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A forgotten people on a not so forgotten land: Travails of the Turkana living with oil on their land

I spent a week in Turkana. A most depressing week on the vast, parched and barren Turkana land. Arriving in Turkana, there are no illusions- it is a harsh place, intolerably hot with little vegetative cover. And yet, this land, most barren- yielded an oil resource that holds the potential to transform the lives of not just the Turkana, but the lives of many Kenyan citizens.

Tullow Oil, with government oversight, has been actively developing the project from as far back as 2012. The hubbub cannot be missed. There is a lot more vehicular traffic, there are secured and fenced off oil well pads and oil storage facilities. The communities themselves have reportedly also benefited from some physical infrastructure including some school blocks and health facilities. Besides, the oil project, there is a national government funded Chinese contractor developing road infrastructure, visible and active on the ground.

And yet, for all this activity, the community members across Turkana seem to have been left behind. Relegated to spectate while all these ‘developments’ take place all around them.

Talking to community members in Lokichar, Lochwaa, Nakukulas and Lokwamosing- it is as if time stood still for the Turkana. That if it moved, it moved with the rest of the world and left the Turkana behind. It seems communities, who have eked a living and thrived- for generations, on the difficult plains of Turkana, are caught in a time warp. For while there are many policy discussions on oil at national level, technical and complex discussions on revenue, land acquisition and local content- the community essentially remains stuck in 2012. A time when the conversations on the oil find were still nascent and only beginning.

The anxieties that the community members held in 2012 are the very same anxieties they still hold today. Will our land be acquired? Will we get compensation? Will we get jobs from the oil company? Will this resource be developed on our terms and with our participation? Will we be forgotten?

When oil was discovered in Turkana-those many years ago, it is likely that community anxieties were tinged with some hope, and dare I say- excitement. Hope that the oil discovery will bring with it development, jobs and better education and health. And yet, talking to some of the men and women in Turkana, this hope and excitement was not there. Extinguished.

The anxieties, however, remain and, if anything- have grown stronger. One man remarked that ‘we are like a carcass and vultures are circling to have their fill’.

The Turkana, in all their unity and diversity have not given up. They have not given up on themselves, their land, livestock and futures. A constant refrain we heard was that ‘we will die before we lose our land to the oil project’. They have certainly not lost their voice. They may, however, have all but given up on the oil project. It seems it is not something they are looking at to make their lives better. In one meeting, a woman remarked ‘I am surprised that we have all gathered to talk about the oil project and Tullow’. To her, she has long since moved past looking at the oil project as holding out any promise or benefit for her. She has resigned herself to the fact that nothing will ever come out of the oil project for her benefit. And who can fault her?

As I left Turkana’s sun-backed land, for the hustle and bustle of Nairobi- I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and grief. That cloud of grief that enveloped me has not let me go since. An image remains etched in my mind- what may have numbered more than a hundred women and men perched precariously on top of a water tank and all around it, jostling to access water with their distinct little yellow containers- after a delivery by water truck. While I was in Turkana, there were many reports of increased cattle raids by the Pokot.

That this community, grappling with the most basic of needs such as water and security- has been left to negotiate and engage with Tullow oil, with very little support, is a travesty.

In my mind, the Turkana oil project, like many oil projects across the world, is akin to a storm brewing, a gathering hurricane. And this hurricane may very well leave nothing in its wake except destruction, dispossession, discontent and disappointment. It may bring more loss than gain, even for this most resilient of peoples- who have thrived socially, economically and culturally over very many generations- on that very harsh land.

My sadness was that I have failed the Turkana.

Week in and week out in Nairobi and in foreign capitals, there are discussions about Kenya’s oil and discussions about the Turkana oil project. However, the Turkana people themselves, have largely been redacted from these conversations or at best remain footnotes. Many people are talking about the oil in very many conversations but it seems to me there are very few working with the Turkana to secure their rights.

The Turkana have weathered many a storm. They have fight in them and they have voice. I will for them to fight. To fight for their land, their rights and their way of life. But I truly fear what is coming. And maybe- just maybe- the community would have been better off if what they call the ‘devil’s liquid’, had not been found on their land.

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