In Turkana, life goes on as usual amid outbreak

Wednesday March 18 2020

A Turkana man with his daughter at a water point in Napak. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NATION MEDIA GROUP


It is 3pm in the sun-scorched refugee town of Kakuma in Turkana County. Locals sit in small groups outside shop verandas, some chewing miraa and others playing a pebbles game.

Occasionally, a herd of sheep and goats is driven through the small town. Children play around as traders go about their business.

While the rest of the country is on high alert following the outbreak of coronavirus, the public health scare that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has since declared a global pandemic, in Kakuma, life just goes on.

Some residents have heard about the virus, a handful others have an idea how it spreads, but fewer know what measures to take to stay safe.


The situation isn't different in Lodwar, 123 kilometres away. Here, people may mention the virus in passing, even joke about it, but there’s no serious public discourse about the global health scare.


Lydia Makina, a trader in Lodwar, doesn’t believe the virus can get to the town.

''I feel generally safe. Most people here aren’t worried about coronavirus. I’m only scared for my children in Kakamega,'' says the mother of two.

Edwin Omwega, a student in the town, isn’t worried either.

''I overheard that the virus can’t survive in high temperatures,'' says Omwega, noting that the daily average of 45 degrees Celsius in the town is his only hope. Other than that, he’s ill-prepared should the virus strike.


Kakuma may be 800 kilometres from the capital Nairobi, in the middle of the wilderness, and, therefore, with seemingly minimal contact with the outside world. Except the risk of infection here is as high as in any part of the country, given the high traffic of social and humanitarian workers who fly in daily from Nairobi.

Kakuma has two direct flights from Nairobi, mostly ferrying officers of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) working in the Kakuma and Kalobeyei refugee camps.

In addition to these, a number of airlines fly passengers to Lodwar who then travel to Kakuma by road. Hundreds of others use the road from Kitale to Kakuma, a 420 kilometre stretch.

But, even in the wake of the virus, the situation has remained generally unchanged, with little to no evidence of preparedness to tackle the virus.

Public transport in the area remains the most at risk. Several bus companies operate between Kakuma and Kitale via Lodwar. Eldoret Express, Quick Shuttle and TurkRift travel to Kakuma every week, yet curiously, none of these carriers has put in place any meaningful measures to minimise the risk of infection among their passengers. 

''None of our passengers has been infected. So far we have no measures in place, because such a plan has to come from the management,'' a ticketing officer at Quick Shuttle in Kakuma told the Nation.


Restaurants and night clubs in Lodwar and Kakuma have continued to operate as usual in the wake of the deadly virus. At Camels Roast House, a bustling eatery in Kakuma popular with both locals and visitors, it’s business as usual. There are no sanitisers and patrons aren’t screened either. Customers come in, eat, mingle and leave as usual.

Asking the residents what they’re doing to stay safe from the virus draws confused glances. For them, the virus is too remote to be taken seriously.

Interestingly, while Kakuma has nearly 30 shops and several small pharmacies, none expect a small supermarket has stocked sanitisers. Even the supermarket has few units from an old stock remaining that no one has enquired about.

Guest houses, too, have done virtually nothing out of the ordinary to keep their guests safe. A spot-check by the Nation returns rather baffling results: few have hand soap in their premises and asking for a hand sanitiser is to ask for the moon.

At one local guest house, a guest from China was expected on Thursday last week. The man had stayed at the inn last year. The attendants, though, didn’t seem concerned about admitting him, despite the high risk of infection.

''He said he’ll come this week. It’s our hope that he will have been screened by the time he gets to Kakuma,'' says Ann Muthoni, a receptionist at the inn. The casualness of her response isn’t surprising. Rather, it’s a reflection of the general slack attitude here and the lack of a sense of urgency in the refugee town.

Last week, the Turkana county government embarked on a rapid public awareness and sensitisation programme on coronavirus, visiting Lodwar GK Prison and various churches across the county.

Turkana County, with a population of more than 1 million people, is one of the poorest counties in Kenya, with the majority of residents practising nomadic pastoralism for a livelihood.