Senate Mashinani: Hard moments of truth for senators in Turkana

Senate Speaker Amason Kingi (centre) with Majority Leader Aaron Cheruiyot and Minority Leader Stewart Madzayo at the Turkana County Assembly. [Edwin Nyarangi, Standard]

At the Cradle Tented Camp in Lodwar, where close to 30 senators and their Speaker put up for a week, a crimson carpet was still baking in the Turkana sun when we arrived days after they flew back to Nairobi.

It's early evening on Saturday, and a golden full moon juts from the East above the majestic Lake Turkana, spreading its radiance on the carpet.

An array of lights complements the moonlight, leading the dignitaries to the brand-new wing of the hotel opened on the eve of the Senate Mashinani tour. The five days were so memorable that the camp staff have been unable to fold the carpet and pull down the lights.

It's on the lawns of the brand new Makuti Entertainment Centre where a grand celebration to mark Senate Speaker Amason Kingi's 49th birthday was held on Tuesday, September 26, amidst Turkana nightlife's cacophony from crickets, frogs, nightingales, and noise of excited senators and staff.

"We hosted them right here. It was an amazing night," a camp official disclosed to this writer, attempting to be modest.

For five days, the Senate held its official sittings in the Turkana County Assembly, conducted committee sessions, and visited county projects as it endeavored to demystify its operations, and take the legislative agenda to the doorstep of the locals.

A grand overseer of devolution, and specifically county governments, the Senate had long endured the ridicule of its lower house over its alleged remoteness to national issues. That was until 2018 when the leadership came up with the Senate Mashinani idea and held the first sittings in Eldoret.

The following year, a similar tour of duty was held in Kitui County before the pandemic hit, changing the conduct of world affairs for a time.

On Sunday, September 24, close to 50 senators landed in Lodwar after a one hour 45-minute flight from Nairobi via Eldoret.

With few commercial flights- just two a day- majority of the Senate staff- clerks, security, liaison and other officials- had to hit the road much earlier. And the journey being not for the fainthearted, they had a convoy of Land Cruisers.

"We had to get a police escort in Kainuk area," a junior Senate official says.

Once in Lodwar, the next challenge was how to accommodate close to 300 plus persons in the few hotels, move them around, and feed them for a week. All 4WD vehicles in the town were hired by the Senate, but more had been hired in Nairobi to move the 230 secretariat staff. Every day, Cradle delivered food to the hundreds of guests at the county assembly.

"I work with amazing men and women. What the public sees is the Senate in plenary and committees. Working quietly behind the scenes is a robust and resilient secretariat. We have staffers who genuinely believe in the transformative role of the devolved system of governance and the central place of the Senate in this ecosystem," Senate Clerk Jeremiah Nyegenye says.

Mr Nyegenye says the provisions on sovereignty of the people, public participation and involvement of the people are not mere pomposities, rather they are imperatives that must be given life and blood.

Relax dress code

As soon as the senators hit the ground, reality started to dawn on them. A few, despite being well travelled, were stepping into Turkana for the first time. The first to begin to come to terms with Turkana was Speaker Kingi. He was baking in his official attire when, unprompted, he offered to relax the dress code in appreciation of the heat and in consideration of workers' rights to a comfortable working environment.

It was clear to him that the stiffness with which the Senate conducts itself in Nairobi had no place in Turkana. "It shall not be mandatory for senators to wear formal suits. As long as you are decently dressed, the chair will be comfortable with that," Kingi ruled on day one.

Being creatures of habit, some senators still stuck to their formal wear, with some flatly refusing to untie their ties. Other truths common to locals but stranger-than-fiction to outsiders soon emerged. The senators were surprised that the government's fertiliser subsidy programme, celebrated in other parts of Kenya, had not yet rolled out in Turkana.

And despite the touting of the county as a premier tourist destination for its 'cradle of mankind' branding, the region does not enjoy electricity from the national grid. The diesel-powered Kenya Power off-grid station in Lodwar gobbles 400,000 liters of diesel every month.

"This is how we have survived all those years. And yet the potential to leverage technology to develop alternate and better sources, including solar, wind and hydro has always been there. Lake Turkana is the least studied lake; it's rough and unpredictable and some have suggested it can produce electricity," Turkana Deputy Governor Erus Lopeyok says.

Some other truths were more embarrassing. Those who thought the famous Lake Turkana Wind Power Project is located in Turkana County were shocked to find that it is actually located in Marsabit County. The standing committee on energy, which was scheduled to have a meeting with the project's managers, had to hire helicopters from Lodwar to Loiyangalani.

The Senate was able to appreciate the sheer vastness of the county as well as the unique challenges that afflict it. The sheer length of distance between the regions of Turkana humbles every bureaucrat who lands there and questions the local travel budget.

The distance from Lodwar to Kibish, where Kenya Women Senators Association had proposed to travel, is 297 kilometers, while Lodwar to Lokichar 85 kilometers. Unless you have a chopper like the senators, accessing Loyiangalani from Lodwar is a torturous and circuitous drive totalling hundreds of kilometers.

Even the shortest route to Lake Turkana from Lodwar town, Eliye Springs, is 60-plus kilometers. The excursion of the agriculture and fisheries committee to Katilu Irrigation Scheme was a 141-kilometer drive.

"When Jesus was preaching, he visited all areas and saw with his naked eyes before he went into the spirit form. You have seen for yourselves, with your naked eyes. When you go back in spirit, you can then assist us to face our issues," host Senator James Lomenen joked to his bewildered colleagues.

The adage that 'kwa ground vitu ni different' hit home for the Senate. Some senators claimed that despite gobbling Sh100 billion plus in the 10 years of devolution, Turkana had arguably very little to show for it.

There were huge, questionable pending bills left by the previous administration, recurrent expenditure gobbled most of the monies allocated, and the county headquarters has been under construction since 2015. When they asked why the building was not ready, the senators were informed that it required Sh20 million for final wiring to be done before county staff can move in.

"When I came to office, I discovered that many things had gone wrong. I have put in place various measures to deal with cartels that have been running the show for the last 10 years and I am sure that in the next few years, the county will be on the right track in achieving its goals," Turkana Governor Jeremiah Lomorukai told them.

The Senate held committee sessions in Lodwar Technical Vocational Centre, visited Kalokol, Lodwar Girls, and Lodwar County Referral Hospital. The senators interacted with the locals and took in the lessons with humility.

"It was a fitting return for me. The last time I was in Turkana was close to two decades ago during the constitutional review process where we were engaged in civic education. Anger and despair were in the air. Fast forward and Turkana is a place reborn. It is unrecognisable from the Turkana of yore. A new energy, new enthusiasm in the people. Turkana is now the poster boy of the merits and successes of devolution," Nyegenye says, and adds he plans to take his family there.

We were told Turkana was good to the senators. They swept the town clean of alcohol and left fond memories behind. We met locals who were excited to have sat on the same table with Senator Oburu Odinga and engaged him in small talk.

Some senators came as youngies and left as elders. The entire constellation of Senate leadership was crowned Turkana elders, complete with all duties that appertain such honour: "Senator Khalwale, you are now free to practice Turkana culture, including polygamy," County Speaker Christopher Nakuleu declared.

Senator Bonny Khalwale adorned his regalia, grinned like a baby, and stooped to sit on his ekicholong traditional stool while making traditional incantations.

Senator Abdul Haji leapfrogged from a Somali youth into a brand-new Turkana elder, and had trouble fitting his headgear over his afro, while Nyegenye and Majority Leader Aaron Cheruiyot had to be helped to balance on the one-legged Turkana traditional stool.

Cheruiyot was in Turkana for the first time. Senator Veronica Maina, a member of the Speakers Panel and the only woman crowned elder, had the honours bestowed by women as the men kept off in line with their culture.

"We have come face to face with what we read about in Turkana, and I believe we are now better prepared to handle matters from Turkana as a Senate," Kingi confessed.

"It is one thing to sit in Nairobi and argue on division of revenue, argue about population, about land size ... and a different ballgame altogether to sit here in Turkana and appreciate the challenges of the people of Turkana," Mr Cheruiyot said.

At Cradle, where they would regale in laughter and drink after a day of debates, the facility's visitors book is now a valued piece of evidence of this historic feat. Whether it was a matter of gargantuan egos or overflow of appreciation, the space to jot down their comments was woefully limited.

Each senator who signed the visitor's book took a whole page to say a simple Thank You!, Memorable!, or Amazing!

As a matter of fact, Senator William Cheptumo signed twice, on different days. He visited Turkana twice, except that it was the same occasion. Senator Peris Tobiko's handwriting was the most legible, while Senator Jackson Mandago's the least.

At Eliye Springs on the shores of the lake, 60 kilometres from Lodwar, the senators who made their way there made sure to leave their mark. When they were done with the official sittings, a number of them descended on the few facilities along the shoreline to explore the wonders of the lake.

They partied under the lakeside moonshine, amid flashes of the lake's waves. There they did everything that was to be done, with crocodiles spying on them. Again, the camps there are still reeling from the joy and weight of hosting them.

"I am very happy to see our senators here. I am telling my community the people they have been seeing on TV, listening to on radio, reading in the newspapers, they are all here. You can feel them, you can touch them, you can hear them. They are fearfully and wonderfully made," Lomenen said.

Ward administrator Bernard Ekuwom attempted and indeed touched them: "They are very simple people. I shook hands with Dr Oburu and sat with him. I couldn't believe it. I had a chat with Senator Haji, a very cool guy that one."

For a man who as a young university student attended the inauguration ceremony of the 2010 constitution at Uhuru Park, Senate Mashinani was a dream come true.

Nzau Musau, a former editor with Standard Group, is now a senior programmes manager at Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom's Global Partnerships Hub.

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