A Month in the Cradle of Humanity

Narissa Allibhai
Narissa Allibhai
Narissa Allibhai
Sustainable development researcher

This is a guest blog by Narissa Allibhai, an African sustainable development researcher who undertook field research for International Rivers in late 2014 around Lake Turkana in Kenya

The scorching sun beats down as I trek across the hot, dry sand. Streams of sweat snake down my back and I fan myself to cool my complaining body. Looking around, I see scattered thorn trees and dry grass clumps peppering the landscape. To my left is a manyatta (family compound) with grass huts and to my right are some goats wandering with their herder. I look up and the sun glares back at me. For my entire month in the Kenyan county of Turkana I feel like I am in a strange trance-like state, induced by the heat. 3 cold showers a day give some brief respite. My guide, Mike, laughs at my weakness and carries my bag for me, amused when I take several rests in the shade to drink water and power up with an energy bar. I marvel at how a whole community of people, the Turkana, have survived for years in this harsh and unforgiving environment.

A Turkana warrior walks by, ignoring our presence. He is adorned with a cloth wrapped around his body, the traditional feather in his headwear, slippers, a mini stool in one hand, and a wooden stick in the other. His unique long strides are strikingly confident, proud and majestic. He is a true warrior.

We take a “piki piki” (motorcycle) to the lakeside. I am emotional with awe as I finally sight the world’s largest desert lake, Lake Turkana, AKA “the Jade Sea.” It is vast and looks like a sea, in the middle of the desert. We board a little wooden boat and row to an island in the center of the lake. After a few hours on the island, I have had enough of the heat and decide to enter the saline lake. The kids around need no further invitation. As I walk towards the edge of the lake, they run ahead of me fully clothed right into the lake. Laughing, they beckon. I step slowly into the water and immerse myself in this wonder of nature. I see a rope and touch it curiously. The kids grab fishes that are hooked on it and show them to me, asking which I want. I end up buying fresh tilapia and Nile perch for dinner, best fish I have ever tasted.

As I look at the kids who seem to see no difference whether they are in or out of the lake, I realize how the lake is like the air they breathe – it is an integral part of their life and always has been. In fact, it is the reason that this community has survived the harsh conditions and numerous droughts. As I was told several times over, it is the source of their life.

Turkana fishermen
Turkana fishermen
Photo courtesy of Boniface Mwangi

Why was I in fiery northern Kenya for a whole month, anyway? I was on a mission to uncover the voices and views of the people directly dependent on Lake Turkana for survival. The lake is in danger of drying up due to hydropower and irrigation developments on the river that feeds it – the Omo River in Ethiopia. Decisions on these developments have been made by governments and foreign contractors, whereas the indigenous custodians of the Omo River and Lake Turkana have not been consulted. In Ethiopia, land grabs and human rights abuses have already taken place to facilitate these projects, while in Kenya the several tribes around the counties of Turkana and Marsabit can count their days as it is only a matter of time before the resource they are wholly dependent on dries up.

International Rivers, Friends of Lake Turkana, and Human Rights Watch are some of the civil society organizations trying to raise awareness, speak to project donors, and negotiate with local governments to save a precious resource and the lives of those who depend on it. However, the dam nears completion and will start filling this year if nothing more is done. This will result in the lake drying significantly, becoming completely undrinkable, destruction of fish breeding sites, increased resource conflicts, rising insecurity, widespread starvation, and certainly sweeping death.

During my travels throughout Turkana, I collected the voices of some of the 300,000 Kenyans who depend on the lake. You can learn what they have to say in this report, this video, and join the campaign started by some Kenyan youth dubbed #BeyondTurkana.

The people I spoke with felt angry, neglected, and fearful. During an interview at a village gathering, an elder came towards me while removing the cloth covering his wrist knife and asking if I was the person behind the dams, so that he could finish me off once and for all . . . 

These people have proven their resilience over centuries living in this harsh environment. But will they be able to survive the disappearance of this remarkable source of life?

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015