MARSABIT is a surprise. It’s hard to prepare yourself, after the flat dust lands, for this fascinating hill oasis – in the desert but not of it. Rising a thousand metres above the surrounding plains, Mount Marsabit, or Saku, as it is known by locals, is permanently green, well watered by the clouds that form and disperse over it in a daily cycle. The high forest is usually mist-covered until late morning, the trees a characteristic tangle of foliage and lianas.
The town is the capital of the largest administrative district in the country, as well as a major meat- and livestock-trading centre, its rough roads either dusty or churned with mud. Small and intimate in feel, the lively cultural mix in the main market area is the biggest buzz: transient Gabbra herdsmen and Boran with their prized short-horn cattle, women in the printed shawls and chiffon wraps of Somali costume rubbing elbows with ochre-daubed Rendille wearing skins, high stacks of beads and wire, and fantastic braided hairstyles. There are government workers here, too, from other parts of Kenya, and a scattering of Ethiopian immigrants (mainly Burji) and refugees. For some Marsabit background, try Mude Dae Mude’s novel The Hills are Falling (1979), now out of print, but you might still find a copy in Nairobi.
Marsabit National Park
Marsabit National Park
Having made the long journey to Marsabit, you’ll certainly want to get into Marsabit National Park. The forest is wild and dense and the two crater lakes idyllically beautiful, although between the nearly impenetrable forests of the peaks and the stony scrub desert at the base of the mountain, you’ll need a little luck for sightings. This is a rewarding park, but one where you have to look hard and your animal count will very much depend on the season of your visit. Good rains can encourage the grazers off the mountain and out into the temporarily lush desert, and predators will follow.
Except during the long rains (March to June), there’s a good chance you’ll see some of the long-tusked Marsabit elephants, relatives of the park’s former inhabitant, the famous Ahmed – a particularly huge and well-endowed “big tusker” to whom Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta gave “presidential protection” after seeing him, with elephant guards tracking him day and night – ironically, since Kenyatta’s family were implicated in some of Kenya’s biggest ivory smuggling scandals. Ahmed is, nonetheless, impressively replicated in fibreglass in the National Museum in Nairobi. His replacement, Mohammed, whose tusks were estimated at a cool 45kg each, has also gone to the elephant’s graveyard. Elephants are tremendous wanderers, sometimes strolling into town, causing pandemonium. More problematically, the people of Marsabit have been encouraged to cultivate around the base of the mountain, thus creating a barrier to the elephants’ free movement and unintentionally providing them with free lunches.
As well as big tuskers, the park is renowned for its greater kudu, and there’s a wide range of other wildlife, plus amazing birdlife: almost four hundred species have been recorded, including 52 different birds of prey. Very rare lammergeiers (bearded vultures) are thought to nest on the sheer cliffs of Gof Bongole, the largest crater, which has a driveable track around its 10km rim. Marsabit is also something of a snake sanctuary, with some very large cobras – this isn’t a place to go barefoot or in sandals.
Peoples of the northeast
Peoples of the northeast
Identities in the northeast can be confusing to foreigners. The largest group are the Boran, part of the Oromo peoples (formerly called Galla, an Amhara term of abuse), whose homeland was near the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia, from where they suddenly exploded out, in all directions, in the sixteenth century. The pastoral Boran developed and flourished in what is now southern Ethiopia, but Menelik’s conquest of the area and the oppressive Amhara regime caused some of them to move down to the lowlands of northern Kenya, a much less suitable region for their cattle. The first Boran arrived in Marsabit only in 1921.
Similarly, the Burji are recent Ethiopian immigrants to the region between Marsabit and Moyale – an agricultural people who were encouraged to move south by colonial administrators in the 1930s who wanted more crops grown in the district. The Burji took quickly to Western education and trade, and as a result dominated Marsabit politically in the first decade after independence. There’s traditionally little love lost between the nomadic Boran and the settled Burji.
At around the time of the Oromo expansion, another group of people – the forefathers of the Gabbra – arrived in northern Kenya, causing havoc in the region, only to be themselves pressured by the ensuing expansion of Muslim Somalis from the east. The ancestors of the Gabbra became “Boranized” to the extent that they changed their language and adopted Boran customs. Although most Boran and Gabbra, especially those who adopted a more sedentary life, have adopted Somali styles in dress and culture, they eschew Islam, preferring their own religions.
The Rendille, whose homeland is to the northwest of Marsabit, look and act like Samburu, with whom they are frequently allied; they speak a language close to Somali but have non-Muslim religious beliefs. They normally herd camels rather than cattle and, to a great extent, continue to roam the deserts, facing the prospect of settling down without any enthusiasm at all and visiting Marsabit only for vital needs or a brief holiday.
In Marsabit itself, distinctions other than superficial ones were becoming increasingly hard to apply by the 1990s, as people intermarried, sent more children to school, and absorbed new ideas from Nairobi – and from Christian missionaries. Still, language and religious beliefs remain significant in deciding who does what and with whom. Outside the town individual tribal identities are as strong – and potentially bloody – as ever. Since the massacre in 2005 at Turbi (a remote village 150km north of Marsabit), when Boran warriors attacked Gabbra villagers during a flare-up of customary inter-tribal cattle rustling, and killed sixty people, Marsabit has seen a deep chill in relations between the different peoples.