A RAINY MONDAY IN SOUTHERN TURKANA: Part I
On the ground in Lokichar
by SHALOM NDIKU
Research and Policy Officer (FoLT)
Towards the tail end of the flight, we are promptly informed that the descent to Lodwar will commence soon. Sitting on the aisle seat, I stretch my neck and stare out the window; it’s a new and welcoming sight I’ve not seen before. Instead of the oft-dry shrubby and hilly terrain that is typical of Turkana, traces of greenery and pockets of land are now filled with temporally seasonal water bodies and rivers that snake across the rugged terrain and disappear into the fading horizon in the east.
My colleague Sheila Bett is in love with the way the land looks from above after a few days of heavy rain as she snaps multiple photos and finds it all breathtaking. Charles Wanguhu, also on the trip with us, is a key partner from the Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas (KCSPOG). He cannot hide his anxiety resultant from the fact that with the rains, we may not be able to make it to the oil fields for a potential site visit and update from our local contacts on the ground.
The descent into Lodwar Town in the early morning after heavy showers the night before. © by Sheila Bett for FoLT
After landing in drizzly Lodwar, a two-hour drive to the southern town of Lokichar – the home of Kenya’s new Black Gold – awaits us. After a necessary security brief, the journey starts. Given that Turkana’s seasonal rivers are erratically behaving due to the heavy downpour that’s fallen the night before, we need to depart with haste in order to return before the likely afternoon showers come down and result in overflowing rivers that block the roads.
Stranded travelers at the banks of the flooded laga few minutes after Lodwar. © FoLT
Less than half an hour into our southerly departure from Lodwar, we come across a heavily flooded and fast flowing laga – the local nomenclature used for these seasonal rivers – that looks threatening if anyone dares to cross it. Our unfortunate fate is shared with a number of Land Cruisers and trucks seeking to cross over the river. After witnessing a few of them cross over meticulously and carefully, David, our experienced and bold driver, follows suit and before we know it, we are on the other side.
A Toyota Land Cruiser belonging to the County Government of Turkana makes the daring effort to cross the flowing laga. © FoLT
As one approaches Lokichar the lagas are less and less imposing, becoming easily crossable the further south we go. It seems like the heavier rains fell in the central part of Turkana County. The highway that connects Turkana to the rest of Kenya is a neglected road that is heavily dilapidated, in need of immediate reconstruction and serves as a vital lifeline for essential goods for those in Lodwar and further north in Kakuma and Lokichoggio. As a part of the LAPSSET project, a Vision 2030 flagship component, this road is to be redone. Time will have to tell whether this shall be done with haste and efficiency. The one certainty is that with all the road-related developments that have taken place over the last 15 years in Kenya, neglecting Turkana County speaks loudly to the priority areas those with the power to dictate where developments happen deem valuable.
Half an hour into the journey, I realize that Sheila is napping. Her head, rested against the window on her right taps against the glass with each occasional bump on the road. The pothole induced tapping is more frequent than it should be for a national road traversing lands holding a substantive amassment of black gold.
We suddenly turn left and branch off the main highway into the oil exploration fields. David assures us that this short cut is much quicker. The difference in our environment gradually changes. The roads become less rough and murramed, meaning that it becomes much smoother to drive on and less bumpy. Sheila’s prior bobbing ceases immediately – she now naps with greater ease. The tapping sound on the glass is gone. Additionally, the traffic increases with Toyota pickups traversing the territory, stewards clad in luminously yellow vests stand watch every few kilometers, and every now and then we drive by a number of 10,000 liter black plastic tanks emblazoned with the word “KENTANK” in a fading yellow font placed about ten meters from the road. These tanks are securely surrounded by a fence and stand there to cater to the water-related needs of all the lives in the area, both human and animal. Unlike the drier seasons, this time round, not many members of the community have flocked around the water points given the abundance of rain. It is evident that we are now in “Tullow Country”.
The electric fence that runs all along Tullow’s Kapese Camp a few kilometers outside Lokichar town. © FoLT
Within a short period of time, we pull up to Tullow’s camp at Kapese, the camp is heavily secured – a large fence runs for a long distance to our left and right. One often looks at certain fences and can quickly conclude that those on the inside of the fence were hell-bent on keeping outsiders out when they conceptualized it. This is definitely one of those fences. A guard walks up to us and strikes up a conversation with Charles.
Bold and customized emblazoned text on the security guard’s uniform at the gate to the Kapese camp. © FoLT
“We wanted to know if it’s possible to get in?” Charles requests.
Responding to Charles’s question with another question of his own, he retorts, “Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes, we were in contact with your Nairobi office and we received the green light to enter here.” Charles looks at the guard confidently, certain of his statement and awaits a reaction.
“Unfortunately, you must have an appointment approved by management on this specific site. Do you have one with someone here?”
“Then I cannot let you in, because after you make a request to enter the site, you have to wait for approval which can take a day. Go to our office in town and try your luck there.”
David rapidly reverses the Land Cruiser away from the Kapese Camp’s gate and heads towards Lokichar. It’s almost lunchtime, we do not want to arrive and find the place closed or empty during this mid-point of the workday when most employees take a break from work. Entering Lokichar town, anyone familiar with it quickly notices how rapidly it is growing – a greater presence of vehicles, increasing foot-traffic, more outsiders from other counties, and an increase in evidence of privatized property – particularly the fencing of buildings and demarcated plots within and around the town.
Two Administration Police officers in jungle green uniforms guard the Tullow office and in tow is the oft-sighted choice of weaponry used by the crème de la crème of Kenya’s law enforcement – the Kalashnikov or AK-47. An unarmed guard – technically armed given he has a rungu a few feet from his feet – from a private company seems to be a bonus to the two AP officers who would be better placed to deal with potential threats. Entering the office, we are met by an overly courteous and polite employee who hospitably gathers three chairs around the office for us to sit on.
Charles informs him that we intended to visit the Kapese camp today but were referred to this office to make an appointment. The employee informs us that to do that, he will have to drive over to the camp himself and request the relevant supervisor for the appointment. We request him to call the supervisor instead, given that it is the early afternoon and we want to be back in Lodwar before the rains block the roads. Interestingly, he does not have the supervisors number. Odd indeed. As we depart from the office, he updates us about the great work Tullow is doing, including offering scholarships to exceptional secondary school students in Turkana and hands us a number of pamphlets and posters that hold simple to understand information on the basics of oil and gas.
Lokichar’s main street during the school holidays. ® Business Daily
The day continually heats up as lunchtime arrives. Prior experience has taught us that Mashallah Hotel is Lokichar’s best source of a tasty meal. We head there and are directed to the back area in a makuti-roofed enclave with tables full of patrons ravishingly devouring an assortment local favorite delicacies. The place is abuzz with activity as waiters crisscross the floor and customers bark loud orders and shout requests to no one in particular. After giving our orders to the waiter, Charles informs us that a local contact of his shall be joining us soon to provide an update on the latest happenings on the ground.
Some minutes pass and the meals arrive. Sheila observes with bemusement how every single time she comes to Turkana, she is served with a 500ml soda bottle instead of the more common and conventional 300ml bottle – an interesting trend in the cold-beverage-culture of Lokichar. In this heat, a larger beverage is welcome, and when the two community members – Ekidor and Ricardo – arrive and join us for lunch, their first priority is a thirst quencher in the form of two large 500ml sodas.
From the outset, Ekidor is the more talkative of the two. Ricardo, albeit his silence, is attentively engaged in the discussions and shows it by nodding and maintaining eye contact with us as his colleague speaks. “Life for us here in Lokichar continues, but is getting worse by the day.” Ekidor speaks emotionally and what I read to be frustration seems to envelop his words.
“Many people have lost their jobs and livelihoods, therefore as they return to their homes, they end up being idle which is not ideal. In recent times theft has increased as well.”
Ekidor notes that a majority of the community members affected by these developments are close relatives and people he knows well. He notes how a number of camps have even been shut down, affecting a number of casual laborers, which a majority of the community members are. Despite pleas to the government by the community members and concerted protests against the loss of jobs, nothing seems to be happening to address this unfortunate eventuality, according to him.
“What is the oil company using as a reason to justify the termination of jobs and employment?” Sheila asks.
Ekidor pauses pensively and as he contemplates a response to Sheila’s answer, Ricardo informs us that he has to attend a community meeting elsewhere in town. As Ricardo walks out of Mashallah, our attention reverts back to Ekidor who is now itching to address Sheila’s question.
“Tullow has given two reasons for this. First, it says that the price of oil has been falling, thus this affects them. Secondly, it states that the end of the first phase of the oil extraction – exploration – has come to an end and the jobs in that phase are over. Only during the second phase of development shall jobs be available again for locals.”
Economically, Ekidor readily admits that earlier on, the oil exploration created a hub of activity within Lokichar. Businesses thrived, be it shops, hotels, restaurants, bars or butcheries – the windfall was felt as money exchanged hands more frequently. However, this ballooning of the boom began to deflate before the eyes of those who call Lokichar home.
“In the past, if a business person made KES 20,000 profits in a certain period, one would not be surprised that it has reduced to KES 2,000 today over the same period.” Ekidor concludes that despite the challenges faced, some positives still exist. For example, he highlights the Tullow Scholarship Program for exceptional secondary students in Turkana County that has proven beneficial. Additionally, he notes that the skills training for some community members, including studying abroad is commendable.
It is 3pm. We must head back, though a casual stare out into the horizon seems to indicate that the rains are not an imminent threat for the moment. But to err on the side of caution, we do not want to take any chances. We thank Ekidor for his time and willingness to share this information with us. It is people like him that make the work of organizations like ours easier, it also helps us understand what the reality is on the ground, and thus directs our advocacy efforts around research, communication and policy issues.
Exiting Mashallah Hotel, it dawns on me how the larger headlines on the plummeting prices of crude oil a few months ago bore a far reaching effect. Ekidor’s outpouring of the challenges faced by the community and local businesses in Lokichar reveals that such a massive domino effect rolls all the way from the boardrooms of powerful oil ministers in Saudi Arabia or Russia with endless power and flows of Saudi Riyals and Russian Rubles to the ordinary Kenyan in southern Turkana eking a living and now finds herself jobless as an oil camp is shut down and does not need her skills as a cook.