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At the Jade Sea

November 7, 2009

Over a much-needed, late breakfast, we tell the two other priests living there a little about the journey and I confess that with the fuel situation, I feared we wouldn’t make it at all. “The light came on at the village?” Father Andrew Ndirangu, checks. “You shouldn’t have been able to drive further than 10 kilometres like that, and Loyangalani is 35 kilometres. The Lord was working miracles,” he concludes.

We didn’t even realise we had so little fuel, I explain, because the dial on the second tank read nearly one-quarter full.

Ah, the revelation! The fuel-warning light comes on and stays on once the first tank is empty, no matter how much is in the second tank, Andrew says. We had enough fuel to get here all along and I had been worrying over nothing.

The priests disappear after breakfast for fatherly duties, and Nick and I wander around the mission. It’s set in a cool, shady courtyard with trees and well-tended flowers. An outbuilding at the back contains hammocks and a television, powered by solar panels and a wind turbine. It’s cool and breezy here because unlike the main concrete building, it’s made using local materials like a larger version of the stick and palm huts. Rounding a palm grove, we come across the mission’s swimming pool! It’s heated naturally from the volcanic spring water and I remove my shoes and jump in fully clothed. We float around and let the past days’ journey and mud wash off us. The mud proves more tenacious and the hours spent digging our car out of the river have stained my shirt and trousers terracotta. It takes a lot of scrubbing, but I wash the worst out, lay my clothes on a rock to dry in minutes, and then bathe luxuriously.

After lunch, we wander around the town, which is 80% peopled by Turkana, with some Somalis, who are the businessmen here, some Samburu and a few other tribal groups. People are generally friendly, beautifully decorated, the women wearing elaborate beaded necklace collars, and there is a lot of red about – the Turkanas’ favourite colour. The recent cholera epidemic is contained here now, but the priests still distribute antibiotics and the much-needed food parcels here and to the outlying villages.

The mission has built a number of schools here and in local villages, and is trying to educate girls in particular, knowing that an educated woman ensures that her children attend school. One way they try to encourage attendance is by providing at least one free meal to every child. Many girls can’t attend, because their parents won’t let them, fearing that they will get pregnant at school or worse, be too educated for marriage, jeopardising a dowry. The mission runs evening classes for married girls, some as young as 10, where there is also a free meal, but it’s difficult for many women to attend.

I am generally fairly sceptical about the benefits of education projects in places like this – it seems to me that a Euro-centric concept of education, where kids are removed from traditional learning environments, where they attain skills in, say animal husbandry or farming, to teach them outdated, inane passages from a tired textbook on subjects that bear no relevance to their lives, is socially and individually damaging. It equips young people for a life in urban slums and shanty towns, even if a tiny few may make it into a rewarding profession. Anyway, I’ve written about this before. The point is, that here, by the shores of Lake Turkana, I feel the opposite. These people lead such very hard lives, and it feels as if I am watching the beginnings of the end of a way of life that goes back centuries.

The nomadic pastoralist lifestyle is surely coming to an end. The people here do not think so, they tell me that there has always been drought and that the rains will come and it will be better. But for how long can this arid land sustain this growing number of people? Drought is becoming more frequent, rains rarer and less reliable, the lake is shrinking, the earth becoming saltier, and the people more. The Kenyan population, more than half of whom are children, has doubled in the past 20 years, even if HIV has slowed its growth recently.

So, I think anything that helps prepare people for a different lifestyle, empowers women and gives them an opportunity for another livelihood has got to be a good thing. Turkana children who learn to read and write here are much less likely to be married before they are 20, are more likely to earn something for the family and are more likely to have children who wash their hands. Once educated, Turkanas have found jobs as nurses, teachers, mechanics, in the army and business. But a girl who is educated will be worth less for a dowry, so resistance is strong.

I meet Isabella, who speaks excellent English and went to secondary school for two years until she could no longer afford it (only primary school is free in Kenya). She is 20 and has two small children. She practices her English with us for a short time, until we are hassled by two boys who say that they were extras in the Constant Gardener film, which was shot here, and for a tidy sum, they will show us a place where it was filmed. We decline, but they persist in following us and telling us that people will throw rocks at us if they do not accompany us, until we feel so harangued that we return to the mission to escape.

Back at the mission, Fabio is fixing the spare part he collected in Isiolo to his LandRover. He crawls out from under the car and tells us that the widows are going fishing, if we want to join them. We bundle into the car with the widows in the back and a couple of kids and set off for the lake. These are women who have lost their husbands to tribal conflict and have to feed their kids somehow. “At first,” Fabio says, “they would come to the mission everyday and beg for food, So we decided to give them fishing nets and teach them how to fish.”

It was a shaky start – women just don’t fish in Turkana culture. It is considered beneath men to fish, and the refuge of the desperate, but woman are just too weak and stupid to carry out something as complicated as fishing. But, with a few false starts, it turned out that not only were the women more than capable of fishing, but that they were producing surplus to their needs. They stopped begging from the mission, and instead came for advice on how to sell their fish. They are now making a nice earning selling their fish to punters in Lake Victoria.

When I point out that it all sounds a bit like selling coals to Newcastle – in Lake Victoria, surely they have enough fish? Fabio tells me that Turkana fish is prized because Victoria fish is for export and it’s much more expensive than Turkana fish. That’s the market for you. The fish is dried and salted and taken to a holding shed, where it waits for the weekly truck that travels down from Ethiopia to Lake Victoria, via the village.

Our car, full of singing Turkanas once more, makes a bumpy journey down to the shore over boulders that seem insurmountable. Fishing with the widows is postponed, because when we get to the lake it turns out that the nets are all broken from crocodiles attacks. The lake, which is 200 kilometres by 40 kilometres, is home to crocs, hippos, flamingos, pelicans and more. But the widows, who range in age from 16 to 35, lose no time in stripping off and going into the lake for a swim. They splash Fabio and Nick mercilessly – I decide the water is far too cold for a swim – and then we head back to the mission, where Father Andrew is disappointed in our lack of catch.

No matter, we still have telapia for dinner, and it’s delicious. While the Turkana locals eat only meat, milk and blood – they pierce and artery in a goat’s neck and drain it into a cup before pinching the vessel closed until it clots into a seal – there are fruits and vegetables at the mission brought from the outskirts of Nairobi. The local people don’t even eat cheese “because it is like soap”.

Andrew professes that tilapia is the only fish one can eat in Kenya, because the fish in Victoria is exported. I point out that Mombasa and the rest of the coast provide a lot of fish.” Oh but that is fish from the sea. It is not good to eat,” he replies. I ask him what is wrong with it, and he says that it comes from the sea so it is salty. I point out that the fish from Turkana is dried and salted.

Then he says ominously: “Some fish in the sea have both eyes on one side of their head.” And that ends the matter.

The next day, we have to return to Nairobi, because Fabio has decided that the short route (which e took on the way up) is too dangerous because of the tribal tensions, so we must go a longer route back and he needs to pick up his sister from Nairobi airport in a couple of days. We will make the journey in two stages, though, and start after lunch, Fabio says.

It is Sunday today, so we must go to the next village, so Fabio can do mass in the church there. The village belongs to the smallest tribe in Kenya, the El Moro, who number about 50, although many have intermarried with Samburu, so it’s hard to know whether there are any ‘true’ El Moro left. This is one of the only fishing tribes in Kenya – the men take log rafts and boats out and pull in fish that can be as much as 100 kilos in weight, like Nile perch. Like the widows of Loyangalani, they dry and salt the fish for sale in Lake Victoria. All the transactions can be made using m-Pesa, by mobile phone. I even catch site of one warrior, who has a solar-powered mobile in his hand. And one of the straw huts in the village has two solar panels on its roof.

Mass is conducted with much beautiful, harmonious singing, wafting of incense and plenty of curious glances our way. Fabio introduces us at the end and we talk to a few people, using him as a translator. The children here, and adults, have deformed bones and teeth. Fabio thinks it is because they are drinking water straight from the lake. It could be that one of the minerals dissolved in the water is preventing the people here from absorbing calcium, I say.

Child mortality is high here. Women have 6 or 7 children and losing a child is normal and an accepted part of life, we are told. Nick draws out a diagram of a simple distillation system that would enable them to purify the lake water. It involves digging a lined pit with a small container placed within. Over the top is sheet of plastic, held in place with stones, and weighted in the middle, over the container, with a stone. Water poured into the pit will evaporate as the sun heats the plastic, condense onto the underside of the sheet and then drip down into the container because of the depression made by the stone.

Fabio, asks lots of questions and shows a woman from the village. Together, they pore over his drawing. We will try it, they say.

We return to the mission for lunch, which Fabio misses, because he is again under the LandRover, fixing it before our journey south.

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