Tuesday, November 17, 2009


THE DISTRICT COMMISIONER assured the guests that contrary to popular perceptions, Garissa is a very safe place and there is no need for armed security escorts when travelling there.

Garissa, he said, had been found by an Interpol (International Police Organisation) survey to be the safest town in East and Central Africa. A local dignitary seated on the dais interjected: “It’s in Nairobi where you need armed escorts!” Nairobi’s reputation for runaway crime had preceded us. Welcome to Garissa. It was for me too fleeting a visit, but a real eye-opener that leaves me deeply ashamed about my ignorance.

Like many others in Kenya, I tend to see the country as comprising Nairobi and the well-developed agricultural zones or tourist attractions. Other places are remote, dry, unproductive, hostile, parched, inhospitable, bandit-infested and generally good for nothing; unless, perhaps, they are blessed with oil, gold, rubies, titanium or other valuable mineral deposits.

That is the time we will all be rushing there to claim a share of the loot from the same places we have neglected, and exiled to the periphery of national life. The short visit to Garissa town can hardly allow me to form a clear picture of the rest of the district or the rest of North Eastern Province, the so-called contiguous districts of Coast and North Eastern Province, and the districts of northern Rift Valley.

But if my perceptions of Garissa town could be so comprehensively overturned after a short visit, then surely I must also be suffering similarly misguided impressions about large swathes of the country. I had expected a barren, inhospitable desert full of people dependent on relief food; a garrison town marked by night curfews enforced by heavily-armed soldiers nervously keeping at bay marauding bandits that could strike any time.

There was not a soldier in sight. Despite all that propaganda about Al-Shabaab militants from Somalia poised at the edges and extremist Islam taking root and starting to impose a virulent code on religious compliance, there as nothing out of the ordinary. What one encounters is not a barren basket-case, but a thriving commercial centre with shiny new office blocks and hotels displaying unique architecture.

The place is barren and dry, true, but the mighty Tana River passes nearby, and those who cared to invest in water supply and storage achieved dramatic results. There is thriving agriculture on the farms along the Tana, making Garissa town self-sufficient in succulent fruits and vegetables, with surplus available for markets in Mombasa and Nairobi.

FROM A SIMPLE CAMERA-PHONE, I uploaded on Facebook a few images of the lush gardens of the Almond Resort where our party stayed, a hotel, together with neighbouring Nomad Palace, that would not be put of place in Nairobi.The responses were revealing. The majority flatly refused to believe that the pictures were taken in Garissa. Some friends in the US even wondered whether it was in Kenya at all. One friend suggested I’d used the mansion of some American celeb. Another wondered whether grass that green was artificial.

Those responses illustrated perfectly that some of us have been conditioned to dismissing certain parts of Kenya. At independence we inherited a development model that believed in investing all resources in high-potential areas, and leaving the rest of the country to its own devices.

We wilfully marginalised, isolated and under-developed certain regions. Then we came to swallow the lie that those regions were undeveloped because the people were backward, warlike and not “development-concious”. Now I understand why the people of North Eastern, Marsabit, Moyale, Turkana, Pokot and other regions deprived of development deeply resent the leaders and people who grabbed the best for themselves.

I saw a bit of that resentment in Garissa. That tied in with conversations I’ve had over the years with various friends from marginalised communities. The resentment is justifiable, but there is also an element that is too quick to blame the system for their own inadequacies.
Garissa is growing despite government neglect; because a hard-working, entrepreneurial and resourceful people do not sit on their butts waiting to be lifted up – they lift themselves up. True, successive regimes have short-changed important population groups by treating them like second-class citizens.

But what the neglected communities need is not handouts, but the communications and social infrastructure -- roads, telephone lines, electricity, piped water, hospitals and schools -- that will connect them to the rest of Kenya. Ultimately, however, all must work hard for their own development. That is the lesson from Garissa.