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Remote village where residents risk their lives just to make a phone call

By Dann Okoth | March 2nd 2015
Amref intra-cultural nurse Lepantas Leshore (left) leads women in a reproductive health session in Pakase, Kajiado County. Mothers have died while giving birth at the hands of traditional birth attendants when that one phone call could not get to the nearest ambulance service provider. (Photo:Dann Okoth)

For a majority of Kenyans, making a phone call takes a simple touch of the button anywhere, any day, any time. But for locals in a village in Kajiado County, it is a matter of life and death.

In the small community of Pakase in lower Magadi, Kajiado, several people have lost their lives while climbing a mountain to make phone calls.

Mothers have died while giving birth at the hands of traditional birth attendants when that one phone call could not get through to the nearest ambulance service provider.

Chiefs have watched helplessly as little girls are circumcised or married off to old men because they could not contact the police for help.

Nestled against Lake Natron at the border of Kenya and Tanzania, Pakase, named after a popular local tree, Pagase, is one of the few places in Kenya with the poorest mobile network coverage. But incredibly, one in every three people in the community has a mobile phone.

However, making a call is still a distant mirage, steeped in danger and death, literally. For one to make a call, they have to climb to the top of Mt. Pakase, about 450 feet up, but even when up there, they are never assured of making that call.

"Often, it's a trial and error affair," says a resident, Lillian Ntiyie. "Sometimes you wait for hours, even a whole day to access the network," she adds.

The pregnant 30-year-old mother of three had travelled 15 kilometres to Mt. Pakase in a desperate bid to contact her husband who works in Magadi, about 120 kilometres away.

In the traditional Maasai culture, the presence of the man at birth is sometimes crucial because in the event of a difficult delivery, he is required to remove his shoes to 'open the way' to the woman's womb.

"My time is nearing and I am not sure what will happen. Therefore, I wanted to know whether he would be around just in case I experience any difficulty during child birth," she says.

Ntiyie's plight mirrors that of nearly 11,000 mobile subscribers in the area who apply all tricks in the book just to make a phone call.

Nearly all those who make it to the top of the mountain are in a desperate situation which needs urgent attention. Some want to report a crime, others want to request for emergencies services like ambulances, among others.

Area chief Peter Siamito confirms people have lost their lives while scaling the rugged mountain terrain to make a phone call. "One incident happened mid last year when a man made it to the mountain at night to call a relative in Magadi but never made it back," Siamito says.

"His body was found at the foot of the mountain the following day," he adds.

Health concern

According to 23-year-old Lorna Nairaba who lives at the foot of the mountain and who claims to have witnessed several incidents of death last year, the death of a middle-aged man was among the many that have shocked the village.

"That night, we heard a blood-cuddling cry, then an eerie silence," Nairaba says as she recalls the events of that fateful night.

Siamito says the mobile network situation in the area has transformed from a communication issue to a security and public health concern.

"It is very frustrating especially when I need to get in touch with higher authorities in the event of a security situation. It could be to ask for police assistance to rescue a girl who is about to be subjected to the female cut or to respond to cattle rustling by raiders from the neighbouring country," he says.

He says his efforts and those of area leaders to request the two main service providers to improve network coverage in the area have fallen on deaf ears.

"The last time they were here, they promised to erect a mast on top of the mountain but we are still waiting two years down the road," he says.

Siamito notes that other residents have been maimed and left scarred after they fell off the mountain or were attacked by wild animals.

The journey to the top of the mountain is a treacherous, nerve-racking affair that involves defying death, as this writer found out first-hand.

The ascent is smooth at first, as we make our way up the mountain through tiny meandering paths between jugged rock-edges. As we go higher—almost mid-way to the top—the trip gets trickier. There is no way up except at the very edge of the mountain. The adrenaline rush is unbearable. A small slip and you could fall 200 feet to your death. I can't bear to look down.

Falling rocks threaten to knock you off balance. On the way, we encounter animal carcasses and skeletons, testament to the dangerous predators which abound on the mountain.

 According to Amref Alternative Rites of Passage Project officer in the area Lepantas Leshore, people have been attacked on the mountain by wild animals from the nearby animal conservancy. "Women also run the risk of being raped, especially those who attempt to go up the mountain at night when chances of accessing the network are higher," he says.

Yet, these are the odds the locals have to endure to get in touch. The situation gets even worse when it comes to mobile money services. The residents have to part with Sh100 to hire a motorbike to Nguruman shopping centre, 30 kilometres away, to access the service. But even there, middlemen charge them Sh100 for every Sh500 withdrawn or sent, which is more than four times the normal charges.

Daniel Sisi, an elder in the village, parted with Sh5,000 to send his son back to school in Nakuru after he was sent home for a fees balance of Sh1,000. "Everything would have been cheaper for me if there was network and mobile money services because all I would have done is send him the Sh1,000. But I had to pay for him to come here," he says.

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