By Hassan H. Kochore
Last weekend’s feature story by KTN, ‘Desert of death’, told the story of cancer patients in Marsabit County, northern Kenya. Young and old, they lay on their deathbeds, having exhausted their meager resources on hospital bills. With few resources and no government support, nurse Asunta Galgitelle cared for patients with the utmost dedication and humility.
The number of cancer victims in Marsabit County has been rising for some years ; KTN and other news reports have highlighted the increasing prevalence of throat cancer in particular. Suspicion has fallen on the oil exploration wells drilled in the 1980s by oil company Amoco Kenya. The KTN report argued some of the wells do not appear to have been properly sealed and people living in the areas around the wells fear the water table has been contaminated.
The people of the Chalbi Desert have for centuries occupied one of the most unforgiving terrains of the globe through resilience and perseverance – it is deeply unjust that they could now be subjected to such a man-made disaster.
In a book chapter in 2011 , American anthropologist John Wood described how the Gabra of Marsabit district were hospitable to ‘oil explorers’. He says, “Contrary to my expectations, the Gabra did not see oil explorers as intruders or invaders.” It seems that at worst the Gabra were indifferent to the explorers: “sure they remembered the equipment, they had watched the activity but it was none of their business.”
For their hospitality, the people of Marsabit were paid with the defilement of their sacred land. Land in Chalbi does not only support human life but is central to spirituality in the region. The whole of the Chalbi Desert and Marsabit County more widely are dotted with ritual sites; movement across the landscape is not only a survival strategy but a spiritual necessity.
Today, the people of the Chalbi desert may no longer be able to trust the land and its resources. The polluted habitat renders the population in a perpetual state of fear, not knowing when the next patient will be diagnosed with the ‘silent killer’ or when the next herd will fall one by one having drunk the waters from the ‘cursed well’. Herds have died in their hundreds before – at Kargi in January 2008, for example. A monster has invaded the land of the nomads. Things are indeed falling apart.
Worse still, their own government may have been complicit. Northern Kenya has long had a fraught history with the governments of Kenya, both colonial and post-colonial. In these lands, the government has long been referred to as ‘nyaap’- ‘the enemy’ in the preponderant Borana dialect of the larger Oromo language. Seeing chiefs and government health officials in the documentary pointing fingers at the government is testimony enough that government here is not trusted even by ‘insiders’.
Massacres have punctuated the history of the North — from violence carried out during the Shifta War to killings at Wagalla, Bagalla, and Turbi. Some of these were orchestrated by the government, were carried out with its complicity, or came about because of its laxity, as revealed by the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission report released earlier this year. While many campaigned to air their painful memories to the TJRC and ensured that the suffering of the past was exposed, there are no signs at present that the recommendations of the report will be considered or even discussed.
Meanwhile, Northerners continue to be neglected more widely when it comes to the provision of basic infrastructure and services like roads and healthcare – most of the cancer patients in the feature had to go to hospitals in more developed ‘down’ country areas like Meru where they deposited all their hard earned cash.
It will be interesting to see how the Kenyan government will respond to this crisis in these times of #weareone and ‘national cohesion and integration’. What measures will it take to curb this epidemic, ‘detox’ the land and try and win back the hearts and minds of the population?
Community support will be central to the success of some of the government’s regional infrastructural projects such as the multi-billion shillings Lamu-Southern-Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET.) Great tracts of the railway, road and pipeline will pass through Northern Kenya. Community ownership of the project is key, and in these lands where the government is not very popular, a lot of ‘winning of hearts and minds’ will be necessary. The oil exploitation in Northern County of Turkana will involve similar challenges. As a local lawyer said, summing up the feeling on the ground, “You cannot ignore us for 50 years then Turkana becomes the lingua franca after the discovery of oil.”
In summary, in order to redeem its legitimacy in the north, the government needs, as a matter of urgency, to begin fresh investigations into the rise in cancer cases and present a report to the County government of Marsabit, taking responsibility for any complicity it might have had in the disposal of toxic waste in the area. Without genuine efforts towards acknowledging and apologizing for its history in the region, the government will continue to alienate its Northern populations, the ‘integration’ rhetoric notwithstanding.
Hassan H. Kochore is a graduate student in African Studies at the University of Oxford.