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In Turkana, things are changing

Confronted by multiple challenges and long-term marginalisation, people in Turkana are not just waiting for the government and NGOs – they are taking charge of their lives.

They say necessity is a mother of invention and that human beings faced with challenges will tap into their inner strength and knowhow, reinventing themselves so as to survive or even thrive with the changing dynamics.

Recently I travelled to Turkana, a place at Kenya’s border with Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda. So isolated is this place that the residents here don’t really feel a part of Kenya – the disconnect is so bad that in conversations you will hear people referring to a journey to the nation’s capital, Nairobi, as “going to Kenya.”

Life expectancy here is 46 years, with constant challenges such as conflict (as a result of cattle rustling with the neighboring communities), drought and scarcity of food. But all is not lost and things are now changing in Turkana.

A community in Turkana. Photo: Fran Equiza/Oxfam
A community in Turkana

Many of the region’s approximately 840,000 people – 95 percent living below the poverty line – are now looking for alternative sources of livelihoods to supplement their age-old tradition of pastoralism, which is under threat due to long dry spells and lack of enough pasture for their animals. Many Turkana people are now getting involved in small-scale farming and fishing, which not only provides supplementary food for their families but also generates additional income.

When I spoke to Albat Hamisi, a pastoralist turned Aloe farmer, it was quite evident that times are changing.

“I have moved from being just a pastoralist to growing Aloe Vera as a business. I harvest the produce and from it I make products such as Aloe juice, which adds value to my newfound source of income. I have now diversified, I no longer depend on my animals as the only source of income, and I’m more resilient. Before I only had livestock. Now I’m better prepared for the rough times to come,” Albat told me. He explained that he made a “mind shift” by identifying what he was capable of doing. This has indeed enabled him to deal with the changes in his region – most of which are beyond his control.

It’s not only the men who are looking for means and ways to adapt. During my visit I came across women who are doing something for themselves and for the greater good of the community.

I met Elizabeth Lokaut who is part of a women’s group that has created a Savings and Loans scheme. With this scheme, women are able to save and borrow money at a low interest. The women’s group also provides a platform for them to discuss and share important issues affecting their community. This has exposed the women to different ideas, opening up their minds to think differently while appreciating their customs and culture.

As Elizabeth explains, “I am now more aware and understand better the importance of animal vaccination in fighting diseases. The savings and loans have also given us opportunities to access finances easily whenever we need to. I feel now more conscious of my own power in my community and what I can contribute!”

The other thing that captured my attention, as always, was the strong interest parents have in sending their children to school. It is obvious that they do realise the importance of education – though the levels of enrolment are still quite low. Primary school enrolment is at 42 percent, and mainly boys’ and adult literacy is at 27 percent … I’m sure that with time this is bound to change significantly as they embrace new ways of managing change.

In my opinion, Turkana is awakening…and this is a fact we all have to appreciate. The various challenges have actually got the communities to think of other means and ways to cope. All those I met, heard and saw impressed me. In Turkana, they are not just sitting waiting for the government or some NGOs to come to their rescue – they are taking charge of their lives and working hard to change the narrative of poverty and food scarcity to one of prosperity and hope.

Tweeting from Turkana

This was originally posted at Beyond the Tribe and on the Spanish newspaper website El Pais

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Written by Fran Equiza

Fran is Oxfam GB's Regional Director for the Horn, East and Central Africa. He's based in Nairobi and arrived in late 2010, after previously managing Oxfam GB programmes in Latin America

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