Thursday, 13 October 2011

Lodwar, Turkana County

For the past three days, I was in Lodwar, which is in Northern Kenya.  The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) was holding hearings in this district, and ICJ-Kenya tagged along to monitor the process, write up a report, and get a sense of what types of issues are affecting the communities in this area.  It was something of a full body experience to say the least.  Read nicely written pieces on the issues brought up during the TJRC hearings here and here - they are good highlights of some of the main issues affecting this area.  As you will read, the issues that the communities in this area have faced are markedly different from what has happened in other areas of the country.  There was no real conflict associated with post-election violence.

But more on that later.  Let me try and describe Lodwar, with pictures to follow.

Getting to the airport was more of an issue than I thought it was going to be.  My flight was at 10:30am, so I showed up at the office at 8am, picked up a few things and was patiently waiting for the driver to get ready.  Everything seemed fine.  Apparently it wasn't, and the driver, Musyoka, with skill, poise, and a touch of insanity, managed to get me to the airport on time.  I just wish he'd stayed on the road all of the time.

Our plane was a Dash-8 16-seater.  Three people on the plane crossed themselves as we took off for our first stopover in Kitale.  I'm glad someone did.  Nairobi is a fertile, mostly green area - flying into Kitale, it was clear that this land was even more bountiful, with beautiful tall trees, and green everywhere.  The plane made a sickening cracking/crunching sound as it touched down, but no one seemed to notice.  I thought it was quaint that the Kitale 'Airport' was just a small building, the size of a 2 bedroom bungalow, in the middle of nowhere.  I never thought to consider what Lodwar's would look like.

After a short delay, we were off again.  I took a glimpse at the rolling hills and greenery, and fell asleep.  I awoke to the sound of my stomach turning, as the Dash-8 slipped, dipped and shuddered through the clouds, on its descent into Lodwar.  A quick glance out of the window was a stark reminder of where I was heading - an entirely different setting, if not a different planet.  Yellowish sand, as far as the eye could see, with spindly lines of greenery sparsely lining areas where streams may have been, ages ago.  Miniature goat corrals were sprinkled around, long ago abandoned to the sand.  How any plant survives is an absolute mystery to me.

We land in Lodwar, safely.  There are children on the tarmac, running after the plane.  The airstrip is a plank of asphalt on sand, surrounded by barbwire fence.  A small rectangular hut is the 'airport'.  The first step out of the airplane is like the surge of heat from pouring gasoline on a fire.  I pause, my face instantly breaks out in sweat, but my rear is still heavily air conditioned.  It is one of the strangest feelings I've ever experienced.  I instantly regret wearing shoes.  The temperature will be, on average, between 35-40 degrees.  And hotter when the wind blows, oddly.  At night, it cools off to around 28 degrees.  24-hour Bikram's Hot Yoga.

We drive the very short distance to our hotel, drop our bags, buy water, and head to the hearings, where we spend the rest of the day, sweating.

The heat does strange things to my physical functioning.  I lose my appetite, I am very, very tired, and I have trouble focusing.  The hearings pass by as if in a dream.  An elder, a Mzee, is testifying about the conflict between the Turkana people and the Pokot.  There has long been a history of Cattle Raids between the two groups, but the influx of illegal arms in the mix has turned traditional 'coming of age' theatrics into deadly pillaging.  He gives specific examples of the brutal outcomes.  Yet somehow, in the midst of his stories, in what one of the audience will tell me is 'real wisdom', he spins his tales in such a way that the entire room is laughing uproariously.  Afterwards, I give him a respectful handshake (clutching my right arm with my left) and thank him for his testimony. I'm not crying, it's just sweat pouring down my face, but I'm awed.

Lunch is fried meat, sukuma (kind of like spinach), and chapatis.  More importantly, ice-cold Fanta Orange.  The sugar-rush hits me hard.

During the afternoon sessions, I hear one witness describing his experiences as a 14 year old boy, surviving an air raid.  His town was bombed in 1989.  He mentions how he returned to his village after the bombs dropped; he sees charred bodies, entrails hanging from smoking tree limbs, and a crater where his house used to be.  His community is never informed who the perpetrators were - they find out during their research for the TJRC hearing that the newspapers reported that Uganda airplanes bombed Lokichoggio.  But to what aim?  I am stunned.  The sugar rush is gone and everything feels very, very heavy.  He respectfully asks the commission to recommend a full investigation and report to be made into the bombing, and that compensation and a monument be made about the incident.  There is no rage, no anger, no blame, only questions.

We have missed dinner.  I chug a litre of water and eat a chapati.  It is enough.  I have a shower, but forgo toweling off, and go to bed, sopping wet.  I sleep.  My sink doesn't work.

The next morning, my ICJ colleague and I go to the Women's Hearings.  There is one male present (the cameraman), so I slip in.  The women are singing.  Loudly.  It is captivating.  I become painfully aware of my  male-ness.  Luckily, a TJRC staffer, rescues me, and takes me to the in camera (private) hearings.  There are 9 people, including myself, in the room.  This is the same room where 500 people were listening to witnesses testifying.  Today the audience is just me.  I become painfully aware of my non-Kenyan-ness.  I am allowed to stay, but the commissioners make a point, at the end of the session, to remind people that only authorized people are allowed to attend the in camera hearings.  I sweat more, if that's possible.

We return to the site of the singing ladies.  My colleague and I unfortunately miss an opportunity to get driven to Lake Turkana, the 'Jade Sea' of the North.  Instead, we are back at the Lodwar Lodge, where I find all my belongings moved to a different room.  The sink works in this one, but the toilet doesn't.  In fact, it is leaking.  I am very self-conscious about this wasted water, in this land of drought and famine.  Perhaps suffering from heat-induced mental instability, I attempt to jiggle the leaking bits, somehow thinking it will stop.  The drip turns into an outright waterfall.  I scramble out of the room.  They find me another room.  This one has a pit toilet and a bucket.  Much better.

On our way back to the lodge, we cross paths with a Kenyan man who is working on a laptop.  He greets us and his handshake is firm, but oddly, he doesn't seem to want to let go.  We introduce ourselves, and it turns out that he works for Kenya Red Cross.  He is a Medical Officer providing relief services to the drought and famine victims.  He is jovial and affable, but his eyes are haunted.  He tells us that 5 km out of town, families are sitting under trees, and dying.  He tells us he has no idea how to help most of these people.  Yet, he tells us that somehow, everything he sees defies expectation.  He says that medical evidence says that a person will die after 2 days without water, yet he sees women and children surviving for over a week without water.  With great empathy and respect, he tells us of the determination of survival, and of the ultimate acts of altruism that occur on a daily basis.  He is humbled.  So am I.  We both feel the urge to return to Nairobi.  I don't know how to feel about that.

The next day, there is a 4-hour wait before the flight leaves.  I pack my stuff, and set the intention to wander around and try and capture life in Lodwar in snaps.  I make it about 100 metres out of the hotel, and am so overwhelmed by the heat, the sand, and my sweat, that I quickly take a few pictures and retreat, beaten.  I watch a Kevin Bacon movie and meditate.

As the plane takes off, the oppressive heat melts away.  I look back, and reflect.  The very first person we met in Lodwar asked if we were coming from Kenya.  Amused, we replied, "yes, but where are you coming from?" "I am from Turkana".  This is a different place, a different land.  The memory is seared into me.

The County Councillor had asked, pointedly, "Why has our government forgotten about us? Where are they when the Ugandans, Ethiopians and Sudanese raid our livestock, kill our young men and rape our women?  Where is OUR aid?  Our we not as deserving of aid as the refugees?  We are dying from hunger and disease too.  Why has our government forgotten about us?"

I don't know.  I can't forget about this.


  1. Wow, brother. Powerful, heartbreaking stuff. Thanks for trying to convey a piece of it to the rest of us.

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