Moyale, Northern Kenya. A name shrouded in mystery for many of its own country mates. A name that is mostly known for popping out in the same sentence with ‘conflict’. A place considered far away in all aspects of life. It is the name of two major towns in Marsabit County as well as one of the four constituencies making up the county. As a constituency it boarders Wajir county to the east and Ethiopia to the North. Marsabit County is a vast arid and semi-arid land with most of it arid except for some areas around Marsabit Mountain. Northern Kenya has generally remained under developed for a long time. It has virtually been excluded from the main stream of Kenyan national life. An average Kenyan can point it on the map but knows nothing or very little about it.
Our white Volkswagen Citicom rolls on to the Nakuru-Moyale Highway. The road ahead is long, and mostly hot and lonely. Precisely 740 kilometers. At the beginning, the journey is uneventful and my two colleagues and I drift into politicking, loud laughter and sipping soft drinks. Five hours later, we are speeding past Isiolo town. We still have 510 kilometers to cover. The smooth road is now surrounded by dessert; a thorny shrub here, there and there. We meet a few tiny manyatta villages characterized by several curved mud structures thatched by a strange mixture of polythene paper and grass. Structures meant to be houses but end too soon and must deny the occupants the ability to stretch upright at will. A flurry of little rocky hills sit among acacia trees scattered unevenly on the red dessert soil. As the road progresses, the red soil greys then reddens again, then it is covered by spectacular black chipped rocks layered on the ground almost perfectly. The dessert is at this point severe and the acacia trees, now almost malnourished, stick out of the hot soil unwillingly. We meet herds of camels, in their hundreds, walking tall and graceful, led by a little shepherd who is at most 10 years old. A distance further, white herds of goats speckle the dessert in a breath taking manner all the way up to the horizon. The heat inside the car keeps rising sharply giving us a lethargic and disorienting strangeness, I slide down my window a slice, just enough to burst in a much needed breeze. My eyes meet and follow those of a heavily ornamented Turkana woman accompanied by a child with rusty hair. Their dark, thin yet sturdy arms are raised, stubbornly holding together piles of firewood perched atop two delicate heads. The sight of humans and animals is generally refreshing as there seems to be little life and little to support life in the dessert.
Sharp meanders on the recently commissioned Mombasa-Nairobi-Addis Ababa Road Corridor welcome us to Moyale town. The town is naturally dry, hot and dusty but with the recent tarmacking coupled with the onset of rains, the town wears a new smell and feel. The humid heat, however, still covers it like a thick towel whilst the much needed regular breeze, brings with it a faint smell of sun-burned damp garbage. The constant buzz of automobiles, accompanied by a seldom impatient horn fill the atmosphere. Our driver navigates the new road with an admirable skill and ease typical of an experienced driver. The town and its environs are inhabited by the beautiful Boranas, the bold Burjis, the gallant Gabbras, the reverent Rendilles and the gracious Garres. Among them are also a few ‘immigrants’ from ‘down Kenya’ as they are popularly known here. The women of the town, strikingly beautiful, saunter around in long colourful, flowing dresses matched with headscarves covering heads full of long, kinky 4B hair which if released from the jail of those scarves will fall effortlessly past long, brown-skinned necks onto broad shoulders. Hair unlike that of the immigrants from down Kenya which when set free from painfully tight braids and cornrows will shoot upright in an entangled black mass of afro; the unamused hair owner from down Kenya will give it one furtive regretful look in a cracked mirror, then she will hurriedly pin it into a micro pony tail characterized by stubborn untamable tufts above the left and right ears which will refuse to be an accomplice in the pitiful ponytail. She will then rush it for urgent heat straightening which will leave it silky and straight yet ailing from irreversible heat damage.
My arm reaches for my phone somewhere on the seat beside me as my neck cranes to aid my eyes darting through the window in search for a familiar face. I find my phone, unlock the unnecessarily complicated password, tap the call log and scroll down to Pastor Antony’s contact. I dial his number and he picks at the second ring. At the other end of the call beams an enthusiastic ‘Hello Patience!” which I can tell proceeds from a smiling mouth. I respond, working hard to match or surpass his enthusiasm. He gives me quick directions on how to locate him. Soon, after we find him, he jumps in to the car, bringing with him a sunny micro atmosphere. He is tall, dark and extroverted. He comes from the Rendille community and he effortlessly carries a bright personality and a contagious laughter. His face curves in to a permanent smile which highlights a shiny forehead progressing into an impending baldness. He is the able chairperson of Moyale Pastors’ Fellowship and he carries a pastor’s bag which I can bet contains a Bible, notebook and perhaps a Hymn book. As he directs us, we take the road leading to West of Moyale Town, we head to a locality known as Sessi where we find the guest house he had reserved for us. Darartu Guest House: where Comfort meets Elegance.
From outside, one can tell the guest house is new. I later learn the name Darartu is Borana for blooming. How apt, I cannot help conclude. My room is 201 on the first floor. My colleagues find their rooms as well and three keys meet three locks and two seconds later, three metallic doors lock behind us. Lights come on in my room almost immediately and I am simultaneously struck by the familiar disorienting smell of fresh paint. Unable to restrain my curiosity, I stretch a finger and touch. The cream yellow wall is sticky and it leaves a smack of wet paint on my finger which in turn draws little yet conspicuous finger prints on the wet wall. For a moment, as I stare at my now cream yellow fingertip, I am dazed and a frown forms on my forehead and dissolves immediately. I drop my bags on a chair then collapse on the huge bed. My nose meets the smell of clean sheets dutifully rinsed in fabric softener. I inhale deeply. Therapeutic. A jolt of fresh energy finds its way through me and I spring up from the bed and head for the shower. Seven and half minutes later, I am toweling myself dry, subconsciously, as my thoughts wander to the just concluded USA elections. A few days before I had decided should the current President-elect win, it could as well be apocalypse. Obviously, I was wrong among many. The sun was clearly determined to set and the starry night sky would soon be upon us, as usual. Picking up my phone automatically, I text a friend in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA.
“It’s Armageddon. Isn’t it?”
Seconds later he responds, “Nope. It will be alright”
“It will be alright!? No. Nope. All the Nopes in Nopeville…….How?” I demand.
“People here are strange, my little sister. If you came here you wouldn’t even guess an election happened. Life has unscrambled to normalcy. Voting patterns all over the world are determined by the greater blind mass. The next game plan for them is to gain global power, better be ready” He responds audaciously.
“All the best to them. A certain inexplicable sadness has covered us down here. The fact that the US, in their millions, could front, leave alone elect somebody who is unapologetically racist, sexist and so openly egoistic, tyrannical and angry….we have lived in denial bro” I press send, with an air of nonchalance.
I lie on my bed, covered in a film of uncertainty and mild anxiety. I discover, for some reason, I am deeply affected by the US presidential election results. I realize it was sucking the energy out of me too. I try to give a name to my feelings. Fear. I allow several anti-fear scripture to run through my mind and they bring with them a calming effect. My phone buzzes, a text from my little sister. “Dunia isimame nishuke” “Stop the world, I want to alight” I chuckle, then realise gladly, I am now finding humour in what had previously enmeshed me in fear.
As I reflect on my state and that of many others in my nation, I recall Dr. Rhiannon’s words as pertinently articulated in her HWEC manual, “…Faith and fear cannot co-exist, but fear is a strong emotion and cannot be removed by reason alone. It is important to meet God in our fears and rediscover His love and His faithfulness. Jesus wants us to invite Him in the dark places of our fear so that He can bring light. We can go with Him in to the scary places. On the cross, Jesus experienced the ultimate darkness and triumphed over it so that today fear cannot bind us anymore. ‘Perfect love casts out fear’, trusting God’s perfect love for us is the only remedy to fear. The only thing that can displace fear from our lives is an increased awareness of God’s perfect love for us. ‘Nothing can separate us from His love’…”
Those timely, reassuring words settle down my fears. I realise my destiny, the destiny of my country and my continent too, is not wrought in political arrangements but rather in Everlasting Arms. The whole duty of a man as aptly stated in Ecclesiastes is to do the will of God. My lot and that of my colleagues being to propagate the message of reconciliation, taking after Christ who has reconciled the world to Himself.
This task is what had brought us all the way to this far away border town of Moyale. A troubled town that has for long been entangled in unending intertribal conflict. 80% of the town’s and its environs’ population comprises of Nomadic Pastoralists who live primarily in arid or semi-arid areas and depend on livestock (cattle, sheep, goats and camels) for their livelihood. They rely on access to pasture and water, for the survival of their livestock. Such resources are scarce and under increasing pressure and they must be shared amongst the several communities. Conflicts involving pastoralists associated with resource competition, cattle rustling and wide availability of small arms are widespread. Some conflicts within and between pastoralist communities, such as raiding and cattle rustling have a long history and have to some extent become an aspect of traditional pastoralist culture. However, such traditional conflicts have become increasingly destructive and less manageable. The major causes of conflict among the pastoralist include but not limited to intensified cattle rustling, proliferation of illicit arms, inadequate policing and state security arrangements, diminishing role of traditional governance systems, competition over control and access to natural resources such as pasture and water, land issues, political incitements, ethnocentrism, increasing levels of poverty and idleness amongst the youth.
The conflict of Northern Kenya is disturbing and complex. Yet out of it has been wrung a kind of Christianity that is devout, faithful and obedient. A Christianity that has emerged out of the storm like lilies, pure and white, revealing chalices of gold that could only be twisted out of furnaces of severe adversity. In our stay here, I am struck by the ways of the Christians who are fully covered like their Muslim neighbours. They worship concertedly, heads slightly bowed submissively; a uniform slump of shoulders and curve of necks. Palms spread out in front of chests, eye lids tightly pressed. Solemn uniform voices proceeding from the very depth of their lungs. A deep spirit of worship expressed by that look on their faces, deeply frowned, laced by tears on a free fall. The longing of a man dying of thirst. An unquenchable thirst. The kind of look that grips even the unmovable of hearts and claws in to its deepest crannies and darkest crevices, wringing it over and over again until it spills out in form of sudden uncontrollable tears and groans.
I am determined to single out some of these Christians, the unaided and unsung legends of this town, to pen down their stories. Men and women who have poured out their very lives like drink offerings not for what they would gain as individuals but driven by a call from beyond the fathomable. These series shall tell several of those stories; Serving up Heroism in Northern Kenya, a legend at a time.
To be continued….
Patience M. Mutie for Way of Peace.