Fishing and firearms on Lake Turkana

When Simon Choko goes out fishing on Kenya’s lake Turkana, he brings a gun as well as a net.

In the drought-stricken corner of northwestern Kenya, the native Turkana community to which Choko belongs is involved in deadly conflict with rivals from across the border in neighboring Ethiopia, as the poor populations compete for dwindling food.

“I have been a fisherman since I was a boy and I have never experienced such a tense and dangerous period as the one we are living now. Everyone has a gun these days to protect themselves against attacks,” said Choko.

The Turkana are traditionally nomadic pastoralists but they have seen the grass that they need to feed their herds wither in the face of recurring droughts. As conditions change, the Turkana have had to change too, and many have turned to fishing.

The trend began back in the 1960s, following a devastating drought, which wiped out entire herds. As a new source of survival, the government started to introduce communities to fishing in the plentiful waters of the vast and then mostly untouched Lake Turkana.

Authorities gave out fishing nets and resettled affected communities in villages along the shores of the lake. The change was a tough one for many Turkana, a society where a man’s status is traditionally linked to the size of his herd and “fish-eater” used to be an insult.

But people adapted and a new economy geared up, although for many it was a way to save money by selling fish in order to eventually restock their lost herds and go back to their pastoralists roots.

But things have changed again. Lake Turkana is overfished, and scarcity of food is fuelling long-standing tensions with Ethiopian indigenous Dhaasanac, who have seen their grazing grounds squeezed by large-scale government agricultural schemes in southern Ethiopia, and who now venture ever deeper into Kenyan territory in search of fish and grass.

The conflict is just one example of clashes that take place between different ethnic groups in various parts of Kenya over cattle-raiding, politics and limited resources.

Here, the Turkana community fishing near Todonyang, close to the Ethiopian border, have formed themselves into a well-organized armed group, as they fear attacks both on the lake and on the shores, where they have set up temporary fishing camps.

Fighting between the communities has a long history, but the conflict has become ever more fatal as automatic weapons from other regional conflicts seep into the area. According to locals, around a dozen Turkana have been killed in clashes since July.

“The Turkana and the Dhaasanac have been enemies for a long time. However, before they used to fight with spears and other rudimental weapons,” said Turkana leader Pius Chuchu.

“Then came the single bullet carbines. Now everyone has these modern guns such as AK47 that even young boys can carry and use,” he said. In one particularly bloody incident in 2011, dozens of Turkana were killed in a single cross-border raid in Todonyang.

The situation is also tough for those Turkana who still live as pastoralists, such as Ngimalia Ilete. He is the leader of a Turkana cattle Kraal in the Ilemi Triagle, a disputed territory in the very northwest of Turkana, on the border with Ethiopia and South Sudan.

“This is a bad season. Look how dry it is. Our people are hungry. Conflict increases when people are hungry,” he said.

“When there is rain and grass things are ok. But if not… We can’t keep on watching our animals die; so we move, also if there is a risk of conflict.”

Although the area is short of basics like grass and ground-water, it contains other resources including oil reserves and massive, newly discovered underground aquifers.

Development of these assets could bring much-needed relief to Turkana County’s 855,000-strong population, which suffers from a poverty rate of 94.3 percent according to a 2012 report by Oxford University’s African Studies Centre.

Choko said he was eager for the opportunities that development could bring, but some Turkana are worried that, as the bounty begins to bear fruit, they might miss out on the benefits.

In October, Turkana protesters halted operations by the company Tullow Oil, marching on exploratory drilling sites and demanding jobs and other benefits. The company said the dispute had been resolved almost two weeks later, after dialogue with the community.

Anthropologist Alberto Salza, who has done extensive work in the area, says that the development of aquifers could lead to big, agricultural schemes that will eat into pasturelands, something that will harm the Turkana’s traditional way of life.

Such agricultural projects in Ethiopia, connected with the construction of a massive dam on the river that feeds Lake Turkana, have already displaced tribes in Ethiopia.

But while Salza sees the threats that development could pose to the Turkana’s old lifestyle, he believes the Turkana will once again have to change.

“Around Lake Turkana, tradition is a killer: if you don’t adapt and change, you die. I’d like to be here to see the “new” Turkana: they have a right to modernity,” he said.



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Salt caravans of the Danakil Depression

To descend into the Danakil Depression is to step into another world.

The thick warm air, the hazy sky and the rugged empty mountains that gradually give way to the immensity of a white, shimmering salt desert all leave the traveller in awe of this cruel yet fascinating landscape. Overlapping the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, this is the lowest point in Africa and one of the hottest places on Earth.

Venturing deep into this inhospitable land requires a well organized plan. Getting stuck with no back-up vehicle, no satellite communication or simply not enough water could become life threatening within a matter of hours.

I started my trip from the city of Mekele in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia. I had not come to explore the area as a tourist. Instead, I was there to document the caravans of thousands of camels which for centuries have descended deep into the depression to extract salt. Mekele was the place where I had to find a good 4×4 vehicle, a driver and enough water and food to be on the road for six days. Most importantly, I had to find a reliable fixer, someone who knew the region well and spoke the local language but who also had to be familiar with the salt trade and could maneuver well within complex Afar clan dynamics.

I had briefly met Mohammed on a previous trip some years back, and we stayed in touch ever since. His company for this assignment proved to be invaluable as he translated interviews, and negotiated with government officials and clan elders. After a four-hour ride from Mekele, we arrived in the small but fast expanding desert town of Berahile in the Afar territory in the afternoon. This is where the camel caravans drop their loads of salt after marching for days across the depression.

From Berahile, trucks collect the mineral and transport it to the city of Mekele from where it is distributed to the rest of the country.

On the way, I was astonished at how far the construction of a new paved road had come along. Just a few years back in 2010, most of the journey to Berahile was on a rough steep route, but now I traveled on freshly laid tarmac for half the way. I couldn’t help thinking about how this new road would affect the region. Surely it will bring some much needed development, helping with the transit of goods, businesses and infrastructure. But what about the thousands of Muslim Afar and Christian Tigrayans from the highlands who depend on the old ways of the salt trade? Would trucks one day replace camels, mules and donkeys and be part of a new, more efficient way of transporting salt from the desert to the highland?

As thoughts became questions, Mohammed explained that he believed this would never happen. All aspects of society in this region come down to clan politics; everything is decided by clan leaders and the local administration. For this reason, Mohammed believed that the community would never allow the caravan trade to disappear, as that would affect the thousands of people who depend on it. After meeting and introducing myself to the clan elders and administrators in the town, it was decided that I would depart by foot with the caravans the next morning.

For protection against possible bandit attacks and for assistance on the way, I was introduced to Hussein, my guide for the next few days and to Mussa, an armed police reservist who in his younger days was a rebel fighter with the Afar Liberation Front. We walked with countless caravans of camels through the day across vast dried valleys and canyons. Hussein explained the vital importance of the river that we followed through the afternoon, saying it was the lifeline of the region. Once you leave it and head into the salt plains, drinking water is impossible to find.

That evening we made camp in the company of a caravan by the banks of the river. We shared coffee and a quick dinner of pitta bread and noodles, then were quickly carried off to sleep by our exhaustion. At 6a.m. we were back on the road, taking advantage of the cool temperatures to cover as much distance as possible. Luckily for us, a car was waiting at the end of the valley for the last 20 kilometers (12 miles) of rocky, flat terrain before reaching the great salt plains of the depression.

I felt that having been on the road with the caravans for a day and a half was enough to be able to understand the difficulties of the journey that the salt merchants faced on a daily basis. We reached Hamad-Ile in the afternoon, a small village on the edge of the desert, which is the last outpost for water and food before proceeding east into the depression. This was going to be a comfortable base to spend the night compared to the rocky terrain where we had woken up the previous morning.

At dusk the next day, we witnessed a spectacular scene of thousands of camels, mules, donkeys, herders, salt merchants, salt shapers and extractors venturing together into the vast, endless plains. They were all trying to reach a suitable spot where the salt was compact enough to be extracted. It was a march of several hours deep in the desert. The sooner they reached the spot, the more time they had to extract as many slabs of salt as possible, load them onto their animals and start the two days’ journey back to the town of Berahile.

The landscape here was incredibly different from when I had started my trip a couple of days back. It was a shimmering white expanse, with water mirages on the horizon playing tricks with your mind. The white hazy sky melted with the whiteness of the desert, giving a surreal feeling that sky and earth had touched and become one reality, indistinguishable from one another. Amid this feeling of spectacular emptiness, the salt caravans moved in a slow but constant procession, cutting across the whiteness of the cracked desert.

It was hard to imagine that they would stop somewhere in the desolate plains and work through the day in temperatures sometimes exceeding 50 degrees centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

The price: thousands of slabs of salt to sell and to transport to the four corners of the country in a matter of days. This is the “white gold” of Ethiopia, as it used to be called when salt was used as a form of currency throughout the region.

To view reportage:

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A time to move on, in the best and the worst

Nearly a month has passed since election day when the honourable patience and determination of Kenyans was tested to the limit as they queued from dawn to, in many polling stations, the late hours of the night. The agony of the country as it waited for the IEBC to announce the results as it struggled for days to count the votes.

Then followed the final results confirming Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential victory. Then, the rejection by Raila Odinga and the start of the Supreme Court case that challenged the IEBC electoral process.

A few days ago, the court ruled out Raila’s case that the elections were flawed and gave the final announcement that Kenyatta will become, on April 9th, Kenya’s fourth president.

For millions, it is a reason of jubilation as their votes and wishes tested true to the end. They have seen their ‘Prince’ rise to become the ‘King’.

But, millions of others have been left with a surrendered feeling of disappointment in the system as a whole. Their hopes shuttered that these elections could pave the way to a new era for the country in which, to a certain degree, the old class of elite would be replaced by a new one.

Impossible to study the fairness of the court’s ruling dismissing Raila’s case, but I believe that if the court did accept CORD/ODM’s allegations that the last results were flawed, paving the way to a new election, the country would be in a much more dangerous phase, with the risk of violence high.

Kenyatta won over Raila by a huge margin. The majority has spoken loud and clear.  To what extent irregularities over the campaign period and the actual vote counting have occurred will now never be verified.

The violence so much feared and anticipated by the rest of the world hasn’t happened and for this Kenyans have to be applauded loudly. I now wish this special country a bright future as it slides on the rails of a possibly, prosperous tomorrow.


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In Isiolo, northern Kenya, following up on some personal work. 

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