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Great North Road that changed fortunes of dry northern Kenya

By Jacinta Mutura | April 11th 2021

Participants of the camel caravan cross the Marsabit-Isiolo Highway. [Murimi Mwangi, Standard]

Born and raised in an area cut off from the rest of the country due to lack of critical infrastructure, Dalle Abraham, a resident of Marsabit, gives a clear picture of the disparity of a life before and after construction of the Isiolo-Moyale highway.

Abraham schooled when Northern Kenya was a point of reference for the generational sense of marginalisation.

Having to travel for over 500km from Marsabit to Nairobi and covering 375km more to Maseno University, completion of the 507km Isiolo-Moyale highway is a historic development Abraham and the entire North Eastern community relish.

“We used to travel by lorries and one had to wait for days before you could get a lorry going down to Nairobi. The experience of sitting in a lorry with animals underneath was quite uncomfortable and it would take me two days to travel from Marsabit to school in Kisumu,” says Abraham. 

Abraham says it was so common to hear people saying “they were traveling to Kenya” when actually they meant travelling to Nairobi.

Construction of the Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale highway was completed in 2014, forming part of the Great North Road in the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) Corridor.

Residents say the highway’s construction, which was launched by former President Mwai Kibaki and completed under President Uhuru Kenyatta, has contributed immensely to development and businesses in Northern frontier counties.

Travel time between Moyale (Kenya/Ethiopia border town) and Nairobi reduced from three days to 10 hours.

Before the road was built, covering about 272km from Marsabit to Moyale took between 10 and 12 hours, with Sololo as the only centre between the two major towns.

“It was a further three-day travel from Moyale to Nairobi, making about two night-long stopovers at Marsabit, Isiolo before arriving in Nairobi on the third day,” Abraham says.

No bus company could venture in such tedious journey on an earth road, sections of which could be occasionally be washed off by rains.

Until the tarmacking of the highway, the only small towns after Isiolo were Archer’s Post, Laisamis, Logologo and Marsabit. Today, there are hundreds of mushrooming trading centres along the way, with permanent settlements building up.

Rehman Moghal, a resident of Marsabit and a retired teacher, reminisces the hectic travelling to Nairobi from Marsabit since January 1963 when he came to Kenya from Pakistan as a teacher.

The former headteacher at Marsabit Primary School (now Marsabit Boys Secondary School) says the route from Isiolo to Moyale was total torture.

The only available vehicles were two government lorries and one or two owned trucks by businesspeople.

At the time, Marsabit town, which was recently upgraded to municipal status, was more or less like a small village with one main street part of which is still referred to as Old Town.

“You would be lucky to get a ride on police vehicles travelling to Northern Kenya. There were no public means of transport from Isiolo to Marsabit and those who tried their hands in the sector eventually gave up due to the excessive costs involved in maintaining vehicles for an unforgiving terrain,” says Moghal.

Marsabit Governor Mohamed Mohamud termed the project a game changer in Northern Kenya.

“Completion of the road is like another liberation for us. Kenya fought for independence for so many years until 1963 when we attained that freedom but for us complete freedom was realised when that road was launched,” said the governor.

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