The area has experienced successive periods of failed rains and is constantly grappling with perennial drought. This has increased residents' vulnerability and their dependence on food aid.
Since then, the rains have arrived, albeit erratically with unpredictable breaks; despite a good start to the rains in late October 2009, November was largely characterized by lengthy dry spells.
Livestock, the mainstay in the region, were affected by the sudden arrival of the rains after a long dry spell leading to numerous deaths.
In some northeastern parts, the rains have led to improved pasture for the livestock as well as lowered the price of milk, but in the northwestern region, in areas such as Turkana, residents now have to deal with the effects of flash flooding, after the drought, and a cholera outbreak.
According to experts, the impact of the drought in Northern Kenya was the most severe in recent years and recovery will take long despite the rains.
Hoping for rain
Conversation is light and easy; my colleague, the IRIN driver, and I are looking forward to visiting northeastern Kenya. I will be reporting on food security, and inter-communal conflict, which has been exacerbated by successive droughts. I also hope to write on the health issues in the region, where residents living far away from towns have limited access to medical care.
The first leg of our journey sees us head to the provincial capital, Garissa, about 380km northeast of Nairobi. To get there, we have to pass through Mwingi in eastern Kenya, which is about 200km east of Nairobi. The road to Mwingi is good save for a few pot-holed stretches at the Yatta area where we slow almost to a crawl.
A few farmers are tilling their small pieces of land hoping to take advantage of the short rains. Their anticipation is evident, heightened by the scent of wet earth after months without rain.
Past Mwingi, the vegetation thins - a tree here, scrubs there, sandy soil. Charcoal sacks are prominent by the roadsides.
There have been several days of erratic rains but the landscape remains parched. The land is denuded, with big gaping gullies opening on to the road. The temperature is about 30 degrees.
We meet a driver with the World Health Organization (WHO) office in Garissa in Ukasi, about 100km from our destination, Garissa Town. From Ukasi to Garissa, it is recommended that we take armed security escorts despite a marked drop in highway banditry in the northeast.
Our vehicle has its first puncture a stone's throw from Garissa Town. We proceed to the aptly named Nomad Hotel where a colleague at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA Kenya) booked us in for the night. We will be heading to Wajir, farther north, with him; he is assisting district officials with their El-Niño preparedness plans. The meteorological department has forecast El-Niño-enhanced short October to December rains and there is a sense of great expectation after successive droughts. In northern Kenya, rain can be a blessing and a curse, improving water and pasture, or causing flooding and disease.
With an evening to spare, we set up an interview with Hubbie Hussein Al-Haji, the co-director of a local NGO, WOMANKIND Kenya (WOKIKE), which provides leadership training to women and runs a sanctuary for girls at risk of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The practice is prevalent in the northeast, where it is deeply entrenched in the local culture, despite its harmful effects.
The distance from Garissa Town to Wajir Town is about 320km. If we leave Garissa by 9am, we figure it should take us and our escort vehicle about five hours at most to reach our destination; we are wrong.
The "road" is not tarmacked, and is cut off in parts by flash floods from a few days of rain, forcing our driver to make some clever detours into the scrubland. It's not surprising that we find many heavy trucks stuck in the mud. We are told they are transporting food supplies to Wajir and farther north in preparation for rains, which they fear will cut off the region from "Kenya" - it is not unusual to hear areas past the eastern town of Isiolo, heading north, being described as outside the country's borders.
Decades of political marginalization have left residents, mostly pastoralists, unable to access even the most basic services. Trekking long distances in search of drinking water is common, and security is non-existent in some parts, forcing residents to rely on home-guards. The sight of residents carrying guns is not unusual here. Schools are few and far between, the roads are as seasonal as the rivers.
Some of the trucks have been parked-up for days. We hear tales of passengers who have been stranded for much longer and have ended up eating the supplies they had travelled to Garissa to buy. Here, people travel with lots of water and few promises of meeting a deadline. Mobile telephone network connectivity is erratic at best. If stranded here, it can be a very long wait.
Despite the "horror" stories of the poor state of the road ahead, we are fortunate to arrive in Wajir without incident, albeit after sunset.
We check into what we are told is the best hotel in town; it is. It has a toilet that flushes, if you carefully hook a wire to the broken cistern. There is even a cold shower - we had been expecting a basin of water delivered at bath-time.
We feel lucky; most residents in Wajir still rely on bucket toilets, one of several sanitation challenges aggravated by a non-existent drainage and sewerage system. I remember a colleague recalling his school days there. Then, he said, there were DCs [dirt collectors] or more correctly, bucket emptiers, who would come to the school compound every evening. His classmate's father was a DC, an occupation the student found so embarrassing he had to change schools.
We spend the day holding interviews with NGO officials and a family in Wajir; we also manage to sit in on a meeting with local district officials organized by OCHA Kenya. It is informative and our network of contacts grows.
We head back to our hotel feeling we have achieved more than we had expected that day. My room is growing on me, especially after hearing of hotels in the town where strangers have to share - you pay for your bed and leave the door open, for complete strangers of either gender. Or you can opt not to use the mattress, and pay less. Some of the other inns rarely have visitors, judging by the frantic search for bedding whenever you attempt to make a booking.
We go to bed uncertain whether we will be proceeding northwest to Moyale or head southeast to Isiolo. We will go where the weather takes us and change our plans accordingly. It is quite difficult to stick to a plan in these parts: it rained the previous night in Isiolo and Moyale, rendering the roads impassable in some areas. We have to wait for morning to find out from the local police station whether a day of sun has made a difference to the roads. One of the police cars, we are told, was heading back to Wajir from Moyale this morning; we go to bed none the wiser.
Back to Garissa
In the morning we learn that we cannot travel directly to Moyale, about 280km farther north, nor to Isiolo; the roads are impassable after a few days of rain. Apparently, the road is cut off just 50km from Moyale. The road to Isiolo is out of the question too.
Our only option is to head back to Garissa, a day's drive, and make our way to Isiolo from there. It is a national holiday, a perfect day to travel, as we could not have done much work anyway. But we still stand to lose another day going to Isiolo from Garissa.
We quickly make telephone calls to arrange appointments in Garissa. The drive is uneventful, and we are "soon" back at the Nomad Hotel. We get better rooms this time, with hot showers.
I don't want the day to be entirely wasted so I convince a WHO official, Argata Guracha, to give me an interview on the health situation in the northeast.
From the interview, I learn that several factors conspire to make healthcare difficult to access in the region. The nomadic lifestyle of the people means they are far away from the few health facilities for long periods each year; poor infrastructure and proximity to porous international borders also make the spread of disease difficult to control.