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Oil and Isolation

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NAIROBI – In Kenya, there is a running gag that sums up how far away the Turkana people live from the rest of us. When a Turkana man leaves for the capital, Nairobi, the joke goes, he tells his family, “I’m going to Kenya.”

In recent weeks, ever since Kenya’s government announced that oil had been discovered in the Lake Turkana basin, more jokes have emerged. A picture of unidentified happy, half-naked black children I had seen on my Facebook friends’ profiles many months ago began circulating again, this time with the caption, “Discover Oil in Turkana…No More Dry Skin.”

At first, I chuckled at the jokes. As a Maasai, I have heard every Kenyan joke about how “uncivilized” my people are, so I was happy that someone else was in the spotlight for a change. But when I saw a photo of a topless Turkana woman doctored to look as if she were breastfeeding a white baby, my attitude began to change.

The creator of the picture was implying that now that oil has been found in northwestern Kenya, Western oil workers will descend on the region and impregnate Turkana women, perhaps against their will. A British company discovered the oil, and, thanks to allegations that British soldiers raped hundreds of Kenyan women from 1965 to 2002, our former colonial master’s reputation isn’t good. But if the rights of the Turkana end up being violated, it will be Kenyans, not the British, who will bear the blame.

The Turkana people are, as the joke suggests, as far away from Nairobi as one can be without being foreigners. For this reason, we know very little about them. In schools, we learned about them only within the context of the Leakey family’s decades-long work excavating the Lake Turkana basin in search of fossils of humans’ ancestors. This could be one reason why Kenyans have historically looked at the Turkana people as archaic beings, millennia away from “civilization” and with different needs from most of the country.

The lack of adequate infrastructure in the Turkana region is evidence of this. Unlike the Maasai, the Turkana inhabit a region that, until now, was of little or no value to the country. There are no wild animals to attract tourists, and, although the Turkana, like the Maasai, have preserved their indigenous culture, they are not renowned around the world, perhaps because of their distance from Nairobi.

Indeed, Turkana is one of Kenya’s most neglected districts. Whenever there is a famine, chances are high that Turkana will be affected. Gado, a renowned cartoonist for one of Kenya’s leading newspapers, summed it up best, depicting a jubilant Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki leading a pack of bureaucrats and dogs in suits to Turkana to announce to the people, “Rejoice! We have discovered oil!” A Turkana woman asks him, “And when will you discover water?”

In addition to famine, the Turkana people have endured decades of raids by cattle rustlers from neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan (now South Sudan). Still, Kenya – which has been actively involved in peacekeeping operations in the Horn of Africa region and beyond – has not seen that as a good reason to protect Turkana.

The discovery of oil presents Kenya with a rare opportunity to end the Turkana community’s marginalization. Discussion of how the oil exploration and extraction will proceed needs to start now, and the health of the environment surrounding the Turkana people must be paramount.

“Pastoralists and indigenous people often rely heavily on their immediate environment for their livelihoods,” says Ikal Angelei, the director of Friends of Lake Turkana, which has been opposing the construction of Gibe III, an Ethiopian dam that threatens to reduce the amount of water flowing to the lake. Angelei says, “My fear is that if the oil exploration and drilling happens without community participation, and goes against the communities’ expectations, there is a great possibility of conflict.”

Africa’s numerous resource-driven conflicts validate Angelei’s concerns. Some of the precautions that she suggests to safeguard her people’s welfare include establishing a regulatory body that fosters transparency in contract negotiations; balancing oil production with conservation of the area’s unique biodiversity; enforcing high standards of corporate responsibility; and regulating land sales to prevent conflicts. Finally, the government should ensure that Turkana people are trained to understand and participate in the new sector.

If Kenya approaches oil exploration and extraction in Turkana the way my Facebook friends have, and fails to implement these common-sense recommendations, a few years from now Kenyans might be sorry that oil was ever found. Indeed, Kenya could end up with a conflict similar to the one in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where local people took up arms to fight the oil industry’s degradation of their environment.

Unfortunately, the foundation for such a conflict has already, sadly, been laid. Many people in the Lake Turkana region are already armed with AK-47s and other weapons originally intended for protection from cattle rustlers. If Kenya’s government fails to protect the Turkana from the oil companies as well, its people might well start shooting.

Juliet Torome, a writer and documentary filmmaker, was awarded Cinesource Magazine’s first annual Flaherty documentary award.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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