What the Northern Forgotten District (NFD) lacks in infrastructure or amenities it makes up for in diversity and complexity. Our crisscrossing and backtracking path took us through incredibly diverse lands. The grasslands were lush and seemed ready for animals to graze.The sandy plains were littered with small rocks and tough shrubbery and trees preparing for the next drought. The hills around Korr were covered with sand, rocks, and tough plants with an ever-present wind to keep things cool. The top of Mount Kulal was protected dense forest and, when I saw it, was regularly hidden by a cloud. Not far from the shadows of Mount Kulal was Lake Turkana, the Jade Lake. I was told that Lake Turkana, an alkaline lake filled with fish and crocodiles, is the largest desert lake in the world (though a soon to be constructed dam in Ethiopia will change this). Its shores were surrounded by volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes with the random and rare shrub or tree. Not far inland was an oasis – a natural spring surrounded by grasses and palm trees.
Grasslands, forests, an oasis and a lake – not exactly the classic images of a desert, but remember that I was also journeying in the midst of the longest and heaviest rainy season in the last 20 or 30 years. The Chalbi Desert, just north of where we were, was not crossable because parts were flooded.
Nearly everyone who lives in the NFD is a pastoralist. The primary exceptions are the few fishermen along Lake Turkana. The tribes of the region include the El Molo, Borana, Gabru, Ariael, Turkana, Samburu and the Rendille. Could I tell you how to distinguish one tribe from another or where to find each? No. I was told much of this, but my small brain can only handle so much at one time. I can tell you that the Turkana are slowly moving into lands held by other tribes.
It seemed that all the moran, or warriors (aged mid-teen to late 30’s, these men were not married), of the tribes wore brightly colored wraps and as many necklaces, bracelets and rings as I have in my entire collection. Then there were the headdress that often included small plastic flowers and feathers. They stuck out like peacocks against the children, women, and elders. I would not mess with these moran and their sticks, knives, and machetes. But I was told that the Turkana warriors are not so brightly adorned. Is this one way they win battles?
These tribes traditionally walk long distances from watering spots to grazing land. Cows, sheep, goat, donkeys, and camels cover these distances with their herdsmen and moran – sometimes as much as 3 days each direction – week after week. And that distance is critical. Some boreholes have been drilled in some of the good grazing land. This took away what seemed to be a water problem… and the nomadic communities moved the area. Then, in a classic act of the tragedy of the commons, the land was overgrazed. When arid or desert lands are overgrazed it is difficult, sometimes impossible, for the land to recover. A short-sighted solution is now part of the problem.
As we left Korr for the last time children, mostly boys, who were in secondary school were trying to find rides out of town to get back to school after the holidays. These lucky children each represented families working hard and selling animals to keep a them in school – particularly past an elementary education. There is the hope that these children will find jobs in the cities and support their families by sending money home. Charles, one of the men working on the FH water project I was visiting, was one such case. He went through school and has returned to help his family – both financially and through development. It does happen, but it is rare. Many more are forever lost to the cities fighting for the available jobs, which never seem to be enough to go around.
And so I wonder about false hope. Why do children have to buy and wear drab school uniforms and leave their traditional dress behind? What does a primary school education teach a child if he does not continue and leave the village for a city job? It seems that traditional math, english, and science could be transformed into basic husbandry, marketing, and business – an education that could help each become more successful in their current life. Which makes me wonder if education is always valuable.
I do not have an answer to any of the complexities of this region (I have talked about just a few of them here), and I know that what seem like simple, obvious answers are often blind to the complexities. What this journey has left me with is an appreciation and respect for the families who live in the NFD. This is not to gloss over and idealize their culture or lifestyle – it is hard and difficult, and there are cultural practices that I could not adopt. But these people have survived for centuries, and they and the land live on. I also have a deep respect for my colleagues at FH who work in this region. Simply getting from one location to another is difficult, much less trying to find a solution that can not only be sustained by communities, but also that is environmentally sustainable. It is a system of give and take and much conversation. It is slow going.
I hope to return to the NFD by Land Rover in the future. This year I will likely fly over the land and visit some of the communities we never made it to. But there is something wonderful and alluring about traveling wide open spaces by car that provides a respect and an understanding of the land that is missed by plane. This was a grand journey and I hope for more in the future.