Lokichar oil: A blessing or curse for Turkana?

Asekon Ekai in Lokichar  [photo by Peter Muiruri]

For the last 56 years, Asekon Ekai has walked the dust bowls of Lokichar, Turkana County, where temperatures can soar to 40 degrees centigrades.

She has fought and won many contests with famine, ill health and the never ending feuds with neighbouring communities. Indeed, life in this remote part of the country is not for the fainthearted. But, despite the rigours of this hard life, Ekai is also clothed in layers of optimism, living each day with the hope that tomorrow will bring good tidings.

Like many people here, Ekai has heard about the discovery of oil in the area. She has been told that the production of oil, often referred to as black gold, will transform her life, that of her small town and the county at large.

We meet Ekai outside her daughter’s small house on the outskirts of Lokichar. With her neck resplendent with a dozen handmade colourful necklaces and complimented by beaded earrings, she is the very picture of a beautiful African woman.

Still, for a woman who has known nothing but abject poverty all her life, getting her to talk about oil is not easy. Her daughter even threatened to stone us if we continued to interview her mother on matters to do with oil near the family’s homestead.

Moving a little further away, Ekai opens up and tells us what the newfound resource should do for Turkana.

“Mwambie Uhuru ama Raila, mafuta ni yetu, ni ya Turkana na itakaa Turkana kama hakuna pesa (tell President Uhuru or Raila that the oil is ours and will not leave Turkana if there is no money for us),” she says - her intense, brown eyes looking into the horizon where the setting sun casts a soft hue on her chocolate face.

Even after reminding her that the first trucks carrying oil will leave Lokichar in a few month’s time, Ekai’s refrain remains the same: “No money, no oil”.

During our three-day sojourn in Lokichar a fortnight ago, we came across this statement more times than we can count. Everyone, including the occasional drunkard, seems to have an idea about what needs to happen to this product they have never seen.

We also noted that discussions about the expected windfall from these oil proceeds are emotive. Indeed, managing rising expectations of this community will be an enormous task not only for the county and national governments but the companies currently handling the upstream segment of the oil business.

As we walked around the nondescript town, a group of men sitting under an acacia tree near the livestock market became curious when they saw our television cameras. “Ni mambo ya mafuta, sio?” one of them asks. We answer in the affirmative.

Identifying himself only as Amoja, he taps the ground with his walking stick followed by a pause.

“We have heard that Tullow has found a lot of oil down here, and that they will sell it for a lot of money. We are yet to see it. All we care about is how this discovery will benefit us.

We want jobs, we want roads, we want water for our animals,” the man says repeatedly tapping his walking stick, becoming visibly agitated with every word uttered.

Household name

Tullow Oil plc, a multinational oil and gas exploration firm founded in Ireland but headquartered in London, is the company behind oil exploration in Lokichar.

It is mandated by the Petroleum Exploration and Production Act to prioritise employment of locals and develop its area of operation. So far, the firm has provided at least 200 jobs, mainly in procurement of goods as well as transport and logistics services to area residents.

It has helped to put up and equip several social amenities such as schools, dispensaries and water points. The road from Lodwar to Lokichar is dotted with several signboards to that effect.

As we saw from the visitors’ book, more people visit the company’s local office than they do the chief’s camp. They talk more about the company than they do about the Government.

Yet, despite the company spending about Sh7.4 billion to better the local community, Amoja and his ilk want the firm to do more in uplifting their lives.

Dennis Okore, a member of Tullow’s field communication team, knows only too well about the expectant community that has lived on life’s edge for generations.

“We are dealing with a product that is new to everyone,” Okore tells us. “No one has ever had the experience of handling oil in Kenya. It is too early to talk about a transformation through oil especially with exploration still ongoing. However, not a single barrel has left Turkana, we are first putting into place the infrastructure needed to transport this commodity.

While some look forward to changing fortunes due to the discovery of oil in the region, there are those like Nang’ero Naauto who blame environmental degradation on the exploration activities.

The father of two claims improper handling of waste products from the exploration blocks has contaminated the area with chemicals.

We met Naauto grazing his few goats next to a dry river bed 100m from his home. A dead and decomposing goat lay near.

Despite the evidence of drought all around the county, Naauto claimed the goat died after foraging in an area contaminated with chemicals from the company’s site.

We followed Naauto to his home where, with the help of his family, he displayed dried goatskins that he, once again, claimed belonged to part of his flock that died out of ingesting contaminated grass.

Although Naauto has filled and submitted grievance registration forms to Tullow requesting the waste products site be relocated, we could not authenticate any of his claims – and that of other villagers.

Spending some time in Lokichar makes it clear that among its residents, uncertainty and a certain level of distrust still shrouds the entire oil exploration process. Coupled with non-existent infrastructure, little or no food security and harsh climatic conditions, only time will tell if this oil find is the silver bullet that will transform this area for good.