Day 3 Ends: Isiolo

After 7 or 8 hours in the car we pull into Isiolo, about 3 hours south of Sereolipi and the last true town before we begin to make our way into Kenya's northeastern tribal regions. Here we will stay the night at a hotel called The Bomen, which bills itself as "tourist class."

Isiolo is a fascinating and often terrible place. What I know of the town comes from the impressive synopsis Jane gives me as we are pulling in.

Isiolo was a large border-post for the British occupancy, an official line between the myriad tribes of the northeast and the long road to Nairobi. With this foundation, after the British departed, Isiolo became what many report as a wonderful post, deep in diversity and rich in the regal colonial architecture. It was a place where members from all of Kenya's northeast tribes (the Samburu in Sereolipi, the Rendille, Borana, Maasai, Somali and Gabra) could come to get provisions, news, gossip and transportation south.

Note: Life in Northern Kenya is so distinctly different from that of the rest of the country that the residents refer to traveling anywhere south of Isiolo as, "going to Kenya."

Then the rains ended. 2000 was a year of great conflict in this part of Kenya, droughts led to cattle raids, cattle raids led to revenge killings, revenge killings led to more of the same and much of the arid Northern region went hungry and went to war.

As Jane describes it, many stayed in the villages to defend their land, their livestock and their families. Others did not. Those with nothing left fled to Isiolo, without money to pay for food. Jane talks in Darwinian terms, describing how the weaker half of many villages (those without livestock to defend, those without strong ties to their community) started a mass pilgrimage in search of food, leaving everything behind. Soon the town was flooded with refuges.

The droughts continued and those who settled here have not left. To make matters worse, for the last four years HIV-Aids has run rampant through Isiolo. It is still a town of astounding diversity, but now under the weight of poverty, crime and disease. For the most part, NGO's do not come here and the government has not taken an interest. People recoil when they talk about Isiolo, no one mentions plans to turn it around.

I realize it sounds ambiguous but there is a distinct difference in feel between Isiolo and the other communities we visit. What I love about Kenya (the optimism, the sincere thirst for development in many regions, the localization and democracy of decision making) feels absent here. Admittedly, we don't stay long enough to learn much and feel is no measure. But it gets me wondering what is ahead in Sereolipi...

More street scenes in Isiolo

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