THE ROAD MY FATHER BUILT

My journey to Lodwar

I arrived in Kitale at 5:48 a.m. in the morning aboard an Eldoret Express bus. It has been an eight-hour journey from Nairobi.

I got myself a quick breakfast and anxiously boarded another Eldoret Express bus to Lodwar and at exactly 9:55 a.m. we were on our way. I was filled with joy as I believed that the place I was heading to was able to cure my stress and shortcomings. A two-year stay in Nairobi had inflicted so much damage to my emotional well-being and I couldn’t wait to put all of it behind.

I just wanted to be away from the city and to see my elder sister Achieng and my nephew Clayton.

At 10:49 a.m. we arrived at Kamatira. A place of beautiful high hills and blanket vegetation, full of shrubs, where the road is steep and meanders down on the side of the hills.

Kitale Town

The roar of the bus engine suddenly changes to a strained humming. The smell of asbestos fills the air due to the intermittent application of brakes. The vehicle must do not more than 20 kilometers per hour. It is easy to discern Kamatira by looking at the sides of the road. From the physicality of it, the roads in other parts are worn out but Kamatira still retained the well-tarmacked roads and strangely too, the trenches that carry the water run-offs are also still surviving the ruggedness of this part of the country. They are well intact. The tarmac from Kitale to Kamatira is still standard.

Though I fell sleepy I can’t afford forty winks because I dread this section of the journey. This road has ‘eaten’ many lives. Many people have lost their lives here mostly due to ignorant drivers. However, although some were caused due to lack of knowledge of this section by the drives, others were unluckily due to brake system failure. Kamatira is a place that requires great patience even though it takes approximately 10 minutes to do it going downwards (from KTL to Lodwar on a big vehicle) it only takes about a half an hour to an hour to do upwards for fast cars and lorries respectively.

Sharp bends are also characteristic of this section. Many of our impatient Nairobi drivers can’t do this section successfully.

The other characteristic of this section is that it starts and ends in speed bumps.

Anyways, three-quarters of the roads in West Pokot are quite fine and the scenery too is beautiful. The vegetation covered hills hug in unending succession. The time now is 11 a.m. and I can see that the fog had cleared and unlike chilly and foggy Kitale morning, the 35 degree Celsius or so temperature of North Rift valley, approaching Turkana District, is beginning go to take a toll.

In the bus, small children especially the sucking ones have begun to puke and moms in a desperate attempt to cool them down, wipe them with damp lessos and plead for people sitting on the bus’s windows to open them. This does little to cool the bus for it is packed beyond capacity; some people are standing while others are seated at the floor of the bus. (even so, it’s still comfortable for me).

The road starts to tear apart as we approach Ortum and I already know that as from Marich pass, where the camp that once housed Ministry of Roads and Public Works (MOPW): Road Maintenance Unit staff, the tarmac, the one Lake Turkana Road Project once built is non-existent and that continues even into Lodwar town.

Ortum trading centre

I have a history with Ortum, I was born at Ortum Mission Hospital. But that’s a story for another day.

As I wonder about MOPW in this area, one of which my father oversaw at Kainuk, about 160 Kilometers from Lodwar, ironically, the music playing in the bus is Mr. Nice’s ‘kikulacho’. I begin to draw parallels.

We pay taxes just like any other Kenyan yet we have no tarmacked highways in this part of the country. We as friends of the government have been shortchanged. The song really speaks deep!

At Ortum Centre, we stop so that some passengers can purchase onions – the predominant item I can see hawked here.

There’s a mining activity at Ortum for precious milk-white-stones and as far as I know, there are no industries here and the activity doesn’t benefit the locals.

Truckloads of pebbles are always transported towards Kitale; I don’t know to which destination.

As soon as we leave Ortum, there’s a stream of clear water running under a culvert bridge. It’s made more beautiful by the hazy shades of leafy trees standing by its sides. There are a number of such streams as you advance further.

Kainuk

The heat in the bus has increased forcing many more people to remove their shirts. The opening of windows does little to cool the inside of the bus. The temperature in this northern parts can reach highs of 41 Degrees Celcius.

Until this point, there are parches of tarmac on the road that was once not only smooth but well maintained. It’s hard to imagine that it used to take a passenger van (what we call Nissan Matatu) only 3 hours to move passengers from Lodwar to Kitale, but now because of the bad state of the road, it takes at least 6-8 hours for that.

As a small settlement known as Serbit, the original bridge has been washed away completely by the recent floods (year-end 2006). The only crossing point is through a makeshift bridge built by the military men from the camps in these part.

There’s still much vegetation by the wayside.

Acacia trees beautifully adorn the sides of the road. In slow succession, desert trees and shrubs have begun to replace the highland ones. However, mark you! The steep slopes and sharp bends haven’t ended. The only difference between this and Kamatira, no half an hour behind is the latter is more hazardous.

Bandits and prayers

I say a short silent prayer to God for bringing us thus far. It ain’t for nothing, this place is full of banditry and please don’t forget the danger posed by the sharp and sloppy bends of West Pokot district.

We had left the dangerous steep slopes of Kamatira to enter into a bandit prone areas.

Ever heard about Ng’oroko?

Yes, those untamed Pokot warriors and Turkana warriors who attack and waylay vehicles at a section between the Turkana and West Pokot borders.

A close look at the West Pokot hills reveal mud huts that camouflage amidst rocks.

We are still descending after Ortum and Serbit, the tarmac is completely gone and I can see two graders standing by the roadside, purposely for levelling the road. We cross a bigger stream of clear water which is adorned by bigger and gorgeous milky-white rocks.

After crossing another bridge, the third since Kitale, we arrive at Marich Pass.

The heat is unmistaken high, in the regions of over 30 degrees Celsius, and at last, I give up my defiance and remove my shirt.

There’s a police post and a roadblock as one leaves Marich Pass.

How the road has worn out | Picture by Elijah Tenai

A few hawkers and passengers take advantage of the stop to sell and purchase sweet mangoes. Here the predominant good being sold are mangoes.

Before the police post, there’s a crossroad but the straight one is the one that leads to my destination of rest.

We depart Marich Pass and the landscape immediately becomes barren and harsh, except for a few shrubs and acacia trees, there’s nothing great about the northern frontier.

It’s now official, the road will be without tarmac until near Lodwar.

We approach Kainuk where the vegetation continues to be shorter and mostly thick-shrubby bushes.

After about an hour of bumpy ride, we cross a bridge over Turkwell River and arrive at Kainuk.

Kainuk is the place that separates West Pokot and Turkana Districts.

It is the border point.

This is the place where my father was once stationed when he worked as a road overseer for MOPW.

The bus stops in front of Juba Hotel and culinary provision is done here – goat meat and Ugali in plenty.

The writings on the wall show the owners of the hotels

‘Bakhali yake and makochoo’, in the short-call and long-call areas announces that you are in Somali-run restaurant.

Most people order fried goat meat and Ugali, and so do I.

The food is plainly delicious.

About Kainuk

Kainuk town is an installation of cement buildings on both sides of the road. Medina and Juba hotels compete for customers, but the later wins these days.

In years past, Medina used to give Juba a run for its money. It is the opposite these days. How times change.

I order another liter of water at Juba Hotel and head for the bus. We leave Kainuk and I position myself so as to have a clear view of the MOPW camp where I had spent a few years of my childhood.

As one leaves Kainuk, there’s a road block. A small story about this roadblock and the wild wild north is that in the past, I don’t know if it still happens, the police manning the roadblocks in this areas would often fling open the metal spikes and run into the bush whenever they saw a Kenya Army (now KDF) vehicle approaching. Those guys hated each other.

Anyways, at the MOPW camp, the Mabati houses are gone.

The place where my dream fondly casts, where I spent my childhood lies desolate. My father’s house and camp were demolished.

A few wrecks of road-construction cranes and vehicle still stand.

The camp is no more!

I plunge back into my seat, my heart shed silent tears for my lost childhood landmarks. I feel sad and abandoned.

***

To get to Lodwar from Kainuk, one must cross more than forty lagas or drifts or seasonal rivers that cut across the Kitale – Lodwar highway. From Kitale, he rivers to be crossed are about 48, however, most of them are notoriously seasonal others are extinct.

A drift/laga is a depression made by a seasonal river that cuts across the road.

The engineers who constructed this road were overwhelmed by the number of rivers and due to the expensiveness of constructing bridges, they chose to build road sections made up of reinforced concrete and steel; that made them hard to be washed away by waters from the seasonal rivers. Until this point, even though the tarmac it totally worn and torn, most of the drifts still stand strong.

As stated earlier, most of the rivers are extinct except the one at Kalemng’orok which is notorious for impeding smooth travel between Kitale and Lodwar during rainy seasons.

Anyways, after about an hour and 45 minutes we arrive at Lokichar Town, the place is about 80 kilometers from Lodwar, a dry sun pan with few cement installations compared to Kainuk. No one could believe that this place would be transformed eight years later due to the discovery of oil.

It’s at this place that a military training camp is situated, though I have never visited it nor know where exactly.

The heat is soaring and the dry land spells hardship and harsh lifestyle.

The state of the road is pathetic but we push on.

The fields are expansive, scarcely inhabited and dotted with shrubs.

We encounter more and more drifts till the forty-second one. A scrap metal of a Bedford truck cabin used to lie by the roadside here. But this day, I didn’t see it. It seems like it has been lifted. It was a sign that that is the last laga before reaching Lodwar.

The tarmac begins to reappear.

Doum Palm trees

Blue and black hills hugging begin to appear in the distance.

The land is barren of trees; sand dunes fill the horizon. The shrubs are so scarce but heard of camel, goats and sheep can be seen competing for the little vegetation on the expansive fields.

The temperature inside the bus is bearable due to the impending dusk.

The plains, where my dream fondly casts expand more as we approach Lodwar precincts.

The plains are welcoming to me, as they transport my memories into my childhood. The expansiveness captures distance that my young innocent feet couldn’t conquer. I feel jealous for the plains and dream of their invincibility.

On this section of the road, at least the bus can do 80 Kilometers per hour

Doum palm house begin to appear followed by house made of concrete.

The black rock Lodwar hills officially stands majestically at the center of the approaching horizon. Lodwar Boys High School, where I schooled, standing on the near right side of the horizon can be seen at this point.

It is 5 p.m. in the evening and the heat has been replaced by some soothing wind. The road is smooth but not beautiful. For tarmac should be dark, noot this sun-scorched greyish abandon.

On the extreme right-hand side of the horizon, another place I grew up in, the Lodwar Ministry of Public Works (MoPW): Roads Maintenance Unit camps in the distance looks like ruins. However, they are not deserted, a few staff still reside there

Welcome, you are in Lodwar!

Eldoret Express Bus in Lodwar Town | Picture by James Lokwale, Twitter