Letter from Africa: Kenya, a nation of firsts

Wangari Maathai in Nyeri, Kenya, on 8 October 2004

In our series of letters from African journalists, a week after it was announced that vast quantities of underground water had been discovered in Turkana - an arid, poor region of Kenya where oil was also recently found - Joseph Warungu considers the East African nation's knack for making history.

Kenyans have a unique talent for firsts - whether good or bad.

It is the first country in the world to send both its president and deputy president to trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.

Some say one is a mistake but two is carelessness.

It is the first country in Africa to burn down its international airport, well its arrivals terminal.

Some argue it was an accident, some say it was arson. Either way, it's pretty bizarre.

It is the first country in Africa to claim lineage to a serving US president - Barack Obama.

Whether or not America is grateful for this generous African contribution is neither here nor there.

Indeed, it is also the first African nation to raise from the dead an independence leader - Kenyatta - and seemingly sit him at State House again, complete with matching eyes and voice.

When you close your eyes and listen to speeches by both father, Jomo Kenyatta, and son, Uhuru Kenyatta, it can get rather confusing!

Kenya is the first African country to produce a woman winner of the Nobel Peace Prize - the late Wangari Maathai.

Image caption Like father like son? Kenya's founding president (R) and current leader

Never mind that as a fierce government critic and environmental campaigner, the authorities were hardly peaceful towards her.

'Pioneering' cars

Kenya must also surely be the first nation in Africa to locally manufacture a car that never went anywhere.

Named Nyayo, the pet name of then-President Daniel arap Moi, prototypes of the Nyayo Pioneer cars were developed and could gallop at a top speed of 120km/h (75 mph).

However, because of a lack of money in the 1990s the car never went into production.

Kenya is also the first country in Africa to entice almost its entire population to move its cash from the hiding places under mattresses or in expensive bank accounts to a small portable gadget that sings and talks - otherwise known as the mobile phone.

And this month Kenya added another first to the record, by becoming the first African nation to discover huge amounts of underground water and underground oil in the same remote part of the country - the Turkana region in the north.

I have always heard that it is never wise to mix water and oil.

But in Kenya we will do it anyway because we have a highly advanced and sophisticated coping mechanism.

To understand the significance of this week's discovery of two massive underground aquifers, with enough water to meet Kenya's needs for the next 70 years, one needs to understand the region where the finding was made.

You cannot describe Turkana if you are not armed with enough superlatives.

Image caption A huge water source has been discovered in the arid Turkana region of northern Kenya.
Image caption The government estimates the two aquifers found in the the Turkana Basin and Lotikipi Basin, using satellites and radar, could supply the country for 70 years.
Image caption Turkana is one of the hottest, driest and poorest parts of Kenya and was hit by a devastating drought last year. According to the UN, about 17 million of Kenya's 41 million people lack access to safe water.
Image caption Many of Turkana's inhabitants are nomadic herders, who are especially vulnerable to a lack of rain. Fighting over resources like water has been the main source of conflict in many arid areas of country.
Image caption The project looking for water was spearheaded by Unesco in partnership with the government and with the financial support of Japan.
Image caption Last week, Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu said the aquifers hold some 250bn cubic metres of water; the country currently uses about 3bn cubic metres a year.
Image caption The minister said the first priority was to supply water to the people of the area. "We're hoping with the two test boreholes, the water should be available within a month," she said.
Image caption Using the water for irrigation and industry would also be considered, Ms Wakhungu said. Massive oil deposits have also recently been discovered in Turkana.
Image caption The BBC's Angela Ng'endo says despite Turkana's burgeoning wealth, the region's inhabitants have always felt marginalised.
Image caption Following the discovery, the non-governmental organisation Friends of Lake Turkana urged the government to engage more with local communities about how the water will be used in future.

Although it is the second largest of Kenya's 47 counties, Turkana is also the poorest county.

Situated in the extreme north-west of the country, Turkana is one of the driest and least developed regions of Kenya.

The people are so marginalised that two months ago when I visited the area to moderate a public debate on development issues, the Turkanas told me openly they do not consider themselves Kenyans.

When they are leaving for Nairobi they will often say: "I'm travelling to Kenya."

There are no proper roads to access Turkana, and water and food are so scarce that two years ago ordinary Kenyans ignored their lethargic government and conducted a massive national fundraising campaign to feed Turkana and other regions of northern Kenya affected by regular food crises.

You will hardly meet a Kenyan who ever wants to go and live or work in Turkana - until now.

With the discovery of vast amounts of underground water and oil, Turkana now is potentially one of the richest regions of Africa.

It has enough water to quench Kenya's thirst for decades and irrigate the land, and also has the capacity to produce over 300 million barrels of oil.

The rush to splash in these two precious liquids is now on with a vengeance: People who could not point the location of Lodwar, Turkana's main town, are now overnight experts in its real estate value.

But no-one seems to pay too much attention to the Turkanas who walk barefoot on the ground above these precious assets in search of daily food, water, healthcare and some education.

Optimists like myself hope that Kenya can supersede its record for firsts and be the first African country to successfully mix oil and water in equal measure and bring the poor and the marginalized to the dining table of the rich.

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