Flying on Lake Turkana to Turkana

Photo: Joyce (from FB)

Flying on Lake Turkana to Turkana – Interconnectivity of struggles – part 2


Sometime in 2017 Kenya will begin to pump crude oil in commercial quantities. For some years now prospecting companies have been poking holes around Turkana, Kenya, looking for the so-called black gold.  One of the places the oil companies planned to seek their treasure is Lake Turkana, a UNESCO heritage site and the largest desert lake in the world. Many writers have written about this lake – famous for appearing blue from the sky, but greenish when viewed from the ground. I once read an article in which the writer compared the Lake Turkana environment to a lunar landscape. I always wanted to dip my feet in that lake.

It was a fortuitous coincidence that the Kenya Airways plane that would take me from Lagos to Nairobi was named Lake Turkana. As we fastened our safety belts, the pilot spoke briefly about the lake and what a significant water body it is in Kenya, in Africa, in the world. And that was where someone wishes to drill for crude oil? Well, the good news is that the government of Kenya has agreed that oil exploration and exploitation will not happen in this national treasure. As we winged our way towards Kenya I struck a conversation with one of the cabin attendants, mentioning how interesting it was that I was flying on Lake Turkana to visit Lake Turkana. She was thrilled. She knew of the lake, but she has never been there.

I later found out that most Kenyans have not been to Turkana. When I returned from Turkana to Nairobi at the end of my visit, a friend there asked to know how my time up there was. And then the million Shillings question came: do they wear clothes there? Perhaps the question could have been framed differently: did you wear clothes there? If that had been the question my answer would have been, ‘yes, whenever outdoors.’ The nights were so warm it did not make sense dressing up to sleep. And I noticed, as I travelled in the region, that the houses had louvered fenestrations that ensured a steady inflow of air/breeze into the houses even when all doors were shut.

I was in Kenya on the invitation of Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT). How appropriate. On arrival in Nairobi at night I checked into a hotel on Mombasa Road. Early next morning I dashed to Wilson airport where I was met by Andrew Orina of FoLT, who soon provided me with more information about the trip and what to expect. From now onwards I was in the hands of FoLT. Breakfast at the airport, check in formalities and it was time to jump on board a light aircraft for the 90 minutes hop to Lodwar, the capital of Turkana County. Sitting next to me on the flight was Doris Okenwa, Nigerian journalist and PhD researcher whose thesis is examining negotiations of entitlements and the ways diverse actors/stakeholders lay claims to state resources in the context of oil exploitation. She has been living in Lokichar, the oil city of Turkana, about 3-4 hours away from Lodwar. Deeply respectful of the culture, she had plenty of good things to say about the hospitable Turkana people. As we took to the sky I saw that Wilson Airport is actually sitting on the edge of a games reserve. I could not help thinking how traumatic it must be for the animals.

The modest airport at Lodwar has become rather busy as the status of the county as an extractive Eldorado increases. What the airport lacks for grandeur is made up for by a huge statue of Jesus Christ atop the nearby hill, mimicking the famous Rio de Janeiro iconic statue.

Thanks to activists like Ikal Angelei, director of FoLT, the challenges of petroleum extraction in a fragile ecosystem such as Turkana has not been swept under the carpet. When two opportunities to share experiences of communities in the Niger Delta on live radio programmes came, numerous listeners called in to express deep fears about what would befall their beautiful land.

On arrival in Lodwar I was quickly checked into the St Teresa Pastoral Centre before heading to the offices of FoLT. Ikal was busy at work, as expected, and I loathed having to be a distraction. But how could that be avoided. We hadn’t met for years, so a quick catch up was in order. There after we had a short meeting with some civil society folks and a media officer from Tullow, the oil company sinking its drilling claws into the soil here. The Tullow guy spoke on how environmentally conscious they were and to illustrate that he mentioned that their enterprise had the endorsement of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World bank. At that point we reminded him that the IFC and the World Bank are notorious for supporting fossil fuel extraction and dirty energy projects and could not, by any means, be the measure of good environmental practice.

After the meeting it was time to see Lake Turkana. Fifty-five Kilometres away it took all of two hours of driving along the road to get there. The road to the lake had once been tarred, but it is now in such a bad shape that it was much smoother to drive alongside the road, meandering on sandy paths rather to hobble along on the crater-filled road. Reminded me of many roads I know in Nigeria- except that you would not have the luxury of driving along the road as is possible in this semi-arid environment.

Arriving at Lake Turkana was a sacred moment for me. With me were Daudi Emase – a brilliant young activist, and Joyce Lukwiya – a media officer with FoLT. We waded into the water, drank in the views and soon headed back. Along the way we came to a collection of sculpted rocks, some sort of stone monoliths, that legend says were humans who heard a sound from heaven and turned into stones. Be careful what sounds you listen to!

I had to see the Turkana Cultural Festival that was ongoing at Lodwar. Joyce took me there and it was quite a fair. Exhibitions, music, dancing and plenty of food. Politicians also used the festival as a veritable platform to sell their ideas. I was stuck by the dressing of the Turkana men. Their armbands are sharp metal rings that serve as ornaments and as weapons. Most men invariable carried their stools and staffs as you would probably tot a handbag. The stools are so low that when you sit on it you appear to be squatting on your hunches. Interesting thing is that wherever a man goes he has his seat with him.

Driving to Lokichar the next day was another stint of driving along or off the road. It was a four solid hours ride on a beautiful landscape dotted with shrubbery, hills and mountains. Towering anthills in the landscape presented a different design from what we have in the Savannah region of Nigeria, indicating that the termites of Turkana were of a different architectural school. Fascinating.

The meeting Lokichar took place at a community centre built and donated to the Lokichar community by Tullow, but located in Tullow’s gated compound where details of every visitor must be carefully documented before entry is granted. Calling that building a community centre requires a peculiar understanding of what that name means. It also indicates the corporate social responsibility concept of the oil company. Once inside the building, it was clear that this was, to all intent and purposes, Tullow’s seminar or training room, with laptops locked on the tables and multimedia projector handing from the ceiling. Some Tullow officials attended the meeting.

After brief introductions, the video documentary, Nowhere to Run- Nigeria’s Environmental and Climate Crises produced by Yar’Adua Centre, Nigeria, was screened. Thereafter we had an interactive session with the community folks. The documentary had many points of intersection with the realities of Turkana – the semi-arid environment, pastoralism, agricultural challenges. They were particularly interested in what may become the impacts of petroleum extraction in their land.

Among the key questions raised was how pastoralists would be compensated when their lands are taken over for oil extraction, pipelines or other facilities. Ikal explained that this worry was very acute because oil companies tend to think that lands with no human settlements or farms were empty or no-man’s lands. She explained the deep connection of nomads to their lands and the careful ways they manage such lands, returning to them from time to time to graze their goats, sheep, camels and cattle.

A case of toxic water left in an abandoned Tullow camp site was mentioned by a community person who stated that livestock became sick on drinking the water. A Tullow official explained that the camp in question had been properly decommissioned and that the pit with the toxic water was fenced off and with warning signs posted. According to him it was the people’s fault to allow their livestock access to the facility. He also added when they throw away plastic used to line the toxic waste pits some community people ‘steal’ them from the bush thereby exposing themselves to danger. This specious transfer of responsibility to the victims was roundly rejected by participants. It raised a spectre of more corporate carelessness and dangers to come.

That night, sitting under the clear stars-filled Lokichar sky, Doris treated us to a sumptuous dinner that included my much beloved ugali. Thereafter we retired to our hotel – Another Chance Guest House. This hotel has a story behind it which I may relate at a future date.

My interpreter at the community meeting in Lokichar, Hosea Gogong, was introduced as a school teacher. However, when I went to the Maranatha Faith Assemblies church, a shouting distance from Another Chance Guest House, the following day (Sunday), it turned out that he was also a pastor. I noted the intersection of faith and activism.

Three hours on a gravelly road that had never been surfaced and we arrived at Lokori, Ikal’s hometown. As we went along it occurred to me that most of the pastoralists had herds of goats rather than those of cattle that are prevalent in Nigeria. Why? Goats are more adapted to the tough semi-arid conditions here. Then closer to Lokori there were more camels. To my shame I could not bring myself to be excited about a dish of camel meat that was being proposed for the following day. The camel, and the donkey, appear to be as animals that provide assistance for transportation and do not hit me as items on a dish. If you wish to know, please don’t serve me a giraffe, zebra, rhino, hippo, elephant, lion, tiger, jackal and the like either.

The meeting here was held at a school hall with discussions following the screening of Nowhere to Run. The interactive sessions ranged from the situation in the Niger Delta and the challenges they were already facing in the area from the arrival of the oil men. The youths bemoaned a lack of jobs, poor access road and fears that their community may turn into another Niger Delta. They all resolved to train themselves in environmental monitoring and to set up teams of ecological defenders. They will not be taken by surprise by oil.

Driving back to Lodwar was a huge experience. The journey should have been accomplished in four hours, but with the night setting in and with no signage and with endless forks on the road we lost our way a couple of times but managed to return somewhere, somehow.

A few days in Turkana and I was absolutely enraptured by the place and the people. I felt at one with a people about to feel the routine disappointment that communities routinely experience when oil extraction takes its toll on their territory. I heard that politicians have promised access roads before crude oil flows out of the region. Would that happen? I invited my friends to visit the Niger Delta to see the evidences with their own eyes.

Soon before I left Lodwar, Ikal met with me at the airport and handed me a great treasure – a Turkana stool. What a gift! When you see that I don’t rush to take a seat at any forum do not be surprised that I may have my own seat tucked under my armpit.

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