By Ekai Nabenyo
My trip to Paris, France to join the world in the climate change negotiations aimed at urgently changing the changing climate began long time ago when I was in my first year at the University of Nairobi. Having been born and brought up in a pastoralist community whose life was majorly pegged on nomadism, I had experienced, first hand, the tough realities of climate change in my community. Between 1992 when I was born and the year 2000 when I first set feet in a classroom, I had served as a herds-boy taking care of my grandfather’s livestock and moving from place to place looking for green pastures and water for our livestock. I had traversed many parts of Turkana as a herds-boy and seen a beautiful Turkana environment that was so green and appropriate for our nomadic way of life. Like many other pastoralists in Turkana, the immediate environment in Turkana was our source of food. Wild fruits were readily available for our consumption in the wilderness while moving with our goats and sheep.
Our animals were so healthy and well-fed that we would get enough milk and blood from them for our consumption at any time of the seasons. There was too much milk that I remember we even had the luxury of sparing a few litres for sale to the milk-thirsty populations in the nearby towns of Lodwar and Lokichar and, in the process, get some money to purchase basic household items. Droughts and famines were very rare and they would come once in a year and last for one or two months, then rains would come; the soil and the people become happy.
15 years later, I now see a Turkana environment that is dry, hot and arid. The temperatures are increasingly rising, the water levels of Lake Turkana, our only lake are dropping due to massive water evaporation arising from the scorching sun, our pasturelands are drying up and the greener pastures I used to know are no longer available. Droughts have chased away the rains and are taking over the once rainy seasons. People are worried about what is happening. The rain makers have lost the trust of the community members because they can no longer bring down the rain. The pastoralists are worried. They are wondering whether the community did offend the ancestors and now they are angry and punishing the community. The offerings to appease the ancestors seem to no longer work. The local pastoralists have lost 70% of their livestock and are struggling to maintain the remaining few. That is the reality of climate change in my place. By God’s grace, however, my people have managed to survive despite the harsh climatic conditions.
In 2011, oil and gas was discovered in this already struggling Turkana community that had been forgotten by “the people from Kenya” by Tullow Oil PLC. The news of the oil discovery was received with a lot of excitement by the Turkana people and the rest of the country. A community that had been forgotten and thrown to the dogs by all miraculously becomes the topic of discussions in all boardrooms in Nairobi and abroad. The oil companies moved in, in what looked like an army operation. Police were everywhere, guarding the oil and gas company installations, machines and vehicles at all costs including chasing away the local pastoralists from their lands. The scramble for and partition began with speculations flying right, left and centre; the most notable one being that the land where the oil was discovered had been sold by a prominent Kenyan politician to another third party long before the oil was discovered in 2011. There were accusations and counter accusations between rival political camps in Kenya on the same. The oil company finally settled and kicked off oil and gas exploration, aerial and seismic.
The time oil and gas was discovered in my community coincided with my exit from secondary school and I was among the many Turkana men and women who were absorbed to work for the oil company. I worked as a General Survey Worker for the oil company. Our work involved clearing community pastures and forests to pave way for a machine that, we were told, would send signals to the ground in trying to gauge the availability or non-availability of the much-talked-about black gold. Our operations were often disrupted by the protesting community members who demanded that their culture, way of life and environment be respected by the oil companies and in response, the oil company would many a times employ the most vocal of the community leaders in order to silence dissent and create a conducive environment for the oil company to carry on with its work, undisrupted. I, together with thirteen other General Survey Workers had signed a contract with the company of an equivalent of USD 500 salary a month but after working for a whole month and more days, the Human Resource Manager of the oil company summoned us to his office one evening and forced us into a queue, handing everybody an equivalent of USD 20 and we thought it was a token for a job well done only to be told that was our full month salary. As if that was enough, this was accompanied by threats of us being fired if we did not accept the money we had been given. Non Turkanas were being paid more, even those with whom we worked in the same environment under the same job assignment and were never subjected to any harassment.
In response to this discrimination and blatant disregard of the law by the oil company executives, I mobilized my other Turkana colleagues (most of whom had no benefit of secondary school education like me) and we staged a protest by refusing to go to work the following morning. The company then sacked us and we were bundled into a lorry and evicted out of the company’s base camp and off, we headed for Lokichar, the nearest town. Thirteen other General Survey Workers were immediately employed and the work continued. We accepted this and moved on. These injustices and the vulnerability of my Turkana people challenged me a lot and I thought I could use the knowledge I got from high school and from being a student of law to do something to change the status quo. In 2011, while sleeping in my tiny campus cubicle in University of Nairobi, I had thoughts crossing my mind and I thought I should use my education to help my forgotten people advocate for their rights to development and to demand that their community land rights be safeguarded in the face of oil and gas exploration.
One day in 2011, while back at home during the university long holidays, I put together the young people in my community and pitched to them the idea of forming a youth-led advocacy group to empower the community to be conversant with their rights and to lobby for support from friends of good will for us to be able to implement community development projects right in our community as the youth. The idea was received well by a few community members while rejected by many who considered it an over-ambitious idea that would die a natural death like many others development ideas that had been crafted before it. I was heart-broken and went back into soul-searching whether this was really a good idea and whether I would get time to run the activities of the group as I was a first year student with a lot of work and commitments in campus. I however pressed on and talked to more community members who agreed to register with the group as community volunteers. After a whole month, I had registered only seven members. More members registered with the group after we organized the first community empowerment summit using the USD 300 government loan that I used to receive from the government through the Higher Educations Loans Board (HELB) every academic year. We got thirty three members registered who are the current members of our group. As a group, we divided our work into three key thematic areas; Youth Empowerment, Environmental Conservation and Community Development. We believed that if our Turkana Youth were empowered and the community environment/ land rights in Turkana were safeguarded against injurious private investors in oil and gas, the community would automatically develop.
We also believed that the only way the Turkana people could be capacity-built to fight for their rights was through education. We therefore wanted to do more than the education we provided through the community empowerment summits that we organized. I embarked on a journey to re-construct the only school in my home village that was established in 1984 but was neglected by government as there were no teachers, no books and no proper structures. In this school, the pupils used trees as classrooms and the football pitch served as an additional classroom. The local politicians knew this school very well and were aware of the massive exodus of the pupils out of this school to other schools because the school did not meet any reasonable standards of being called a “Government or Public School.” When the Education Officer in Turkana wanted to punish or discipline a teacher in Turkana, he or she would always be transferred to this school and good teachers taken away from us. This is the school where I studied up to grade six then, like many others before me, I transferred to other schools to continue with my education due to the pathetic conditions of my school.
I never wanted the young boys and girls in my community to undergo the same challenges that I had gone through in the pursuit of the much-needed education in my community. I therefore wrote twenty five (25) proposals to different organizations and entities in Nairobi. Some of those entities included the US Embassy, Master Card Foundation, Equity Foundation, Kenya Commercial Bank, Bidco Oil Kenya Ltd, Safaricom Foundation and many others. Luckily, I got a reply from Safaricom Foundation who ended up approving our proposal and allocating USD 84,000 for the construction of the school. We put up 6 permanent classrooms, 24 pit latrines and 200 reading desks to the school and launched the same in a colorful ceremony on the 6th of September 2014. We subsequently approached the Ministry of Energy of Kenya and implemented a Solar-power project in the school. The school became like an oasis in a desert. That year, and for the first time in 34 years, Lorengelup Primary School hosted the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) as an Examination Centre. The student population in this school has tripled and now serves students from across Turkana County. This has promoted our work in advocating for education in this community as parents are ready and willing to take their kids to the school.
As a pastoralist community, my people of Turkana do not understand the co-relation between the increasing aridity in their home land and the scientific concept of climate change. Our group therefore wanted to act as a conduit pipe through which information on climate change could reach our people. We knew that having gone to college, there was a heavy burden on our shoulders to enlighten our community to better appreciate climate change and devise ways of adapting to it. We did and we still do this advocacy through town halls and youth summits in our local community. Our philosophy is one and it is that when communities are empowered in the grassroots and capacity-built, they will contribute better to the conservation of the environment and to the climate change advocacy work and produce spectacular results. From 2014, our work at the grassroots has been supported by Global Green Grants Fund and it is this GGF that facilitated my travel to Paris for COP21 and gave me the opportunity to join the rest of the world in making my voice to be heard by our leaders and to press them to come up with an agreement that will help us to confront climate change better. I have learnt a lot from the COP21 experience and I will share this experiences in my next publication, My Climate Road During Paris: Lessons and Experiences from COP21.
Ekai Nabenyo is A Lawyer by Profession and A Climate Change Advocate in Turkana County, Northern Kenya. He seeks to enlighten his pastoralist community to better understand Climate Change and Devise Better Ways of Adaptation as well as Safeguard Community Lands Rights in the face of Private Investments in Oil and Gas. He attended the Conference of Youth and The United Nations Climate Change Summit in Paris, France between 25th November and December 12th 2015
If you have never planted a tree in your life, You don’t have a right to Enjoy our Oxygen – Ekai Nabenyo