Have good neighbours, will eat

President Yoweri Museveni Deputy President William Ruto

President Yoweri Museveni (right) when he hosted President William Ruto at Entebbe State House, Uganda, in 2018.

Photo credit: File | Rebecca Nduku | DPPS

What you need to know:

  • A lot of food is being dried and packed onto lines of Kenyan registered trucks.
  • As long as the bits of still fertile Ugandan land produce food and borders open, Kenyans will eat.
  • This is one of the times when fences don’t make for good neighbours. 

It is hot, boiling and extremely dry in Kenya as its long drought spell continues. In the part of Nairobi where we live, not having water running in the taps for two weeks is now par for the course.

The many trees, however, offer a feeble refuge from the harsh weather. The trees have become symbols of inequality. If you pass through places like Mathare slum, the tree poverty is inescapable.

Other East African Community nations are going through a hot run, but Kenya is probably the hottest and driest of them. The weather in Rwanda is, at present, mild. Uganda is hot but comparatively green.

In the past few days, the skies opened up a little, and parts of the country have been flattered with some rain. Some areas have been struck by hailstones. Many rivers and streams are still running, albeit subdued.

There was nothing like that during a drive through the Rift Valley a few days ago. It was quite unsettling. On two occasions, we saw two modest-sized dust storms, the kind you see in deserts. Brown patches of the land stretch as far as the eye can see. In Naivasha, antelopes grazed in a dry, dusty patch, leaving one wondering what pickings they were getting.

Our driver was a young man. We had the strangest conversation with him. He didn’t realise it was. He would point to places and say when he was “growing up”, it was different and green. He spoke of rivers that went dry. He would mention places where cattle used to be a nightmare, crossing the highways. All of it was no more. 

It is the kind of thing 65-75-year-olds usually say because, then, they would be talking about how the environment was in 1965. Our driver was barely in his 30s, so he was talking about the situation in the early 2000s!

It was then that I realised climate change had shortened environmental history and memory. In comparative terms, what a 75-year-old experienced over 60 years, a 30-year-old has seen in 15 years.

Last November, the World Food Programme (WFP) noted that five consecutive failed rainy seasons in Kenya had decimated more than 2.5 million livestock.

An activist from the Rift Valley recently spoke of distressing scenes of pastoralists wandering the roads with their battered cattle, offering motorists “buy one, get one free” deals for less than the price of dinner for three at top-end Nairobi restaurants.

Climate change-birthed crises

For governments, finding solutions to these climate change-birthed crises will take work. In Kenya, like many climate change-besieged countries in the Horn of Africa and the rest of the continent, a lot of the grants and programmes to deal with these challenges are being funded by donors as cash-strapped governments, struggling with debt, can’t find enough money from domestic budgets to pay for them.

One of the many political effects of climate change in Africa, then, is that it is turning the clock a generation back to the 1980s and ’90s when foreign aid was the intravenous fluid that kept many economies on the continent afloat.

But all is not bleak. As you travel through parts of western Kenya, they are green, and you see rivers with substantial water flow through them. In the future, populations and production will shift to such areas, and the country will survive.

In East Africa, however, these areas that are still rich in water resources and have green lands that might be farmed are generally outside the [Kenya-Uganda] Railway Corridor, where wealth and political power have been concentrated over the past 100 years.

The railway corridor, with its over-exploited lands, will have to cede lots of power to the relatively virgin, marginalised regions as part of the bargain to survive in a climate change-altered world. It won’t be easy.

If it happened, it would be remarkable that an extreme climate would have delivered the political equity that democracy and decades of the nation-building project failed to do.

Good neighbours are also a blessing in these times. About two kilometres inside Uganda at the border town of Busia, after crossing from Kenya, one comes to a busy right turn on the street. It is a rutted road that takes one to Tororo Town, past the Osukuru Industrial Complex, where a Chinese-owned mega phosphate fertiliser plant is located.

Commissioned in 2018, it was to be East Africa’s largest organic fertiliser factory. It is the largest idle industrial complex in East Africa—if not Africa. Political problems, and corruption, have halted its operations.

However, the one-kilometre stretch of road after the turn is frantic. Depending on the day and time, it is a sight to behold. A lot of food is being dried and packed onto lines of Kenyan registered trucks. As long as the bits of still fertile Ugandan land produce food and borders open, Kenyans will eat. This is one of the times when fences don’t make for good neighbours. 

All would be merrier if there were no borders at all.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3


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