Our OCHA Kenya colleague leaves us in Mwingi to return to Nairobi. Now it's just me and the driver, heading to the Eastern Province capital Embu, past the lush fields of Meru, on the windward side of Mt Kenya. Our destination is Isiolo, about 50km from Meru; we arrive late in the afternoon.
Dusty Isiolo Town has seen better days. Formerly famed hotels are rundown with warnings everywhere about the risk of theft. There has also been tension in the town, with ethnic targeted attacks rising, mainly between the Somali, Borana and Turkana communities.
The Isiolo drought management officer, Paul Kimeu, says insecurity is a growing threat. Banditry is on the rise, as is conflict over water and pasture. The drought, he says, was characterized by conflict.
We have just missed a UN World Food Programme (WFP) team that has gone to Samburu in the northwest; they will be there for a couple of days, so we plan to go on to the main town of the region, Maralal, the next morning. We will go to Marsabit later.
We reckon that being with the field-based WFP team will help us get deeper inside the district and better interviews with residents. Having extra armed security escorts can't harm either after the news of rampant banditry.
On the one hand, we are warned that the escorts may make our travel even riskier: "The bandits will shoot indiscriminately to steal the guns from the escorts," we are told. On the other, "The escorts are a useful deterrent in case of attack because really, they are not there to protect you." Keeping the escorts is a better bet seeing that we still risk getting attacked either way. It is also compulsory.
Our northern Kenya-based stringer will be joining us for the period we will be in Samburu. The more the merrier, we suppose, as we head to "bandit country".
Just a few kilometres out of Isiolo, the road changes from tarmac to dirt, and with it the general feel of the area. There are few houses in the plains and the main business is charcoal selling. About 35 kilometres later, we get to the Archers Post area from where Samburu looms large.
Our security escorts suddenly slow to a stop, the area we are now crossing is dangerous, they say. Our driver is advised to stick close to the security escort car. The mood changes as the driver navigates the rocky stretch of road enveloped by a great landscape of rock formations and rolling hills; but we are not focused on the view at that moment. We are of different faiths in the car, but I can bet that everyone is whispering a silent prayer.
You only die once, our stringer jokes. Not funny.
In Isiolo we had been told that just a week earlier a government car ferrying exam papers was shot at by bandits. Apparently, the bandits thought the car was ferrying cash to pay national census officials. The occupants remain in critical condition.
After about an hour of weaving and winding and meeting a couple of tourist vans, we approach the historic town of Maralal. Samburu is home to some of the best preserved national parks in Kenya, with a rich diversity of wildlife as most of the land remains untouched.
Maralal is a quiet and cool town, famed for having links to Kenya's freedom struggle. The first president, Jomo Kenyatta, lived in the town before independence in 1963.
Accommodation is clean and cheap, the hotel service homely, the waiters courteous. At dinner that night, I am anxious and can barely eat my food. The waiter is concerned there might be a problem with the food. I lie: "I asked for stewed meat not fried." He apologises and brings me another plate of meat; I have to eat under his watchful eye. I go to bed bloated. Tomorrow, we explore Samburu.
Waiting for the whistle
Samburu is indeed a land of contrasts, better described as the land of hills and a valley. The main Kirisia and Mathew ranges are productive, suitable for large-scale wheat and other cereal farming. The valley is much drier.
But despite this potential, thousands of people are going hungry and have to rely on WFP and government food aid. Insecurity has also affected livestock trade in the area, according to residents who can barely make it to the market without risking a bandit attack.
Together with the WFP team, we visit some primary schools; enrolment has been driven up in the area thanks to WFP's School Feeding Programme (SFP). The children carry with them a bottle of water each every morning to help cook the WFP-provided food.
The school at the Ciambu area of Ngano, Swahili for wheat, stands out for me. It is in the fertile Kirisia hills but still depends on the SFP. Insecurity is rife, stopping residents from working their land from time to time. Enrolment at the school depends on the state of security, the headmaster tells us as we watch the children enjoy a game of football, oblivious to the constant threat.
The situation is constantly in flux, the headmaster says. "We keep waiting to hear the whistle blow, warning us of the presence of bandits," he says adding that this has affected the retention of teachers at the school. He is the fourth headmaster in about five years.
Once the bandits have raided other parts of Samburu, they drive the herds through the area of Ngano.
"If there were security here, we would be able to feed the children and not rely on food aid," he said.
Land of hills
Our visit to Samburu has been a success, I feel, as we leave Maralal with the WFP team. They are heading back to Isiolo, while we will be proceeding north to Marsabit. Our stringer is going to join the Isiolo-bound team.
The road is now familiar but just as we are about to head out of Samburu we receive some rather unnerving news. A water truck that had left Maralal before us is speeding back: "Tumewaona hao wanaochinja watu [we have seen the killers]," they say.
Some bandits have been spotted along the road but we have already come too far to turn back. We stop for a while, and organize to have one security escort car go ahead of the WFP car at the front while the second one drives close behind our car.
All is quiet inside our car; every 100m or so, we see morans (warriors) emerging from the bushes only to slink back again. We gather these must be the bandits who target travellers. Today is especially bad, being a market day, a favourite for the robbers.
Urged on by our convoy, the water truck reverses and follows us from a distance. We safely make the crossing past the "black spot".
At the Isiolo, Marsabit, Samburu junction, we part company with the WFP team and our stringer, and head to Marsabit in the company of our lone security escort vehicle.
The countless hills on the road to Marsabit are quite a sight. There has been a bit of rain and a few herders are watering their animals at the pools by the roadside.
We pass by the town of Merille where our security colleagues break for lunch. The goat meat looks very tempting but my colleague and I are afraid of a stomach bug, which would really upset the journey.
Merille has been in the throes of a cholera outbreak. The town of Laisamis farther north had also been affected.
Being a Saturday, there is not much to do in Marsabit so we decide to proceed on to Moyale tomorrow. What better way to spend a Sunday!
Accommodation in Marsabit is limited; we stay at one of the best hotels. All the top UN officials who visit Marsabit stay here, we are told. We cannot complain, at least I get the "VIP" room, the one with some air circulation in it. My colleague is not as fortunate.