By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
A week of traversing dry and fertile lands of Kenya and Uganda has made me appreciate that sometimes one can be naturally endowed but pays little or no attention to the blessing. I didn't know much about the fertility of Kenya's soils until I got there on sponsorship of Oxfam International under the Africa Journalists Climate Change Expedition. Whereas only 30% of Uganda is arid land Kenya is 80% arid. Tanzania has half of its total land size being arid. So, it dawned on me that Uganda is indeed gifted by nature yet we are not taking enough advantage of this beautiful, fertile and naturally endowed land with its vast green vegetation, forests, abundant rains, many water bodies. The dry Karamoja, which many Ugandans often take as a laughing stock, is greener and more fertile when compared to Masai land. Because of these endowments Ugandans should have been working twice harder to maximise the gift of nature yet that's not the case. Kenya which has only 20% of its total land size as arable is an economic powerhouse in the region; although being on the coastline among other factors work to favour Kenya's economy. Much as Masai land and Karamoja are semi arid areas, Masai land is more innovative in mitigating adverse climatic changes than is Karamoja.
One thing that struck my mind was the Kenyans' determination to overcome their challenge of aridness and their desire to feed the nation of 40.5 million. The Kenya government is aware of the problem and it's doing something about it. Uganda seems flat-footed with the Karamoja arid situation. Even when former vice president Dr Specioza Kazibwe stole the money meant to construct water valley dams to ease the life of Karimajong cattle herders she was not asked to pay back the money. Instead Dr Specioza was given a Shs 3 billion scholarship on taxpayers' account to study a PhD at Harvard University as the people of Karamoja are still grappling with adverse drought conditions that water valley dams would have helped soften.
Here is a glimpse of what Masailand looks like. Driving through the Masai land all through Lake Magadi soda ash mines, one begins to wonder at the human adaptation mechanisms in face of harsher environs. This is because the stretch of land that starts with a tarmac road just outside Nairobi city toward Lake Magadi snakes through a rocky barren land. The rocky surface land continues with the murram road after crossing the lake. It's land whose surface is covered by brown stone boulders instead of the normal loam soils. No crops grow here. The cattle herded here are skinny and people around the area bonny. Drought is written all over the place. The color of grass here is permanent dry gold yet the soils, if any, are poor giving the area a complete desert look. But inside this arid and barren rocky land are pockets of corrugated iron huts, which pass for homes of Masai cattle herders. In Uganda we have the Karimajong cattle keepers but their land is better at least the grass here has some green pigments left in them which is a rare sight in Masai land.
However, a simple gravity irrigation scheme largely an effort of the local community humbled me. The scheme is changing these people's lives. After driving for 2 seemingly endless hours through the dusty loose weather road after crossing Lake Magadi soda ash mines, we finally arrived in a rocky trading centre (a small rural town) in Kajiado district. A group of women and men, wrapped in red and purple-stripped large sheets with dangling sticks in their hands and their feet soaked in car tyre-sandals, was sipping through battles of Tusker beer. The group was a mix the Masai cattle keepers and crop farmers. They were to narrate how the weather and climate variations have affected their lives and the adaptation measures they have taken. Stories of a severe drought that left thousands of animals dead forcing some into crop farming were common. The new breed of farmers was reaping big from export of vegetables to mainly India with the able help of Ngurumani Irrigation Scheme that covers 350 acres of land. The chairman of the farmers said with support of African Development Bank through the government of Kenya, the scheme will expand to about 2000 acres.
Again I reflected on the Ugandan government effort to help the people of Karamoja who have depended on World Food Programme food aid for decades. I was disappointed.
Faced with the increasing drought periods the Ngurumani cattle keepers have drawn up a strict grazing timetable to ration the now scarce animal grass to save their livestock from death. During drought season the herders take their animals to the nearby mountain because it's always cold there and grass are abundant. When it rains in the plains the cattle are grazed in the lowlands. Anyone who violated this rule is fined. It is a strong and somewhat organised rural community that has lessons for Uganda.