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.