This week, I attended the Mandera Somali Cultural Festival, a unique event that attracted thousands of participants from all over Kenya, and neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia, to celebrate this wonderful but sometimes forgotten culture.
Historically, Somalis reinvigorate the cultural bond during such festive periods and it actually reminds them of the good olden days when the region’s economic growth was somewhat taking shape due to cross-border movement and trade with neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia.
Going by the current state of roads and the rains, my journey could have taken close to three days or more - hence very expensive - had I chosen to use a bus or drive. Fortunately, Mandera is served by five daily flights that fly on time and are efficient.
The governor of Mandera is the first county leader to display the Somali culture, something that has given his county positive publicity. This is the fruit of devolution.
Yesterday, we celebrated the 55th anniversary of Kenya’s independence, yet while in Mandera, I observed the area is still largely underserved.
Today and in this modern age of technological advancement, the county seems to be struggling; yet to emerge from the profound challenges precipitated by colonial marginalisation, insecurity and unequal resource sharing before the dispensation of devolved government.
On the flip of the coin, the county has daily flight services from Nairobi costing approximately Sh12,000 one way, a cost that is still out of reach for ordinary citizens wanting to avoid the long trek by road, coupled with insecurity.
Having interacted with Mandera residents during the Somali cultural event, it is explicitly evident that the hopes and aspirations of the local residents are that one day the county will claim it is glory and regain economic growth.
This will largely depend on our nation’s commitment to invest in road infrastructure and other viable economic growth initiatives. Of course, I took a few moments to talk to the residents on their livelihoods and the cost of living. A litre of petrol in Mandera retails at Sh140.
The prices of other commodities are relatively cheaper compared to other parts of Kenya due to the informal trade across the borders. The border between Somalia and Kenya is officially closed, but people still cross, especially school children who attend their classes on the Kenyan side of the border. Governor Ali Roba says almost 70 per cent of patients at the country referral hospital are from neighbouring countries.
People in the Northern Frontier parts of Kenya have felt excluded from the country for many decades. Thanks to devolution, things are beginning to change.
The national government in partnership with Frontier Counties Development Council (FCDC) announced a World Bank funded transformational projects that shall see the region overcome some of these infrastructural challenges and are connected to other parts of the country.
The question still remains, how do the people feel? Did they celebrate the Jamhuri Day fete with full conviction of them feeling like they are part of Kenya? My instinct tells me the residents of this vast region have a good feeling, that they are happy to be part of Kenya and want to show this as well. However, they are still reminded of those difficult times of the shifta war when generally they were not considered full citizens of the republic of Kenya.
This is more so when one is travelling to Nairobi either by road or by air. At the Mandera airstrip, the security forces treat the local population with contempt.
Flying from Mandera town is a very unfriendly process. The passenger numbers are, in my view, higher than some of the airports with modern terminals.
In Mandera, the passengers are required to disembark from their taxis about a mile from the aircraft and are expected to walk to the aircraft and the security checks are understandably thorough due to the fear of Al Shabaab. But for the local residents, this hard approach by security agencies makes them feel less Kenyan.
Even on arrival at Wilson Airport, the treatment of residents from the Northern Frontier counties is different. They have to identify themselves and undergo thorough security checks again. I wonder if what goes through their minds in such circumstances, 55 years after independence, is whether Mandera is part of Kenya.