried in the bus while two others, a man and a woman, start checking our identification cards/passports. The inspection took roughly an hour before we proceed to Garissa town to drop some passengers and have lunch to take us through the remainder of the journey.
By the time we reach Garissa, the sun is too hot and inside the bus, the subtropical heat is pressing in on us. I am sweating a lot to an extent the collar of my shirt becomes wet and the handkerchief I am carrying is no longer useful. It is wet and wiping it on my face will result in more sweat on my face. Opposite my seat a small boy is crying and his mother is trying to soothe him by pouring cold water on his head.
I spent the night in Garissa town and the following day — using another bus — we set off for the remainder of the journey, and the next six hours will be something that will forever be etched in my mind. We encounter another roadblock just ten minutes after leaving the stage in Garissa and, unlike the one we saw before, security officers manning it are harsh and very demanding. They check everything and frisk all our luggage, but instead of releasing us, they ask the bus conductor for some bribe which he reluctantly gives them and they wave us bye.
By now we are out of the good tarmac road and what we are driving on is a rough, dusty, narrow and dangerous road with lots of potholes and turns. The roads in Northern Kenya have been overlooked since the country gained independence from Britain and successive governments have promised the people of better roads only to forget when they are voted in. The speed of the vehicle is truncated and we are now going at a slow pace because of the situation of the road.
On several occasions, the bus leans towards one side of the rough road while avoiding potholes and every time this happens the passengers wail and rage with kids crying out loud in fear. In a nutshell, a journey on this road is a fifty-fifty one. You can meet your death anytime if your driver is not composed and careful.
We reach one of the refugee camps in Kenya after a journey of do or die. The Dadaab refugee camp — which consist of Hagardera, Ifo, Ifo 2, Hawa Jubeey and Dagahley camps — is the largest refugee camp in the world and is situated between Garissa and Wajir Counties, two of the three Counties making up the North Eastern region of Kenya. So when you are traveling from Garissa to Wajir, you will pass through the refugee camps (one of the two routes used to travel between the two Counties) and if you are a first timer on that road trip, you will hate everything about it.
First, when the bus stops at the stage, the waiting passengers will start scrambling to board the bus even before the other passengers alight notwithstanding it is already full to capacity. This results in unbearable hotness inside. Here, the bus crew usually allow passengers to alight for 20 minutes refreshment but it is not easy to alight with all the awaiting passengers scrambling at the door to come in and secure seats although there are none vacant. It is simply hectic.
In Hagardera, the first refugee camp we stopped for refreshment, there are a good number of hawkers, 10 to 20, who run towards the bus waving different refreshments ranging from sodas to chewing gum. They struggle to outsmart each other in convincing and luring the passengers in the bus to buy their foodstuff by engaging them via the windows. One can easily notice the sheer passion and optimism on these refugee faces despite the blistering heat. Hopeful faces. They all have kids and they need to put food on the table to support their family.
When all the scramble and frenzy is over, I alight from the bus and manage to sit with and have a conversation with a woman hawking cakes, samosas, bottled water, juice, pancakes, soda, and chewing gum. She looks like she is in her early 30s or late 20s, 5.4” tall and has a small round and dark face. She is dressed in a casually tailored dress with pink and bluish colour and has a long, brown and oversized veil that reaches slightly below her waist. Her shoes, though new, look like they have seen their better part of life. They changed to brown and dull because of the dusty hot sand.
Hagardera has one of the worst soils to walk on. She tells me her name is Rahma and is a single mother of four children. Rahma is no longer leaving with her husband after they divorced. Her ex-husband wanted to take two of the children but she refused and now is faced with the task of upbringing them alone. One can easily notice the uncertainty and restlessness on her face as she narrate to me her life as a single mother. Rahma cannot look at me directly as we talk. Her eyes are fixed on the bus windows where other hawkers are selling their snacks and refreshment to the people inside the bus. At first I think she is shy but I notice she is unsettled because she wants to sell her stuff and reach her target.
I apologized for wasting her time and halting her opportunity to fend for her children. I give her the money I owed her for the snacks and a bottle of water and ask her two more questions. She tells me her daily target is two dollars and she now has1.6 dollars. Rahma tells me two of her kids are in school and hopefully one will join them next year before bidding me goodbye and hurrying towards the bus windows to look for other buyers.
Our short spell at Hagardera comes to an end and we leave, unaware of what the road ahead has in store for us. We pass through several deserted farms that were once used and now no longer usable because of the dry season. The roads between the refugee camps are all brown and dusty forcing us to shut all windows of the bus. This denies us the fresh are from outside and once again, we all start to sweat profusely.
By now I am tired, sleepy and the sweat on my face has my eyes in tears and rubbing them has worsened the situation. A middle age man sitting next to me helps me with a small clothe when he realized my situation and seeing my wet handkerchief resting on my lap. He tells me of how these journeys are boring, risky and uncomfortable especially for first timers (I’m not a first timer but the man thought I was because I was sweating a lot, something I’m known for.)
He says the situation of the roads in the region will forever remain like this and I inquisitively ask him why. He says because the government of Kenya will never reward Northern Kenya with any development project despite being one of the largest regions in the country because it is inhibited by Somalis who are viewed as outsiders. The man’s answer left me in deep thought and for a moment, I forget about the blistering heat waves and the dust that made my eyes turn red.
We pass through three other refugee camps and every time the bus stops, people rush towards it; some with foodstuffs, others with wheelbarrow-loads of assorted take-away for sale while other with the intention of boarding the bus to the next destination. The more people board, the more the bus becomes overcrowded. By now I’m bored and tired out of my lungs. I start to think about the situation of the roads, the weather, and the neglect visible on the locals’ eyes and how the other regions in Kenya are enjoying development projects fulfilled by the very government that neglected my people.
Eventually, I reach the village I was sent to do the story and by now the sun is a bit cool for it is nearly dusk. From the movement of the people and few animals present in the area, one can easily conclude that the village is experiencing a harsh climate and a period of extreme drought. The locals’ faces all look dull and they look disturbed.
The region, which is hub for pastoral activities experiences continuous severe droughts. It has always struggled but thrived in its main source of livelihood’s upkeep despite facing a colossal task. Having known pastoral farming as their only way of earning their daily bread and in a region where the dry seasons are longer than rainy seasons which ranges 300-700mm per annum, the people never gave up on pastoral farming.
The following day, after I finished the interview for the story, I board the next bus and leave for Nairobi. The journey back was the same with the rough and dusty roads, blistering heat and rogue security officers manning roadblocks all taking center stage.
A lady in her early twenties is remanded after we are stopped at a roadblock 20 kilometers from the capital, Nairobi. She has a waiting card which is issued before one gets their identification card and just like the identification card and the passport, one can use it to pass roadblocks and use it for other transactions. After a long consultation and pleading from the bus crew, the lady is finally released and we arrive in Nairobi tired and hungry. For the people of Northern Kenya, it is a trend they are well versed with and learnt to live with, for a visitor though, it is a nerve wrecking experience.
The writer is a freelance journalist and a poet. He blogs at www.khadarmay.wordpress.com