Forgiveness and tears

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Originally published in the Standard on Sunday

The year was 2010. Kenya was charged. Its inhabitants were faced by a decision that would alter the course of an entire nation. They had to vote for a new constitution that promised to deliver them to Canaan.

And as both sides of the campaign dug in, a section of respected clergy of the country lent their voice to this greatly important debate by holding one last mammoth prayer service at the historical Uhuru Park grounds.

All the while hoping that their calls to the almighty would be answered and the people would unanimously reject the proposed set of laws. But before they prayed, one last entry into the grounds stole all the thunder from the heartfelt prayers from the interdenominational gathering of religious men.

“You see us? You see us? We too have money…we are driving in cars that even ministers cannot afford!”

A sleek, seemingly spanking new Range Rover was making its way through the crowds that had gathered just below Uhuru Park’s main dais. The animated man had upped the ante. He wasn’t just talking about his big car. He was now jumping up and down the hood.

A closer look revealed the individual was a revered man of god whose church, located within the Nairobi city precincts, is home to thousands of faithfuls, who on a weekly basis pay allegiance to his teachings by turning up for the man’s services.

The man was Apostle James Maina Ng’ang’a of Neno Evangelism Centre. Eyes hid behind his trademark photo chromatic, prescription glasses, widely smiling as the momentum of his antics fed off the crowd’s energy culminating into a frenzy.

On this day, granted, apostle Ng’ang’a broke no law, but under that veneer of a successful, prayerful man busking in the abundance his maker has provided, lies a complex, controversial individual most recently judged by the court of public opinion to be guilty of murder. And the alleged weapon of choice? The same as that which he used to announce his arrival at Uhuru Park five years ago.

But Apostle Ng’ang’a’s story did not start five years ago. It goes back further than this. Back to 1989, where the Standard on Sunday encountered the first of a series of court mentions of the man in the annuls of Kenya’s justice system.

“James Maina Ng’ang’a had been brought from Nakuru remand cells and was facing a theft charge. At Molo Police Station his brother gave him a letter telling him that it was Mwai who had given it to him. Mwai was also in police cells. His brother told him to take the letter to Mbugua to give it to mother Wamwea. He gave the letter to Mbugua. He did not know Mwai nor had his brother told him who Mwai was. The prosecution did not call James Maina Ng’ang’a to give evidence, nor was any explanation offered for its failure to do so. Apart from the break in the chain of evidence in the attempt to relate the letter to the appellants…” reads an excerpt from the Kenya Law, the judiciary’s online case archive.

The then ongoing case was an appeal in a three year old robbery conviction in which the apostle’s brother had been sentenced to a jail term. The apostle, who had been brought as a defense witness, never showed up to give his side of the story and was never compelled by the courts to do so. The appeal was rejected by judges Cockar, Tunoi and Gachuhi.

Pastor Ng’ang’a has, on several occasions given his testimony as a jailbird to his congregation. Details of arrest and nature of crimes committed however remain scanty, and over the years he would be found, severally, either on the wrong side of the law or in the grey areas bordering right and wrong.

Those with intimate knowledge of the pastor’s different sides have said he is often found on the wrong side, completely unaware of the direction his moral compass is pointing to.

“He was a drunkard and very abusive towards me, to the extent of insulting my parents. I also later learnt that he was adulterous, sleeping with staff and even bringing married women to our matrimonial bed,” Ng’ang’a’s estranged wife Loise Murugi Maina claims in an array of accusations contained in the couple’s divorce papers.

She took issue with the pastor’s alleged behavior of texting and calling other women while in the house, which she claims caused her emotional pain. In addition, she alleges that whenever she confronted Ng’ang’a with her concerns, he would become very hostile and occasionally threaten her. She claims that the pastor would later try to calm her by apologising and blaming his behaviour and attitude on alcohol and the devil.

“We would then pray together and I trusted that things would change,” Murugi adds.

The prayers never worked and it seems the apostle, famed for performing miracles and casting out devils, could do nothing to salvage a marriage tethering on the precipice of a public divorce after and even more publicized wedding.

The couple married in 2012 at the prestigious Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club at an invite only weeding which was later beamed on national. Among the invited guests were Cord co-principal Kalonzo Musyoka.

The kisses he lavishly planted on his young wife’s cheeks and lips faded. And where love once blossomed, bile now boiled.

“He is an abusive man, a drunkard and a man who lacks good moral grounding as he has no respect for any one, not even my own mother. He mistreats his children and even brings women to his house. This has resulted in his children being stressed and adopting a ‘don’t-care’ attitude that I would not wish for my child,” wrote Murugi in her suit.

Psychiatrists say individuals who had a tumultuous childhood and formative years may tend to exhibit arrogance and little respect for authority.

Pastor Ng’ang’a has on several occasions spoken about his hard past that included stints in jail and a struggle to eke out a living as a hawker in the city streets.

“Such kind of personalities never deal with issues from their past. They shot to fame through no one’s assistance so they only pledge allegiance to themselves. They believe they are self-made. In order to prevent slipping back into a life of want and need they hoard power and crave absolute control,” psychiatrist Loice Okello told the Standard on Sunday.

According to the psychologist, most of such individuals have a criminal conscience with no concept of shame.

Might he just be misunderstood?

“The trouble is everyone commenting about this issue has ulterior motives. The focus is on him because he is an apostle with a certain past. Each one of us has our own weaknesses,” Pastor Mike Brawan from Nakuru said.

Does he know Ng’ang’a to be a good man?

“I know him as he knows me…a human being,” Brawan said. Brawan was a groomsman in the apostle’s wedding.

Sometimes, an outsider sees the absurdity of what society passes as normal.

In 2005, Jason Beaubien, a Nairobi based reporter for the National Public Radio, a privately and publicly funded non-profit media organisation walked into Neno Evangelism Centre to get a piece of the famed apostle’s wisdom. These were his first impressions:

“Much of the focus of Pastor Ng’ang’a’s service is on healing, on driving out demons. The other main topic is economic prosperity. Pastor Ng’ang’a recounts his own personal tale of being a street child, spending years in prison, being saved and proselytizing on a bicycle. He went from being an impoverished, wicked criminal, he says, to a successful preacher. He boasts that the new car he’s buying costs Sh20million, or roughly $300,000, and he tells the congregation that he’s one of the richest pastors in Kenya.”

Beaubien also notes the difference between the life the apostle lives and the realities confronting his congregation.

“On a continent where hundreds of millions of people endure the grinding burden of poverty every day, there’s little desire here to hear about the righteousness of the poor. Millions of Kenyans survive on less than $2 a day and in the capital Nairobi, unemployment is extremely high. In a service that jumps back and forth between English and Swahili, Ng’ang’a tells the homeless that it’s time for them to have houses. He tells the jobless that they’ll soon have work. He promises the congregation that what their enemies have stolen from them, God will give back,” Beaubien notes.

Somewhere in a Limuru village a family has had a daughter taken away from them. A husband, bruised and in pain, both physical and emotional has had a wife erased from his side. A daughter will never see her beloved mother again. To quote the apostle’s sermon, ‘an enemy stole from them.’ Will God give them back the life they lost?

On the same stretch or road, it is alleged that the same pastor was involved in a similar accident. Resulting in the loss of another life.

But in a country that loses almost 3,000 lives to road accidents annually, maybe the perpetrator thought to himself:

“What is one more life?”

But a national rage that has made the one life matter, finally blowing away a carefully cultivated smokescreen perhaps intended to mask not only the weaknesses of a shepherd who does not think leading by example counts, but also hide the lengths that a corrupt police force can go to as long as their palms have been greased.

For now, the jailbird from 1989, the man who in 1992 started an evangelical movement, the man who in his own words confessed in 2005 to being among one of the richest evangelical pastors of all time, the man who in 2010 stole the thunder from a gathering of religious men, the man who in 2012 got married in a much publicized wedding that a few years later ended in an equally publicized divorce, the man who in 2015 stands accused of vehicular manslaughter will today preach to a fully packed audience as if none of the baggage that seems to accompany him wherever he goes really matters.

Over the past few days, Ng’ang’a, through his lawyers, has denied ever being part of any accident on July 26t, the day of the accident. Multiple witnesses who have spoken to the media have placed the 63-year-old at the scene.

After going to social media and offering what is now a disputed chain of events surrounding the accident, Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinett later issued a statement ordering a fresh probe into the accident.

“In response to the mass of information provided by members of the public to the media that suggested the information given by the traffic police officers at Tigoni may not be entirely correct, I dispatched a team to the scene to verify the same,” Boinnet said in a statement.

The report has been handed back to the IG and he studies it, today, it will be business as usual at the pastor’s church in Nairobi, and several other satellites around the country.

The 1989 jail term seems a distant, perhaps more peaceful past for the man who has dominated the news for close to two weeks now.

The business of Dadaab

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Abdi Hakim at his ice shop...

Abdi Hakim at his ice shop…

Article originally published in the Standard on Sunday on June 14th 2015

You cannot interview Warsame Abdihakim Mohamed between 1300hrs and 1400hrs on any given day. He will look at you, and then look at your translator. Then gently tug at his beard and say ‘no’ with a genuine smile. He will then pull up his baggy pale green trousers, run a handkerchief over his forehead and tell you to wait an hour.

After an hour he will be back. He will then usher you into the bowels of Midnimo Ice Manufacturing Plant, then he will stare at you through his beady dark eyes and inform the translator to inform you to proceed with your questions. But just as you are about to speak he will beat you to it and say:

“Welcome to Hagadera.” Then extend his arm for a handshake as if the two of you have met for the first time.

In 1992, he crossed over from Somalia with his family fleeing war in his country of birth.

“It was very bad back then,” he says. “At the beginning life as a refugee was very difficult. We kept hoping that we would eventually go back home. But every morning, more people were crossing over bearing worse news.”

Soon, he and others like him, realised that although their hearts were elsewhere, home would be the place their heads lay at night.

“So we decided to do something about it,” he says. “With a group of friends we contributed a few dollars each, sought the involvement of the locals and made a life for ourselves.”

Next to Midnimo Ice Plant is Midnimo Hotel. Behind Midnimo Hotel is Midnimo Power Plant. In Hagadera, it is assumed anyone who walks into a hotel has not eaten. So as one looks around at an unoccupied table, one of the many employees will be at your shoulder holding an enormous tray of rice and goat meat enough to feed four hungry men. When you sit, the waiter will lay the tray in front of you and ask:

“Will your friends have the same?”

Abdihakim, like his father before him ran a hotel in Mogadishu before the chaos of 1991. Naturally that is what he took to on this side of the border. The Ice Plant was build out of need.

“Here temperatures can get up to 40 degrees Celsius… so people would crave for cold drinks. Business owners would need ice to store some of their produce, so we decided to build one,” he says.

One of AbdiHakim's employees cutting up a block of ice... PHOTO|Daniel Wesangula

One of AbdiHakim’s employees cutting up a block of ice… PHOTO|Daniel Wesangula

To do so, they needed electricity. Hagadera is 9 kilometres from Dadaab, the alternative source of power.

“So we bought a huge generator to run the ice plant. But the output was too much. So we decided to sell off some power to local business men and homesteads at the reasonable fee of Sh200 every month. That is how Midnimo Power Plant was born,” he says.

The low hanging cables are noticeable when one walks through Hagadera Camp- from the market all through to the residential blocks.

Of all the five camps, Hagadera is famed for hosting the biggest population of urban refugees- those who fled from cities in Somalia.

Generally, business has been good. But over the past two and a half months, profit margins have become slimmer.

“Many people do not have money to spend. If you are not careful, you will give out all your stock on credit,” he says.

Two and a half months ago, the government, through the ministry of Interior banned a number of money transfer operators, hawallas, from operating in the country reasoning that these operators were knowingly or unknowingly funding terror activities.

Many of them had offices in the Dadaab refugee camp complex. Many of them remain closed.

“What this means is that as a businessman, I cannot start hounding my clients for unpaid bills. I know they have no way of receiving money from outside the camp,” Abdihakim says.

Business at the camps is based on trust. Eat now, pay later.

“But the later is now becoming forever,” he says. A customer is at the front of the ice plant. He is paying cash. Abdhiakim leaves mid- sentence to go attend to him. When he finishes with the customer, he comes back to our table apologetic. He looks disturbed and mumbles a few words to the translator. Midnimo Power Plant is down. This means angry clients. A stalled factory. Households with no power. An angry clientele.

For him, there can be no bigger emergency.

Love and Repatriation

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Mohammed in his compound in Block C in Hagadera settlment followed by his wife Sara and daughter Sumaiya. They have lived in hagadera all their lives.

Mohammed in his compound in Block C in Hagadera settlment followed by his wife Sara and daughter Sumaiya. They have lived in hagadera all their lives. PHOTO| Daniel Wesangula

Story originally published in the Standard on Sunday on June 14th 2015

Mohammed Abdi Abdulahi is slightly built with an even slighter tone to his voice. Words slip out of his lips so nervously, his syllables seem accidental. Like they wouldn’t want to impose themselves on the goings-on. Like they are used to not being heard. He is 27, old enough to have a wife and child. But not old enough to have a dream he can believe in. “What can we do? This is life for us,” he says. Next to him a billboard towers.

“Somalia is my home, to return is my choice,” it declares. Mohammed is part of its target audience, but somehow, the message does not make sense. It is the same for hundreds of thousands of other refugees from Somalia. “Return where? Even if you were to get me onto a bus, or a plane and drop me in Somalia, where would I. I am Kenyan in every way,” he says. Finding shade The Dadaab refugee camp population is 353,590. Of these, 336,695 are from Somalia. At the height of the humanitarian crisis in 2011, the population had increased to 486,913.

Mohammed is a statistic, clawing through life to become more than a number. Dadaab is a massive complex made up of five satellite camps – Dagahaley, Ifo Main, Ifo 2, Kambioos and Hagadera. Hagadera has been Mohammed’s home all his life. His family found a livelihood here more than two decades ago. Later, he found love. “Even when you are in the harshest of deserts, somehow you will find shade,” he philosophises. Sara Hassan Mohammed has been his shade in the sun.

“Without him, I would suffer a lot. I have been a refugee for as long as I have been alive… My mum gave birth to me here. I have done the same. I have a daughter,” Sara says. The two have been married for close to five years. “At least our daughter has a birth certificate. We hope in future she can use it to get other papers that will enable her to follow her heart’s desires,” Mohammed says. At birth, they didn’t haggle over the name best suited for their daughter. “We called her Sumaiya.

“We were tired of living a bad life. She is one of the few good things that have happened to us while here,” says Sara. Sumaiya loosely translates to ‘good quality.’ The two want the best for their child. But they remain practical to the realities around them.

“You ask me what I want Sumaiya to have in future,” Sara says.

“Do you have children?”

“One.”

“What do you want for her?”

“I want her to go to the best schools. I want her to find her purpose early in life. I want her to have access to the best healthcare if need be…” I begin.

“Adheer, you have complicated dreams,” says Sara.

“I just want Sumaiya to travel and see the world… I want her to leave Hagadera and decide whether she can go north, south, east or west. I want her to be free,” she says.

A tear falls on her orange hijab and expands into an intrusive, shapeless blot, but in a few minutes, the moisture is gobbled up by Hagadera’s unforgiving heat. Sumaiya, has fallen asleep under her mother’s hijab. Mohammed knows about love. At least enough to know that his family cannot live off the four-letter word.

“To be a refugee is hard. But to be a husband, a father and the sole breadwinner for family, both extended and immediate, is something else,” he says. “I know she loves me… but what if she meets someone who can offer her much more than I can?” he says. “Would I stand in the way of her happiness? I don’t know.” His eyes wander to a column of suitcases next to him. The cases hold their world. Their savings. Their education certificates – he and his wife went through secondary school in Hagadera. Nowadays, the suitcases stay packed.

“They say one day the government will tell us to leave,” Sara’s mother, Zeytun, joins the conversation. “We must be ready.” The relatives live in the same compound. Here it is called a ‘block section’. A section is made up of several blocks, normally of relatives or families that walked into the camp on the same day. Their houses are structures with twig walls and tarpaulin or polythene roofs. Some houses have iron sheet walls, but all the floors are earthen. Reed or manila mats are rolled over the floors to create the seating room.

Zeytun, Sara's mother going about her business

Zeytun, Sara’s mother going about her business. PHOTO| Daniel Wesangula

A visitor is offered a plastic chair. If there are many visitors, then it becomes awkward. A decision has to be made on who takes the chair. At one end of the compound, a sheep and a goat share a tiny pen. “We used to have more animals, but Mohammed lost his job and we sold a few. We have to keep on living,” Zeytun says. “We know he will get another one soon, Inshallah.” For three years, Mohammed worked as an incentive worker for one of the aid agencies. Although he was qualified for the job he was given, he was paid a pittance to keep him interested in living. But what if he does not get another position? What next? “I trust Allah that the pen writing the story of my life has not run out of ink. And that as He turns the next page, my load will be lighter,” Mohammed says.

“But if His will is done, then that will be it. I will pray that at least I leave Sumaiya with memories passed down from my parents about their home in Somalia. My own memories of a place I would like to call home but can’t. And I will ask Allah to at least grant my daughter happier memories to give my grandchildren.” Normal life In April, during the aftermath of the tragic Garissa University massacre that left 148 dead and many more injured and traumatised, Deputy President William Ruto gave the United Nations three months to close the Dadaab refugee camps, failing which Kenya would forcefully return them to Somalia.

Embrace us

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A section of Ifo 2 refugee settlements in Dadaab Refugee Camp

A section of Ifo 2 refugee settlements in Dadaab Refugee Camp. PHOTO| Daniel Wesangula

Story originally published in the Standard on Sunday on June 14th 2015

After more than two decades of playing host to the world’s largest refugee camp, a once accommodating government has had enough. In April, Deputy President William Ruto said the camp should be shut down and its more than 350,000 inhabitants repatriated to Somalia.

Peace still seems elusive in Somalia, and its absence has over the years been reason enough to allow for the different facets of Dadaab refugee camp to thrive. The Dadaab refugee complex in northern Kenya is a cramped affair smack in the middle of a dust bowl that, in the blink of an eye, can turn into a flood plain. Originally designed to accommodate 90,000 refugees, the camps now hold four times that number.

This makes Dadaab the third-largest population centre in Kenya after Nairobi and Mombasa. From an outsider’s perspective, Dadaab’s remoteness and harshness have conspired to make it, like the rest of the former North Eastern Province, almost uninhabitable. Areas around the refugee camps are often run by groups of armed, merciless bandits who have preyed on the desperation of the refugees, the goodwill of the locals and the absence of a functional government. But for the insiders, Dadaab is home, with challenges like any other ‘town’. “The Government should ask itself why it is not hard for a young man to say ‘no’ to Al Shabaab advances,” Mohamed Abdi, the youth chairman at Dagahaley Camp, says.

“Look at it this way, I was born at the camp. I went to school here and completed my secondary school education. Then my world came to an abrupt end. Even with my high school qualification, I cannot get out of Dagahaley in pursuit of a better life. Effectively, I am retired at 20, without ever having worked.” He and many of his age mates know no other country but Kenya, “But we are treated like second class human beings. I cannot even go to the nearest town without special permission from the Department of Refugee Affairs. Tell me how we will convince our friends that Al Shabaab is the enemy yet they are offering free movement and want to utilise what we learnt in school.”

Official data from the Department of Refugee Affairs shows there are more than 6,000 grandchildren of the original 1991 refugees born in Dadaab. Like many of their parents, these children have never seen Somalia and are practically aid dependent guests in overcrowded shelters. It is almost impossible to think that things could get worse for this group. Among them live members of Al Shabaab, who use the remoteness of the outpost and alleged greed among police officers deployed in the area to thrive and move freely.

“Al Shabaab will demand quasi-religious loyalty. The corrupt police will demand their cut or else they will brand you a terrorist. If you try to escape all this, you become an illegal alien and can be jailed,” Muhamed Salat, 31, says.

Salat and some of his friends try to keep themselves occupied. Through donor funding, in 2005, they set up a computer and ICT centre, where they teach school leavers basic computer skills. After each class graduates, instructors are asked the same question: We now know about computers; what next?

The international community has argued that the Kenyan Government is using Dadaab as a scapegoat in its war on terror. On April 2, the country woke up to the troubling news of a siege in Garissa, the closest urban centre to Dadaab. By dusk, 148 students and security personnel lay dead. Less than 24 hours after the siege, Al Shabaab claimed responsibility. The Garissa massacre rekindled talk of closure of the camps. Investigations by The Standard on Sunday indicated that the attackers did not have to go through Dadaab to get to the university.

Security sources told The Standard on Sunday that the attackers used Fafi Road, a seldom manned road that starts at Kenya’s border with Somalia, through Wajir South and stops barely 50 metres from the university’s gate. In effect, Fafi Road is the designated smuggling route for both goods and human beings. Chiefs at the different refugee camps, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said they provide intelligence to relevant authorities but the information is seldom acted upon.

Instead, whenever suspicious individuals are spotted in the camps, some in law enforcement are accused of seeing this as a path to riches. For instance, on March 26, 2013, two customs official were gunned down in Garissa Town. Local authorities blamed the killings on robbers. Illegal entry But other residents claim the customs officials, after learning of the illegal entry of contraband courtesy of individuals sponsored by a local businessman, extorted money from the trader.

After getting their cut, they then told their colleagues of the windfall, and they went to the same businessman for cuts of their own. Fed up, the traders ordered a hit and less than 24 hours after the deal, the two lay dead side by side. “We agree that terrorists may be hiding among refugees. But we are also sure that greed among our security agents has played a big part in this mess,” security expert Ng’etich Bitok told The Standard on Sunday. Multiple interviews with security agents in the region also point to sellouts within the force. There have been reports of team leaders claiming urgent off days and feigning sickness hours before deadly missions. “In essence, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. For us to be successful, we will need the refugees on our side,” Ng’etich says.

“We will need to treat them humanely.” For Ahmed Muktar, also a founding member of the Dagahaley ICT centre, this will include some freedom of movement. It is three years since he stepped out of the camp.

“Unless you have a very good reason for getting out or have a heavy pocket, you will not leave this place. Now you know why the wrong people are making their way into Kenya. The law abiding continue to suffer,” says Muktar. His colleague, Salat, first left the camp in 2003. Back then, movement was not very restricted. He managed to get a permit to go ask for a school uniform from his uncle. Three years later, he left the camp again, then one more time in 2013. Three times in his lifetime.

“At least 100,000 of us are young people with a proper education. If you forcefully send us all back to a country we do not know, where will most of us end up? There are no jobs in Somalia. There are no opportunities. Some of us have no family on the other side of the border. Many of us will end up taking up arms,” says Salat.

If they ever went back to Somalia, Salat and Muktar would be called Somali siju – derogatory term for outsider. In Kenya, they are aliens. Does Muktar think that one day he, too, will be considered Kenyan? “I don’t think so. But if it happens, we will contribute a lot to the country in our own little way.” Going back to Somalia might be easier for Abdi Walid Shiriye. He has been at Ifo 2 camp for just three years. He, unlike Muktar and Salat, has 43 years’ worth of memories of his homeland. But still, he says it will not be easy for him to make that return trip. Fighting between Al Shabaab and government forces in 2012 resulted in massive destruction in his village.

“I am a pastoralist. All my animals died in that conflict. Yes, if Kenya gets tired of me, I will go. To what, I don’t know,” Shiriye says. For now though, he stays his welcome. Every day, more trickle into the camps officially or unofficially in search of a better life despite of the impending camp shut down.

Albinism in Tanzania: slow progress in combatting violence and discrimination

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Albinos live with the risk of being killed, their body parts fetching high prices for witchcraft – but NGOs hope that change is coming

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Around 30,000 people with albinism are thought to be living in Tanzania. Photograph: Ana Palacios

In October, citizens will go to the polls to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections. “Every election period brings with it a new cycle of killings. In between we have other smaller elections translating to more abductions, more killings.” Manento, a retired judge and human rights activist, has been at the forefront of campaigning for the rights of people living with albinism for decades. “We see an increase of witchcraft and the use of human body parts, particularly albino body parts, in the run-up to the general elections.” Albino body parts are associated with good luck, and as the country gears up for the elections, the demand for good luck charms goes up. Sacrifices during this time are thought by some to be a sure way of guaranteeing victory in the polls.

“Albino hunting came into the limelight around 10 years ago, particularly within the fishing and mining communities,” says Dr Benson Bana, a political science and public administration lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam. Bana believes that some of the roots of the problem lie in the financial downturn in the area around Lake Victoria, one of the regions where there have been the most killings and abductions.

“A certain poverty touched our people after the privatisation of fishing activities in Lake Victoria,” says Bana. “Everything was being controlled, from where one could fish to the size of the holes in his fishing net. The result was diminished harvests. Every above-average catch by the little guys was then attributed to superstition. This is when witchdoctors started peddling the belief that people living with albinism or their body parts, most of whom coincidentally live in these regions, could be used as good luck charms.”

Bana believes that this devastating association was then passed on to neighbouring mining communities. “Eventually it caught wind and was looked upon as a legitimate way of acquiring riches and power by some individuals. Hence the association with politicians.”

Tanzania is thought to have one of the world’s largest populations of people living with albinism, a congenital disorder that robs skin, eyes and hair of their pigment. But for years this population of about 30,000 people has existed under the threat of abductions and ritual killings, and in recent years the situation appears to have worsened.

According to a report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, a complete set of Albino body parts – including all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose – can fetch up to $75,000 (pdf).

The Tanzanian Albinism Society says it is almost impossible to know the numbers of those abducted or killed since the beginning of the year. What they are sure of, though, is that the number of victims will be higher than the two cases that made it into police records in 2013..

“Even last year the numbers might have been higher because these crimes are very intimate. Mostly a close family member, even a father, is involved in the killings and abductions. In such cases silence wins; his wife will probably be an accomplice in the crime. Nothing will be said of the matter again and the police will have no chance of prosecuting anyone,” says Severin Edward, programme coordinator for the Tanzanian Albinism Society.

A total of 155 cases of violation of albino rights have been reported to Tanzanian authorities since 2009, according to a study (pdf) released in March by Under The Same Sun, an NGO working to combat discrimination against people with albinism.

“Of these cases, 75 were deaths. We have also received 18 reports of grave violations,” said Don Sawatzky, director of operations for UTSS. The study, which gathered together data from 25 different countries in Africa, found reports of 145 albino killings, in addition to 226 violations that include mutilations, other forms of violence, and kidnappings.

UTSS has been actively pushing the United Nations for four key resolutions aimed at ending all forms of discrimination of people living with albinism.

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Photograph: Ana Palacios

However, Sawatzky argues that to describe the killings as a phenomenon propelled by recent economic hardship would be “to accept the easy answer”.

“Nobody really knows the origin of the killings, since documentation in Africa is not common other than through oral tradition. All we know for sure is that albinism has been ‘mythologised’ since time beyond memory. Muti murders, or ‘medicine’ killings, have a deep, longstanding history, and are a familiar concept to most Africans,” he says.

In Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, the nation’s first albino member of parliament, Isaac Mwaura, says it is time measures are put in place to end these killings and abductions, and that existing laws need to be adhered to by all affected countries.

“Kenya has strict trafficking laws, the same as Tanzania. What makes it possible for criminals to take our children, mothers, fathers or brothers across borders and sell them off like commodities to witch doctors? Enforcement of laws is one of the weakest links in this war. We have become the hunted. Neither we nor our children are safe. Fathers are betraying their children’s trust and selling them off like unwanted baggage. Mothers are conspiring to traffic their own flesh and blood to senseless deaths.”
In Tanzania the government has been working with NGOs and civil society, and results are now being seen. “Never before have we seen so much effort from the government and the general public. At least we are now getting convictions, primarily because investigations are more thorough and new laws are being set up,” says Manento. “Although no executions have taken place, a total of 17 individuals have received the death sentence, some of them as recently as March, when four individuals, including the husband of the murdered victim, were convicted,” he said.
To win this war, NGOs at the forefront believe collusion within the community must come to an end. “We must educate families to understand that having such a child is not a gateway to quick riches. We then encourage the rest of the community to speak up,” says Edward. “The society needs to be more empowered and supported to co-operate. For instance, when family members are involved in killings or abductions it is quite difficult to get witnesses, because even they are not assured of their security.”

Sawatzky also believes that the war will be won, just not in the near future. “Like all forms of discrimination, it will take several generations to achieve. I will not see the war won in my lifetime. The youth and future generations are the best answer to this war,” he said.

More community sensitisation needs to be achieved, says Justus Kamugisha, regional police chief in Shinyanga, in the north of the country. “We need to make our people understand that there are no shortcuts to prosperity. Only hard, honest work pays. Taking the life of someone else, regardless of his condition, is simply murder, for which you will be charged.”

Wishes for Daughters in Darkness, at Dawn.

Beautiful writing…

Stacia L. Brown

May affection be a simple enterprise for you. May you never know entanglements with men who disengage quickly while you thrash about like a swan in the rings of a six-pack. I wish you friendships with discreet women; relatives whose opinions of you are not forged by the opinions of others; gentlemen callers who do not condescend. I wish you emotional slip knots, the limber stealth of escape artists, the willingness to remain tethered at the right times.

(Indulge me; I am your mother. My wishes are potent.)

May your heart never become such that it is only contented by playing the Nightingale. Do not be too tender, neither too eager to heal. May you never learn to use your own ribs as splints; do not break any bit of yourself to reset the men who are broken. May you laugh at the idea of women like your mother, who…

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Border Post 1: Mandera

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A walk through the Mandera Border Police post. Here, anything goes. gunshots and explosions are the norm.

BY DANIEL WESANGULA

On a hot lazy afternoon, a tale is told at the Mandera Police Post of a certain senior officer newly uprooted from the comforts of the capital city and deployed to the station. Having never been to that part of the country, the new officer contracted a government driver and a government car to shuttle him to his new destination.

When the two gentlemen were some 100 km from Mandera, the officer received a message on his cellphone. Eager to know who was thinking of him at that moment and excited to have come back to an area within cellphone network coverage, he whipped out his gadget and read the message aloud.

“Welcome to Somalia…” he didn’t finish it.

Alarmed, he ordered his driver off the road and immediately called his seniors in Nairobi. The message he had was simple. He said that in his eagerness, his driver had missed a turn and found his way into Somalia. Panicking, he requested his superiors to immediately send a search and rescue team to get both of them out. The thought of him being under terrorists was scary.

However, as it turned out he was just a few kilometres from Rhamu Tow and barely 80km from Mandera. Nevertheless, he would not budge unless an escort was sent his way.

Mandera Police Post has a story to tell. Its importance in the war against terror cannot be overemphasized. Nothing jumps out of the ordinary when one walks towards it from the Kenyan side. But from the Somalia side, things begin to stand out. Entire walls are riddle with bullet holes, not from the distant past but from the present.

“You see that one in the middle of the door, the bullet that went through it took the life of an officer,” offers a junior policeman. He has not been granted permission to talk by his seniors.

The roof has bullet holes. The police quarters are riddled with them. Building support beams too.

And at one corner, the bodies of two white buses and a Land Rover lie in ruin.

“You see those, those were left behind by Siad Barre as he fled his own country,” the officer offers.

One of the two busses has a shattered rear window. Shards of glass still litter the ground around it. Surely, this too cannot be from the Barre years.

“They threw a bomb here the other day. That is what caused the damage. Another day, they bombed one of our living quarters. We don’t even sleep inside the houses anymore. This place… you just have to keep moving.”

The main suspended metal water tank is also not in use.

“It is full of bullet holes. It can’t hold anything.”

As an alternative, they use an underground tank.

Here, gunshots or explosions are not out of the ordinary.

Danger. Death. Survival. All follow each other but in no particular order.

During the day, stray dogs in their tens go to the station for safety.

“At times the dogs come from as far out as Ethiopia. They are wild dogs. They come here because we protect them. The locals stone them because they eat their goats and sheep,” the officer says.

Even a walk through the station is eerie. How many unavenged spirits walk the Mandera Police Post grounds? How many litres of blood lost? How many homes of former police officers who were serving in this station and similar ones are still grieving?

“Many,” the officer says. He is barely 30 years old. He is on his third year at the police station.

Every few minutes cars on the Somali side drive almost to the Kenyan gate and drop off passengers. Some pass through the police station gate. Most don’t. Outside the confines of the station is open country that goes on for miles and miles.

Plus, there are little, if any, controls on the other side.

In the evening, children studying in nearby schools go back to their homes on the Somalia side. Tomorrow they make their way abroad for another round of learning.

Thin lines. Imaginary lines. Shifting lines. Lines crossed daily by pupils. Lines that may be the difference between life and death for the young officer at the border post. Lines that must be defended at all cost by one side, and breached through whatever means by another.

1,135 kilometres: An odyssey to the farthest end.

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Extra fuel... you know... just in case.

Extra fuel… you know… just in case.


By the time you get to Mandera by road, via Garissa and Wajir, a number of things will have happened to you. One, your mind will have learnt to numb the pain at the small of your back. Two, you would have learnt to accommodate dust as a fellow passenger. Three, you will long have forgotten how driving on tarmac feels like. Four, your body will have made it clear to you that water is indeed life and finally whether you are religious or not, you will give thanks to whoever you think saw you through the 1,135km journey.

Day 1

We live Nairobi some minutes to 9 am clueless on the kind of journey that lay ahead of us. None of us- the photojournalist, driver nor I- had been to Mandera before. The first five hours of the journey are a walk in the park. On to the super highway to Thika Town. From Thika one proceeds to Matuu and then to Mwingi Town. At this point, it is advisable for one to refuel and more importantly get the reserve petrol. Here, it is also advisable to leave behind any feelings whatsoever of shame that might prevent a grown man from walking to a shop and buy several empty plastic 20 litre jerry cans and fill them up with fuel. We had been warned against taking insufficient fuel. Logistical issues conspire against us and we leave Mwingi Town some minutes to 4pm, already several hours behind schedule but the allure of the open road wills us to go on and conquer new horizons. At some minutes past 6pm we get to Garissa where we hold fort for the night. Completely unaware of what lay ahead of us.

The naivete: Garissa Town. Oblivious of the journey ahead. PHOTO: Daniel Wesangula

The naivete: Garissa Town. Oblivious of the journey ahead. PHOTO: Daniel Wesangula

Day 2

At exactly 7am, the party leaves for Wajir. We leave Garissa onto the B9 highway then turn left. If we were to proceed straight on, we would go to Liboi and eventually Daadab Refugee Camp. But today, we are focused on Wajir. Exactly 400 kilometres from Nairobi the tarmac comes to an abrupt end and for the first time in the journey, our vehicle’s limits are beginning to be put to test. The loose murram road provides and endless supply of pebbles that are in constant collision with the cars underbelly. The vegetation is made up of stunted acacia trees and dust. Occasionally, a raised water pan pops out from the horizon ready to embrace caravans of camels and tribes of goats plus their herders who have walked for miles to get to it.

The small towns along the road are almost all littered with empty water bottles. Dik dik pairs dart across the road oblivious of the danger posed by a hurtling vehicle. The one gets to Shimbirey signs of life. We collectively think we must be near Wajir but a quick check on the mileage shows we have only travelled 40km from Garissa. We dig in. After 50 km we get to Dujis Town. No stop overs. Next is Afwein, then Maalimin and then Todgab, jilango and Modogashe. Still no need for a break so we proceed to Sericho then Habaswein. The mileage reads that we are 585 kilometres from Nairobi. No time for stops, we proceed to Guticha, then Lagbohol, Boji, Leheley then a white earth road ushers you into Wajir town. A quick stopover to get blood flowing into the legs again. We do not want to hang around. We have heard of random terror attacks in Wajir. We know we stand out so we are back on the road again, 700km from home. Next comes Tarbaj, Hungai, Maada and Kotulo. At Kotulo, we meet a senior police officer who beseeches us not to proceed past El Wak without having sought advice on the state of the road from the local police post. We proceed to Dinu, Bore Hole 11 and finally El Wak. We get advice from the police station. AS it turns out, the shortest and smoothest route to Mandera through Arabiya town is also the most dangerous. Everyone implores us to keep to the longer, backbreaking road through Rhamu Town. We have little reason to do otherwise.

A public service bus on its way from Mandera. Traffic on the road is sparse. PHOTO: Daniel Wesangula

A public service bus on its way from Mandera. Traffic on the road is sparse. PHOTO: Daniel Wesangula

We reason amongst ourselves.

“Look, all of us have young children. Let’s keep to the rough road and get to Mandera safely. Personally, I want to see my grandchildren,” the driver says. All of us are in agreement.

After El Wak we proceed to Iresuki then Wargadud. Next is Gari, but darkness is falling. Fast. All we see in front of us is a rocky road with hills around us. No signs of life. When we eventually get to Sala then Defo Epag, complete darkness surrounds us.

We can only see as far as the car’s headlights allow us to. Some gulleys on the road we see and the driver brakes. But most we do not see. No one in the car complains of the discomfort of hurtling down a rocky road at 80kph. What is a few sore bones and muscles in comparison to staying alive and reaching safely?

It becomes apparent that the driver, all this time, has not told us his ambitions to one day participate in the East African Classic Safari Rally. But his actions, let this secret out.

One of us gets an automated cell phone message:

“Dear Dickson, welcome to Somalia.”

For a moment we think we are lost and in the deep darkness took a wrong turn but when we see lights in the distance, we feel some relief. This is Rhamu Town. So far we have come 1055km from Nairobi.

Rhamu is unremarkable. The entire town is located on a sideways v- shaped stretch of road. But for the night, it is heaven. The adventurers in us were long subdued. The darkness, the bad road and rabid imaginations ensured we stayed the night.

“Wapi ile hoteli yenyu mzuri kabisa mtu anaweza lala,” we asked the first person we saw.

He duly obliged and instead of giving us directions as you would expect, insisted on walking us to the hotel.

Here, you do not need to call in advance to book a room. To begin with, there are no rooms to book per se. The hotel has no name. All we knew was that it was opposite a shop selling an assortment of fruit juices and slippers.

The lodging arrangements are simple. Boarders can take one of two options. Inside or outside.

“Lakini musilale ndani. Huko kuna joto sana. Huku tunalala nje,” said our host.

So mattresses were hurriedly put on beds and covered with thin polyester bed sheets. A wire runs across the block shaped building’s verandah. On it, mosquitoe nets are hung. One of us chose to sleep inside a room. At that time, the wisdom in his decisions was not obvious to us.

So after a meal of rice and boiled beans we called it a night. At around 4am, two of us were wide awake. Looking for our hosts and demanding extra bed sheets. The temperature had dropped significantly.

DAY 3

Sunrise on the Rhamu- Mandera Road.

Sunrise on the Rhamu- Mandera Road.

The party leaves Rhamu at 6am. An hour and a half later we get to Mandera. 1135 kilometres covered. Copious amounts of water consumed. Today we feel what Vasco Da Gama must have felt when he docked in Malindi. Soon though, we start to think about the return trip. Same road, same concerns but with a brand new fear- will the fuel be sufficient to get us safely back to Garissa. It was, but just barely.

A future in crisis

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The writer at Mandera Township Primary School

The writer at Mandera Township Primary School

Story originally appeared in the Standard on Sunday on Feb 22nd

To an old woman who is sitting down under the shade of a stunted acacia tree, wrestling might seem to be the simplest of things. The effort put in by the wrestlers, the energy, the perseverance and at the end of the duel the wounds that each of the fighters lick remain known only to them.

The pain from the body blows cannot be understood by anyone else. Only the loss of limb or life may inflict some level of discomfort to the watching old woman by the sidelines. Or she may just sneer and look away, diverting her thought to more pressing matters like where her next serving of camel milk will come from.

In Mandera, they say habar fadhidaa legdan la fududaa. And in that distant land right at the frontier of Kenya and Somalia, fights have been going on for decades. For generations. But the latest conflict, though bloodless, threatens to take much more than just lives. It threatens to take with it dreams, aspirations and ambitions of a whole generation plus, undo any healing that may have occurred in this fragile border region in North Eastern Kenya.

“We have been living peacefully with each other. Even when something bad happens, we have remained brothers through all these years. I don’t know what has happened now. Suddenly Mandera has become uninhabitable… this is too bad,” Ali Abdi Noor says, wistfully looking out of his shop window in the middle of his home town. Al Noor, his shop, stocks virtually everything. From fabric to sweets to brake fluid and everything in between.

The sun has finally decided to disappear behind the Gari Hills, its mission for the day accomplished. Twelve hours earlier, it came from the east, saw what mankind was up to and conquered all in its wake. Now it rests, but as darkness finally embraces the hills and the plains, another day has passed and tomorrow, we strike off another day from the calendar. Another day lost in the impasse between teachers and the government over resumption of their duties in large parts of the Northern Frontier District.

Dozens of chairs in staffrooms across three counties continue to gather dust. Students wait for their favourite teachers to come back and 1,135 kilometres from them, authorities- the ministry of education as well as union officials- sit in their air conditioned boardrooms and just like the old woman watching wrestlers in the Somali proverb, assume that a simple solution will be found to end the duel unfolding right before their very eyes.

Rashid Happi sits behind his desk at Mandera Township Primary School. He is charged with the safety and instruction of 1400 pupils at the public primary school. Under him also, are 15 teachers with whom he shares a responsibility that can alter the future of a whole generation.

On either side of his wooden desk stand miniature Kenyan flags. They do not flutter. The air in the headmaster’s office is still and from the large window behind him one can see heat radiate from the mabati roof of the school buildings.

“Of the 15 teachers, 5 are non-locals. Two have returned. Three are yet to come back. We have tried to talk to them but they say they don’t feel safe enough yet,” he says as he rearranges a cluster of sea shells. His desk is a maze of paper files and rubber stamps.

The office floor is partially covered by PVC carpeting.

“You know I can only do so much. They ask me questions about security but as the headmaster I can’t assure them. I am not in charge of security. I just give them an update of things,” he says, moving the two miniature flags closer together. His school is less than one kilometer from the Kenya- Somali border. It is as if with every touch of the flags he reminds himself of his Kenyanness

“We already lost time and we have been forced to make up for it,” Happi says. Schools opened on the 5th of January country wide. At Mandera Township, lessons painstakingly started on the 19th.

The timetable had to be reworked and replacements sought.

“We had to recall some county trained Early Childhood Education instructors to come and help us out. We had no alternatives, we have to educate our children,” he says.

This is just one of the solutions employed by school heads. Local leaders have suggested that qualifying grades of getting into teaching courses be lowered for Mandera natives so as to increase the number of their own in the profession. This way, the pressure and reliance on non- natives to teach will be eased somewhat.

But Happi says this will be a longshot.

“Even if these grades are lowered we won’t be able to compete with the rest of the country,” he says.

Even before the impasse Mandera, like most parts of the country, already had a teacher deficit. Primary education needed at least more than 900 teachers. Secondary schools were understaffed by 120 teachers.

Every wipe of the brow leaves one’s palm with fine dust. All roads within the town are in a state of construction. Dust seems to be everywhere. Clinging on to the air as if out to prove a point. Daring you to try and ignore it. As if the dust too, wants to own part of the present and by clinging onto everything, own part of the future too as inevitably, you will go with it to your journey’s end.

From Happi’s school, one takes a left turn, and then a right turn onto the main highway then drives towards the county hospital. Past the perimeter wall of the county referral hospital, one takes a final left and is ushered into the greenery of the county government offices.

Here sits Johora Mohamed Abdi, the County Executive Committee Member for Education and Social Services. She says her county has not only been hit hard, but hit hard where it hurts most.

“How do we bring our people up if not through education,” she asks.

Data from the county government shows that the whole county has 615 teachers in public schools. Of which 478 are non-locals. Of this figure more than 400 have not come back. This represents a 65 per cent loss of teaching staff.

“We have tried to send emissaries to them. We have got no feedback,” she says. “So we have been forced to adopt. We have 249 Form Four leavers currently teaching in various schools across the county.”

Above this, the county government is also offering bursaries to any of its residents willing to pursue courses in education.

These solutions seem to have provided temporary relief. But for how long will this glue hold?

There seems to be a distinct difference in the narrative from the locals and that of the non-locals. Private schools in the region employ a total of 352 teachers, of which only 31 are locals. In this sector, almost all of the non- local teachers – more than 310 (96 %) – have come back to work. Are their lives not in danger?

Sylvester Mboya has been a teacher at Al Qalam Junior Academy since 2009. On the 6th of January, a day after schools opened, classes had begun at Al Qalam.

“The director sent each of us money to buy plane tickets and come by air. We are 10 non- local teachers,” Mboya says. “Some of us have been here long enough to know how to survive.”

His boss, Mohammed Abdi Baji says the teacher boycott is not all about security. It points to a much deeper problem.

“We live in the same areas. In the past, we have had even locals attacked and killed by these terrorists. But we still live. This insecurity did not just come up suddenly. In spite of these spurts of violence, Mandera is a relatively safe town. Al Shabaab can attack anyone anywhere,” Baji, the director of Al Qalam said.

He says most of these teachers who have not resumed work are just angling for transfers.

“They have taken this unfortunate incident to arm twist the Teacher’s Service Commission into submitting to their transfer requests,” he says.

As he talks of a past in which even locals have been targeted by the Somali based terror group, it is the present state of affairs that non local teachers are most afraid of.

On November 22 Al-Shabaab terrorists hijacked a Nairobi-bound bus and executed 28 people in a chilling dawn attack. Among the dead were 22 teachers, all teaching in different schools in the border town. This attack, and another soon after that lead to the execution of 36 more has made the trip up north more daunting. For some, circumstance forces them to take the trip, hoping and praying that they will not make headline news across the country as the departed did.

“It is a miracle that I even came. But I had little option. What would you do? As a parent, I have responsibilities to my child,” Phides Njiru, a teacher told the Standard on Sunday.

A week after staying home weighing whether her union and the government might have something meaningful to say, she decided to take the two- day bus trip. With her was her 2 year old child.

Hii safari sio rahisi… kwanza kama uko na mtoto. Pili unajua kile kilipata wenzako barabarani. Ukishapita El Wak sasa unaskia tu nikama unakaribia kifo,” she says. “Lakini tutafanya nini.”

El Wak is 170km from Mandera. It is along this stretch of road that the 28 bus passengers were massacred.

So Phides, to some extent thinks those who are yet to resume their duties are justified.

Hata kama mimi ningekua na namna ingine singerudi. Ni kutafta maisha tu,” she says.

At the end of the school term, she will once again, daughter in hand, embark on the journey home.

“Lakini huko ni mbali sana. Wacha tuone nini itafanyika kati ya saa hii na mwezi wa nne,” she says. The bell rings. She goes back to class. Her face split in the middle with a wide a smile for her pupils. Only she knows the battles within her.

“Good morning class!”

“Good morning teacher Phides…” the pupils chorus after her. For the next 35 minutes her only worry becomes whether the pupils will understand the master.

Elsewhere on the main Mandera- Garissa highway, Deputy head teacher Mohammed Ibrahim is busy receiving students at his office. It is almost crunch time at Moi Girls Secondary School Mandera.

“Classes have not kicked off properly yet,” he says. A large fan faintly hums above him. Outside, only stillness and heat. His students walk around in their green buibuis and white hijabs.

“We are missing 15 non-local teachers from a total of 25,” Ibrahim says. “All my heads of department have not resumed.” The school’s student population stands at 720.

Like the others, they too have made temporary arrangements.

“The school board has already employed 15 locals to assist with the classes as we wait for a resolution,” he says.

“But I still don’t understand why they decided not to come… all of them are my friends…they have been here for years… they know Mandera. Why would they make such a decision,” he says.

Non- locals still do not feel safe. Some feel that they cannot talk freely of what really ails Mandera. They say security is just one of the issues. There have been allegations of mistreatment and being relegated to life as a second class citizen within the precincts of the town.

“We have had issues reported to us. Issues of sexual assault. Issues of mistreatment and use of derogatory names to describe us,” Sylvester Mboya, the teacher at Al Qalam said.

Local police say they have had no such incidence reported to them.

“People fear reporting these issues. Where will you take your complaints? If you go to the police you better be ready to leave the town,” Mboya says.

He says he has heard of people being targeted, threatened for making police reports on matters such as assault.

“But what do we know. Here, we are just visitors. Tenda mema nenda zako…” he says.

Beyond the education impasse Mandera holds the key to much more. If this key gets lost in national political agendas and arguments of self-preservation and ‘looking out for number one’ then Mandera will look inwards for solutions. And if the solutions are not found within him, he will cast his eyes further to already willing suitors across the border barely metres away.

“If this void continues to exist, it will be readily filled by those with ill motive as has happened elsewhere. The students must continue to learn and if the teachers change, then what they learn will also be different,” said Adan Abdulahi Sheikh, a parent and PTA member at Mandera Township. “And when this happens, who knows…”

At Al Noor, the shop with everything under the sun, a picture with a Somali proverb hangs from one of the walls.

Arrinxumo abaar ka daran.”. The English translation goes thus: A wrong decision is worse than a drought.

Some decisions have already been made. Others are yet to be made. But the drought is already being felt in this dusty, hot town. How much longer before the camels and goats keel over from hunger?