Just as Russia’s leap into modernity created a powerful mafia, so it now appears that Kenya’s is doing the same. And for travelers this unfortunately means you can no longer travel overland north of Mt. Kenya.
I’ve found myself becoming peculiarly cautious in my golden years, so I reflect when I was a twenty-something year old gallivanting through Idi Amin’s very dangerous Uganda, or even daring to cross the Omo in the presence of desperate, armed thugs. So jungle on, you young’uns, but keep your eyes wide open.
And if you’re one of my clients, I’m afraid we’re staying clear. Of where? Of some of the finest wilderness left in Africa: Samburu and Laikipia, to be precise.
Now there’s still a very safe way to visit these places: fly in. If you fly into the reserve’s airstrip, I’m absolutely confident that you’ll be as safe as the Queen of England shopping at Harrods. But that spectacularly gorgeous drive off Mt. Kenya onto the Great Northern Frontier, or those amazing landscapes between Samburu and Laikipia seen only from the ground … it’s over. At least for the foreseeable future.
This past weekend saw one of the most spectacular, clearly well planned cattle raids ever seen in the history of Kenya. Seven people were killed and scores wounded and a thousand cattle whisked away.
It happened about 50 miles northeast of the Samburu National Park Archer’s Post gate, and about 35 miles north of the nearest lodge in Shaba National Park.
Now admittedly this particular raid is pretty far from tourist areas, but its size got me, and it’s one of a series of raids that’s been increasing in the area. Last year, for instance, there was a gun battle in broad daylight right on the bridge over the Ewaso Nyiro River at Archer’s Post.
This is the only way tourists can enter the area overland.
The weekend raid is about 20 miles from where Joy Adamson was killed by bandits more than three decades ago.
And that’s what gives me perspective. The “Northern Frontier” has always been a lawless land. It’s just too hard to patrol. I remember only 4 years ago having to charter an aircraft for a group of only 11 of us who wanted to drive all of 20 miles from Samburu to a lovely retreat in the Mathews Mountains, because bandits had been sighted on the road we were scheduled to drive.
But bandits stopping cars and taking an occasional goat are way different from what is being reported in today’s modernizing Kenya.
First of all, in order to steal 1000 head of cattle in a single raid, you’ve got to have someone who has a 1000 head of cattle to steal from. That never existed in the days of subsistence herding, where a man with 25 head was a royal chief.
Second, it’s rather hard to conceal 1000 cows. These guys had multiple trucks, using the new Chinese paved road built through the desert to whisk their booty into the markets down south.
According to the police commissioner of the area, law enforcement was outgunned. Shotguns against AK47s.
Recognizing this danger was coming, the Kenyan Government has been aggressively trying to disarm everyone in the area. But according to Member of Parliament from the area in which this giant raid occurred, Abdul Bahari (Isiolo South), “people in Samburu have not been disarmed and even if they have, we have not seen the effect as they seem to have guns during the raids.”
And playing to his constituency as I suppose he has to, a neighboring MP, Adan Keynan (Wajir West) continued during the press conference with a warning to the government.
“We’re giving them seven days, or else we’ll tell our people to protect themselves. We cannot be perpetually talking to a government that does not see, does not hear and does not sense the value of life,” said Mr Keynan.
The drought has something to do with this, of course. It makes the weak, weaker, and it makes the markets more ready to take on stolen goods.
And finally what concerns me most is that the old days’ criminals were very respectful of us tourists. Sometimes, it took a bribe, but nary a hair was mussed. I felt we were respected as distant foreigners interested in a distant land, and part of a movement that in the end everyone living in the area really gained from.
A thousand cattle is a hefty haul. You’d have to have a pretty good tourist season to reach that booty. So I just don’t want to be on that new Chinese road when these guys are in the midst of a heist.
I’m afraid that I do not agree with your blog and the Samburu issue. It is irresponsible and will put a lot of people out of jobs hence making the situation what you are claiming.
I have grown up in Kenya and I have been running a safari company for 27 years. The north is the best part of Kenya and it has not changed in its safety for the last 40 years. you just need to be aware and travel with a reputable company.
Dear Mr Jim,
Greetings from Kenya. I just read your interesting analysis about security in Samburu and I would like to add a few comments. The first one is the following: having been a journalist for twenty years before coming to Kenya to live in the bush and build two safari lodges (one in the Masai Mara and one in Samburu), I look at the image that you publish and I smile thinking how easy is to manipulate the feelings of readers who do not know better and how dangerous is to sue the tools of information when one means to make a point irrespective of what the truth is. The image of the bad bandit/good bandit is – I’m afraid to point this out to you – a rather ruthless example of such a manipulation. Reason: the good bandits are not bandits, but civilians – yes, civilians and normal people in Samburu dress like this – probably on their way to a community cerimony. Basically, boys doing their own business. The bad bandit is also not a bandit at all, but a well trained, well uniformed, well paid ranger belonging to one of the communities that at under the umbrella of Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT). So, both “bandits” are in fact “good guys” and the fact that they have spears of weapons is easily impressed in the minds of somebody sitting in US or in Europe as a proof of danger, but seen from here is in fact a blessing. basically, we as the people who live, operate, invest in and enjoy Samburu are very very happy to have both the spear-holding Samburu youth keeping their traditions and their way of life AND the well trained ranger protecting wildlife and humans from the potential dangers of the “Northern Frontier”.
Now, let’s come to these dangers for a second. I’m probably biased by the fact that I spent the entire week last week travelling along what you correctly call the Chinese road from Nanyuki to to Archer’s Post and Kalama Conservancy and, having done it 4 times in the space of a few days, I feel elated by such an amazing drive, that was totally safe and never gave the the hint of danger. yes, there have been incidents in Northern Kenya, but I would like somebody like to make a list of locations – including locations in Africa – where in the last five years there have been NO incidents. Yes, it is difficult for Kenya to deal with having such a long and open border with Somalia. And Somalia means many things: illegal money, guns, people and more coming in and out of Kenya and “polluting” the region. However, I would like to see what the United States or Norway or Italy would be able to do, if they had a such a border with Somalia. It seems to me that the US are struggling to manage their border with mexico and Italy is not able to keep out African immigration from it s Southern islands and that bombs explode in the city centre of Oslo… I reckon that good old disorganized Kenya is doing a pretty good job in dealing with Somalia and I feel that Samburuland is doing an amazing job in dealing with the fact that is tis “only” a few hundreds km away from Somalia… This is an effort that should be encouraged, not discouraged. Samburu and Northern Kenya are as safe as any part of the world – especially Africa – can be. Unless somebody wants to try and prove to me that visiting Cape Town or going on safari in Tanzania is safer… So, basically, if a reader of this blog belongs to the category of people who believe (correctly) that potential danger lies outside the door and that (correctly) no travel agent can offer a 100% garantee of safety (not even if you go on honeymoon to the Seychelles), well then there is no argument. If the reader belongs to the category of people that feel that it is reasonable to travel and to take precautions wherever you go but that is is still possible to travel, then I would urge such a person to include Samburu and Northern kenya and its many new conservancies to the list of potential destinations. As you say, it is an amazing part of the country. The new Chinese Highway makes the ride smoother and faster than ever before. The new conservancies built by Lewa and by NRT, following the vision of Ian Craig, deserve your support Jim, not for humanitarian reasons, but because the give your clients the best product available in Northern Kenya and – if you ask me – probably the best available in the entire country. Visiting Kenya without visiting the new amazing conservancies is like visiting the United States without eating an hamburger of visiting Italy skipping Rome. I’m very sorry for the herdsmen who lost their cows the other day and obviously I’m sorry for the loss of lives, but believe me Jim: hat is going on in “Northern Kenya” is much much bigger and more momentous that cattle raids. It’s a “conservation raid”, sweeping away the dangers of loosing wildlife, heritage and land to unregulated development.
We look forward to having you with us and our our side.
Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments and for taking the time you did to write such a comprehensive response.
My headline pictures are always “works of art” and in this particular case, the Samburu morani are from a photo I took myself in 1979, and the “bad bandit” is excised from a soldier in Chad. It is not a ranger.