|A grader rolls into Wajir town to begin work on the town’s first ever tarmacked road. [Photo: Joe Ombuor/Standard]|
Wajir, Kenya: For a people who have had to imagine what tarmac looks and feels like, news that the dust-washed Wajir town would soon get a facelift and boast tarmacked roads bordered on fiction as only a privileged few have seen, let alone walked on tarmac.
The only stretch of tarmac in the 661,941-square kilometres county - the third largest in the country - can be found on the 3.8km-long runway at Wajir International Airport.
Even the privileged few have to hop into vehicles specially provided 'for security reasons' to ferry passengers carrying flight tickets to the airport that, despite being international, remains a restricted military facility.
In Wajir town, it is not uncommon to come across residents among the estimated 50,000 inhabitants who have never seen tarmac although the airport is hardly four kilometres away from the town centre.
This state of affairs explains why residents turned up in droves to witness the initial tarmacking of the first eight kilometres that are part of phase one of an ambitious project to cover 25 kilometres in the town and its immediate suburbs.
Majority of the residents gathered at the ground-breaking ceremony held at the weekend watched with their mouths agape and many could be heard saying, "This is unbelieveable!"
Among those who set their eyes on asphalt for the first time in their lives was Ibrahim Waqo, a 72-year-old father of six who sells bows and arrows in the town.
Excitement showing all over his wrinkled face, Mr Waqo blurted out: "Thanks be to Allah that I have lived to see this day. My parents and three older brothers died without knowing what tarmac looks like. I cannot wait to walk on it."
A vegetable vendor in her late 50s, Rukia Abdalla, stood transfixed, watching as a heavy construction machine trundled around ready to regurgitate tar.
She exclaimed: "Here is the black mixture they say will drown the dust in our town. Long live the county government!"
In a figurative gesture that was met with claps and ululations from the excited crowd, Governor Ahmed Abdullahi, dressed appropriately in a helmet, reflector jacket and other construction site attire, pressed the levers of heavy equipment and got it rolling to begin the long-awaited project.
When the dust settled on the ceremonial launch, the governor urged traders at Soko Mjinga to move to the new market to make way for the road works.
The governor, flanked by five MPs, his deputy Abdihafid Abdullahi and Senator Abdirahman Hassan, said once the tarmacking was complete, street lights would be installed to effectively convert the town into a 24-hour economy.
Mr Abdullahi joined calls urging the Jubilee government to end the nightmare that is the 710km-long Garissa-Mandera highway, saying refurbishment of this road would bring the region closer to other parts of the country.
He said with the discovery of huge natural gas deposits in Wajir County and oil in Turkana County, northern Kenya could no longer be ignored as has happened in the past.
"That is why tarmacking of this particular road and other important transport trunks in northern Kenya must be fast tracked," he said.
"The Government ought to come to terms with the fact that the once marginalised counties of northern Kenya are now important economic centres capable of not only generating revenue for the country, but also contributing to food security through irrigation. There is therefore need to upgrade the transport infrastructure for easy access," he said.
MPs at the ground-breaking ceremony were Abbas Sheikh (Wajir East), Mohamed Elmi (Tarbaj), Ibrahim Saaney (Wajir North), Abdikadir Ore (Wajir West) and Abdullahi Diriye (Wajir South).
Mr Saaney said with the advent of county governments, there would be no more marginalisation of regions due to political reasons.
"Our people are seeing tarmac for the first time because previous regimes left them marginalised and undeveloped. However, thanks to devolution, today the situation is changing. Let us face it, even the detractors of this county administration cannot help but admit that this is a worthwhile investment and a great achievement," the MP said.
Residents who spoke to The Standard after the launch could not suppress their elation.
"With tarmac roads in place, we will cough less because the ever-choking dust will be a thing of the past. Long live devolution!" said Aden Mohamed, a trader who hawks camel milk in the town.
And Ali Suleiman, a businessman at Soko Mjinga, said he was very hopeful that business would experience a boom with the arrival of tarmac.
"I look forward to seeing more local and foreign investors visit the county once the tarmac roads and street lights become a reality," he said.