The northeast

AS A COUPLE
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Travel in northeastern Kenya has a special quality. For much of the time, the normal stimuli – passing scenery, animals, people and fleetingly witnessed events – are replaced with a massive open sky, shimmering greenish-brown earth, and, just occasionally, a speck of movement. It might be some camels, a pair of ostriches, or perhaps a family moving somewhere with their donkeys. It’s a sparse, absorbingly simple landscape, and not the least of its attractions is the restful absence of hassle and shove, and a solitude hardly found anywhere else.

Garissa

Some 390km east of Nairobi, on the route to Somalia, GARISSA is the capital of Garissa County, sprawling out widely across the plains, east of the bridge across the Tana River. Garissa used to be the furthest east you could safely go towards Somalia, but several terrorist attacks attributed to Al-Shabaab took place in 2015 – including one on Garissa University College in which at least 148 people were killed – and the town now falls into the off-limits “orange zone” (see Safety warning – travel in the northeast).

Isiolo

ISIOLO – the northeast’s most important town and the hub for travel to Marsabit and Moyale – is a frontier in every respect. The Somali influence here is noticeable everywhere in the northeast, and Isiolo is one of their most important towns in Kenya. It was here that many veteran Somali soldiers from World War I were settled: having been recruited in Aden and Kismayu, they gave up their nomadic lifestyle to become livestock dealers and retail traders.

The town is a real cultural kaleidoscope, with Boran, Meru, Samburu and some Turkana inhabitants, as well as the Somalis. To someone newly arrived from Nanyuki or Meru, the upland towns seem ordinary in comparison. Women from the irrigated shambas around Isiolo sell cabbages, tomatoes and carrots in the busy market; cattle owners, nomadic camel traders and merchants exchange greetings and the latest news from Nairobi and Moyale; in the livestock market, goats scamper through the alleys, while hawkers stroll along the road raising their Somali swords and strings of bangles to the minibuses heading up to reserves. And, in the shade, energetic miraa-chewing and hanging around are the major occupations. Miraa has a long history in Somali culture; the Nyambeni Hills, where most of the Kenyan crop is grown, are just 30km away.

Isiolo is lively, welcoming and relatively safe, with new solar-powered streetlights brightening it up at night, though when the tourist season is in full swing, with vehicles driving through to Samburu and the other reserves, it can seem as if you can’t take a step here without being approached to buy something. If you’re staying the night it’s worth getting up early enough to have a chance of seeing the distinctive silhouette of Mount Kenya rising directly above the main A2 highway through town, 60km to the south.

Marsabit

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

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 wildlife sightings. This is a rewarding park, but one where 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), you’re reasonably likely to see some of the long-tusked Marsabit elephants – head to Gof Sokorte Guda (Lake Paradise) at sunset for the best chance. The elephants are 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 an amazing array of birds: 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

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.

To Moyale and Ethiopia

From Marsabit, the journey to Moyale, which straddles the Ethiopian border, takes upwards of eight hours, depending on the vehicle. For the first three of these you descend from the mountain’s greenery past spectacular craters – Gof Choba is the whopper on the left – to the forbidding black moonscape of the Dida Galgalu Desert. Dida Galgalu means “plains of darkness”, according to one old story told by Boran pastoralists. Another account derives it from Galgalu, a woman buried here after she died of thirst trying to cross it. The road arrows north for endless kilometres, then cuts east across watercourses and through bushier country beneath high crags on the Ethiopian frontier. En route, you pass the turning to the small village of Sololo on the Ethiopian border, arrestingly sited between soaring peaks that can be climbed for stunning views over the northern plains and Ethiopian highlands.

There are some magnificent, towering termite mounds along the northern part of the route. They’re a sight that seems quintessentially African, yet one that can quickly be taken for granted, like leafless trees in a northern winter. As the kilometres roll away, the 250km from Marsabit to Moyale is resolved in just a few bends and a couple of minor scenery changes. Over distances that would take days to cover on foot you can see where you have been and where you are going – a still, vast landscape seemingly echoed in the pastoralists’ conservatism.

Towards the end of the journey, the road bends south, then doubles north again and winds up through the settlements of Burji farmers – an agricultural people who emigrated from Ethiopia early in the twentieth century (see Peoples of the northeast) – past their beautifully sculpted houses and sparse fields, to Moyale.

Moyale

Straddling the Ethiopian border, MOYALE makes Marsabit look like a metropolis. Though the town is growing rapidly, the centre is small enough to walk around in fifteen minutes. You’ll find several sandy streets, a pretty mosque, a few dukas, a bar, a camel-tethering ground, two petrol stations (one of which occasionally belies its defunct appearance), a big police station, a fairly large market area, two banks with ATMs, and an incredibly slow post office. Moyale is not much to write home about in fact, and there’s not a lot to do except wander around, perhaps try some camel milk (very rich and creamy) and pass the time of day with everyone else, with or without the aid of miraa, universally popular in the northeast.

The most interesting aspect of Moyale is its architecture – at least, the good number of traditionally built houses that are still standing. The Boran build in several styles, including circular mud-and-thatch huts, but in town the houses are rectangular, made of mud and dung on a wood frame, with a flat or slightly tilted roof projecting 1–2m to form a porch, supported by sturdy posts and tree trunks. The roof is up to 50cm thick, a fantastic accretion of dried mud, sticks, scrap and vegetation. Chickens and goats get up there, improving the roof’s fertility, and every time it rains another layer of insulating herbage springs up. As a result, the houses are cool while the outside temperature hovers above 30°C for most of the year.

Into Ethiopia

Even if you’re not intending to travel in Ethiopia (and if you haven’t got a visa already, you won’t be able to do so), the most interesting prospect in Moyale is to cross the valley into Kenya’s neighbouring state and spend a few hours there. For Kenyans and Ethiopians, the border is an open one. It used to be possible for foreigners wanting to have a short look around to be granted entry for a couple of hours without a passport, but heightened security means this is no longer generally permitted. You can still try to persuade the Ethiopian immigration officers that a quick visit to their country would make your day – but you’ll certainly have to leave your passport with them for safekeeping.

Ethiopian Moyale is larger than its Kenyan counterpart and somewhat more prosperous, with piped water, and a long-established electricity supply. In town, there are lots of simple stores, and plenty of eating places. You can pay for everything in Kenyan shillings. The market buzzes colourfully with camels and goats, piles of spices, flour and vegetables. Otherwise, life here seems much the same as over the border, but easier. As a back-door view of Ethiopia, however, it is no more representative than the other side of town is of Kenya.

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.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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