A section of Turkana main road to Lodwar. (Photo: Boniface Okendo/Standard)
Driving from Trans Nzoia to Turkana is like moving from cool paradise to burning hell. The tall green canopy of trees give way to stunted thorny shrubs, miraculously sprouting from sandy soils. Thousands of acres of maize plantations thin away into the horizon. It also gets hotter as you move on, with scenes of people walking by the roadside or vendors mobbing motorists with all kinds of wares. Soon, this is replaced by unattended sacks of charcoal.
The road gets bumpy as the potholes grow bigger. Our first stop is Marich, in Kapenguria. We bump into a police-check and an officer – a woman – comes over, greets us and asks: “Are you the guys that come with water?” This signals that we have reached an area where water is scarce.
The road gets rugged, forcing our car to slow to a walking speed. Suddenly, at Lami Nyeusi in West Pokot, a boy, barely 15, jumps onto the road and aims a gun at us. He is joined by two others, also with guns. This is our first encounter with highway bandits along the Kitale-Lodwar Road who are making it difficult for food to move from a farm in TransNzoia to a dinner table in Turkana.
We turn back, get security at a cost from Lami Nyeusi to Kainuk in Turkana County. We again pay for another round of escort from Kainuk to Kangkong. We would repeat the ritual on our way back. The long trucks ferrying food and other supplies are subjected to such problems, or risk going without security and be robbed of supplies running into millions.
Security is bad
“Security here is bad. They (bandits) remove people from the road and slaughter them. There is a lot of death – so many widows and orphans,” says Loseny Nguono, a resident of Kapese Sub-location, Lokichar in Turkana County when we meet him outside his manyatta.
Loseny and many other residents of Lokichar have come to depend on relief food from Government which, unfortunately, comes after two weeks. He mourns that the price of a gorogoro of maize (two-kilogramme tin} is too high, retailing at Sh150. The wholesalers say it is not their fault.
A wholesaler in Lokichar whom we spoke to, and who did not want to be named for fear of recrimination, confirms that they have become used to not receiving their supplies as gun-totting bandits wreak havoc along this road. A government official who also sought anonymity says; “This place has become really dangerous. If you want to travel to Lodwar, you just use an aeroplane.” Of course, not everyone can afford a flight.
“It is also very expensive to transport supplies from Kitale to this place. Currently, we are buying a bag of maize at Sh4,400 plus another Sh200 for transporting it,” says the wholesaler. He says that at night, the bandits jump onto slow-moving trucks with supplies, slit the cover and offload goods at their pace and leisure.
The result has been depressed supply of sugar, milk and maize flour in this area. And with depressed supply has come high prices. A gorogoro of maize is almost hitting Sh200 here.
Whereas a two-kilogramme packet of unga is retailing at Sh126 in most supermarkets in Nairobi, it is going for Sh150 in Turkana. And the bad road makes an already bad situation, worse. The distance from Kitale to Lodwar is about 270 kilometres, yet a truck with supplies takes about 16 hours. This is different from the distance between Nairobi and Kitale, where a truck takes less than 10 hours to cover a distance of about 390 kilometres.
Yet, every day, vegetable sellers such as Lilian Simiyu in Lodwar wait patiently for their stock of cabbages, tomatoes, sukuma wiki and onions to arrive. When the stock fails to arrive, they do not complain. “We are used to it. I have lost my stock several times,” says Lilian.
We ask Loseny how much he would be willing to pay for a gorogoro of maize, and he says Sh70. This would be a dream come true, but not until the road is repaired. Part of it is already under construction. The government plans to tarmac the entire road from Kitale to Lodwar, making it easier for food to move from farms to Loseny’s plate.
On our way back, the government official tells us that sometimes having half a litre bottle of water with you, can be all that stands between you and an early grave. Here, water is more precious than the most expensive smartphone or millions of cash you might be carrying.
So my crew and I arm ourselves with bottles of water, hoping that it would triumph over guns. But the wholesaler’s words leave a lasting impression on why business around here continues.
“I have lived here for 21 years, and with my belief in God, I do not take security from Kenya police reservists or administration police. It is costly.” And going by the many trucks with supplies we meet on the road moving without security, it is clear that the belief in God here is high.
Or perhaps it is simply taking risks, so that you can get the most returns. Either way, these traders ensure some food reaches Loseny – enough to keep him and his family going.