Shifta and Miraa: Northern Kenya

I’ve traveled about 800 km over the past 72 hours. That may not sound like much to those of you who haven’t been to East Africa, but trust me, when those 800 km stretch across the arid, lifeless no-man’s land between Isiolo in northern Kenya and Awasa in southern Ethiopia, you’re glad to have them behind you.


The ride from Nairobi was pleasant. Just 5 hours in a decent coach on good tarmac roads to Isiolo. Dave, Becky and I walked around, searching out a hotel for the night, and before long we were approached by a pair of helpful locals. They showed us to a hotel, all the while giving us advice on how to proceed from Isiolo to the north and warning us about the “bad guys” around town who offer to help and then demand money. Then they asked us for money.

We quickly realized that almost everyone around town was zonked from chewing miraa (also known as qat or chat in other parts of the world, namely the Middle East). Miraa is a mild narcotic, enjoyed by chewing the leaves and young stems of a plant which is endemic to northern Kenya, most of Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is very popular in Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, and is a highly profitable crop. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, it is the second largest export, after coffee - bundles of the stuff are loaded onto express planes and shipped daily to the Arab peninsula. Isiolo is a major local trading post for miraa, and everyone around seemed to be constantly stuffing the thin green stems into their mouths.

In the morning, Becky and Dave, my travel partners for most of the past two months, backed out of the plan to visit Ethiopia. I was sad to see them go, but had to push on. I had a long way to go yet.

I ended up stuck in Isiolo for two more days. Isiolo is a weird place. It is the “end of the road” in northern Kenya - and not just figuratively. There is no more public transportation available north from there. The only way up is to get yourself a spot on a truck carrying livestock or delivering goods. I wandered around asking anyone and everyone about these trucks. I hardly ever got the same answer twice.

“I just heard that one is coming in an hour.” “Be patient. They always come around this time.” “One just left! You missed it!” “No trucks today, there was an attack last night.” “Hakuna Matata. Have some tea.”

I spent most of my time in Isiolo sitting by the road, drinking tea and chewing miraa with the locals who seem to have little to do besides sit by the road and drink tea and chew miraa. When you’re stuck there for a while and have the time to just sit and watch, Isiolo becomes a very interesting place. It is a meeting point and trading post for many tribes of the area - Maasai, Turkana, Borana, Samburu, Rendille and others - each chatting away in their native languages and showing off their distinctive tribal hair styles, jewelery, clothing and weapons. I had plenty of chances to chat with all sorts of people, from students to tribesmen to farmers.

To my surprise, almost everyone wanted to talk about the American presidential race. And they’re generally very well-informed. One guy joked that he was “Obama’s campaign manager here in Kenya!” They all wanted me to know that Obama’s father was Kenyan. “He’ll do good things for Kenya.”

In the meantime, I had already tried and failed twice to get a place in a vehicle headed north. Every time one would arrive, it would get mobbed and the driver would speed off in panic / frustration without picking up anyone. Later on, I almost made it into a cushy land rover that was carrying a Kenyan businessman and his two armed guards, but that fell through just like the others. I was beginning to lose hope.

There is a good reason for there not being any public transport serving the road from Isiolo to Moyale: shifta. Shifta is the Swahili word for bandits, and the roads of northern Kenya are known for being their territory. Killings are not as common these days as they used to be, but some vehicles still make the journey as part of a guarded convoy. The shifta are usually after trucks carrying cows and tend to avoid causing trouble with tourists. Everyone in Isiolo was quick to assure me that everything would be fine. I was more worried about being able to get on a truck in the first place.

I had paid two guys to stay by the road on lookout for me when I went to eat my meals. When a truck full of salt, soap, empty barrels, buckets and loads of random crap pulled in at around 8pm, they ran into the restaurant and rushed me outside. It was headed to Marsabit - only half way - but I didn’t want to wait any longer. I paid 1500 shillings, which I knew was too much, but I didn’t care - I was finally on my way! As the truck was being filled up with passengers, I got lucky - a big bundle of boxes landed next to me and ended up making a fairly comfortable little bed and I had some room to stretch out.

Between Isiolo and Moyale lies 580 km of barren, dusty wasteland. It’s rough and inhospitable - there hasn’t been a drop of rain for 5 years and the road is nothing more than a wide rocky dirt track. As we bounced along through the night, I gazed up at the stars in the cloudless sky through the uncovered top of the truck. When sunrise came, the temperature went from bearably cold to positively roasting in about 15 minutes. Luckily we rolled into Marsabit only a few hours later.

My luck persisted in Marsabit - immediately after hopping off the truck I found a shiny new Land Cruiser with a seat available. 1000 shillings to Moyale - I took it! I had just enough time to eat.

I have to run now. Check here tomorrow for the rest of the entry.