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February 17, 2019

Oil Find Will Not Transform Lives In Turkana Overnight

Ngamia 1 oil exploration site in Lokichar,Turkana where Tullow Block 10BB has discovered oil deposits Photo/Joseph Kariuki
Ngamia 1 oil exploration site in Lokichar,Turkana where Tullow Block 10BB has discovered oil deposits Photo/Joseph Kariuki

I’m a sucker for magazines (I’ve got a bit of a deal going on with the news agent at Westgate to set aside the Sunday Times for me every week. I pre-pay, too. I’m that desperate for some regular, old-school, properly produced weekend magazines with a minimum of how to get him to propose/raise your child/catch him cheating stories, inspirational columns, and no curved niches or gun-totting policemen ever). So I was quite excited to discover new Aeon Magazine (, which looks very promising: the first two features I read, one by Chika Unigwe on the difficulties of migration, and one by Peter Guest on Turkana and the impact of oil exploration, were both excellent, and I’m looking forward to reading a lot more.

Guest’s article on Turkana took me away from what I usually do: Sitting in front of a computer, looking at economic issues in terms of data, maps, abstract concepts, legislation. He starts out in Lokichar, ‘a one-street frontier town of dust-scarred butcher shops and general stores. The settlement straddles a single shattered highway that runs through Turkana, Kenya’s northernmost region, from the provincial capital of Lodwar, over a flat scrub of semi-desert split by dry river beds and twisted funnels of volcanic rock. The highway runs all the way to the giant camps at Lokichoggio, the refugee capital of East Africa.’

The article was a useful reminder on the setting in which part of Kenya’s oil exploration takes place – what hides behind the shorthand of ‘marginalised areas’ and ‘pastoralists’. There is very little infrastructure in that region, but northern Kenya has clearly become interesting enough for exploration firms to not worry about the costs of circumventing this: They will just ship up whatever they need, from massive equipment down to sandwiches. I understand from a friend who was there for work that Lokichar isn’t Fine Dining Central: ‘Let it be known that the beans in the Mashaallah Cafe in Lokichar are the worst I've tasted. Their chapatis are ok and tea very fine.’

This is possibly a matter of perspective: A while ago, I was stuck in Friday evening rush hour traffic with a South African investment banker. Not the most fun thing at the best of times (the rush hour, I mean – the banker was perfectly lovely). But it was made infinitely worse by crazy amounts of rainfall. Traffic just stopped, drains flooded, roads turned into lakes, and fountains rose out of drains. Not ideal. I was livid, but South African investment banker was keen: ‘Those are all opportunities!’

So it’s with Turkana, I guess: Maybe it’s a bit of an issue if you can’t get good sandwiches, but on the other hand, if you are a good sandwich maker and you anticipate that enough oil exploration folks will want a good sandwich reasonably regularly, then there’s your opportunity. Aside from catering, there are a lot of other services that are needed by the exploration industry.

But so far, very little of this exists. Guest writes at the beginning of his article: ‘Along the roadside, herds of cattle, goats, camels and donkeys pick through bare acacia trees, watched by Turkana pastoralists — tall, thin men in crimson blankets with shepherd’s crooks. Many have an AK-47 slung over one shoulder. Somewhere out in the dark hills, across the plain, is the loose and ill-defined border between the local Turkana and their neighbours, the Pokot. The two Nilotic cultures have been engaged for centuries in cattle raids that ebbed and flowed until a few years ago when a sudden influx of small arms across the porous borders with Uganda, Ethiopia and South Sudan allowed the conflict to escalate.’

This means that overall economic activity is restricted in its scope: ‘The real commercial heart of the county is, for the time being, the central market. Livestock in Turkana is currency. From a young age, boys move the animals huge distances across the land from pasture to pasture.’ Survival in this environment takes skill, endurance, and very specific knowledge – but little of that is of much use for the oil industry.

This is not to say that there are no professionals from these communities – but in overall numbers, as a percentage of the population, they are likely to be much smaller. Tullow Oil have launched a scholarship programme for the countries they work in to help build oil-sector specific local expertise, but these are university scholarships, and will take years to produce results. And they will necessarily only affect a minority. In the meantime, expectations of the benefits of the new oil industry are enormous – and often unrealistic. ‘Immigrants’ from other areas in Kenya with a more suitable skill profile are bound to pick up the more complex, lucrative contracts and business opportunities. And despite lofty promises, the Kenyan government’s deeply entrenched corruption has been a massive obstacle in using public funds to create local institutions and infrastructure. Whether this will change substantially under the new county government is far from clear. What’s left for the Turkana – driver, guard, maybe community co-ordinator positions?

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