It is possible for one to have breakfast in the Kenyan town of Mandera, enjoy early lunch in the dusty surroundings of Somalia’s Bula Hawa, proceed for supper in Suftu, Ethiopia — then choose where to spend the night among the three countries.
Indeed, the geographical proximity of Mandera County to Somalia makes cross-border movement extremely easy.
On paper the government closed the Kenya-Somali border indefinitely in 2007 after the Islamic Courts Union — which later became Al-Shabaab — toppled the Ethiopian-backed Somalia administration.
But in reality, people have always been moving freely across the two countries.
The porous border has been blamed for the infiltration of Al-Shabaab terrorists, who are thought to be harboured by their sympathisers in Mandera town.
In a way, therefore, events in Mandera have been unpredictable for more than seven years since extremist Islam started finding its way among fighters in war-ravaged Somalia.
It is a common occurrence to be woken up by heavy blasts either by militia attacks on government installations in Mandera town or the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and the police repulsing Al-Shabaab fighters trying to enter into Kenya.
Sometimes the effects of gunfire and explosions in Somalia’s Bula Hawa can be felt in Mandera — with stray bullets occasionally injuring people.
During such times people take cover, but when calm returns it is common to find the townspeople under shaded verandas chewing miraa and sipping tea or coffee.
But the macabre Al-Shabaab attack on a Nairobi-bound bus last week that left 28 Kenyans dead — mostly public servants and their families — displayed a new sort of brutality that shook the town.
The attackers putting their victims through a religious test has shaken non-Muslim business owners and public servants, who have been scrambling to leave Mandera.
Among the successful non-local businessmen in Mandera town is Mr Festus Murimi from Kirinyaga County, who has for the last four years been running a hardware shop. He is now a worried man.
“I have employed nine people including locals but now my business is at risk of closure considering the ongoing insecurity targeting non-Muslims,” says Mr Murimi, adding that until recently he always felt safe despite persistent scares.
For almost a week, his shop has been closed as he and his family joined others at the Mandera military camp.
“We have been awaiting evacuation,” said Mr Murimi.
He says his father had advised him to close down the business for good and move to Kirinyaga, but Mr Murimi is yet to decide.
Mr Felix Kagwe, who initially came into Mandera in 2009 as a teacher in a private school, is also in business running a cybercafé and dealing in computer software.
“The business has been doing well despite the regular Al-Shabaab attacks in town but Saturday’s attack broke my heart because I lost people I have always interacted with. I’m the one who brought some of them here,” he said.
He wants deal with the pain and bury his friends “before thinking of my next step in life”.
“I doubt if I will come back and even if I do my life will not be the same. There are many good people here who have hosted us for years but a few people from Somalia and their sympathisers are spoiling the good image of this precious town,” he says.
Mandera Governor Ali Roba blames some residents for harbouring the terrorists.
“We are the ones welcoming them into our homes and we don’t tell the police. It’s time we changed our behaviour because we are all seeing what we are going through now that teachers and health workers have vowed to leave our county,” Mr Roba said on Thursday, during a public baraza.
It is easy to find a Kenyan-Somali with relatives or business associates in Ethiopia and Somalia, further making it easier for those with ill-intention to be housed in Mandera.
The governor’s reassurances on security throughout the week have not convinced people like clinical officer Emily Omache. “I have packed my all belongings and I am ready to leave. I don’t even care about my salary,” said Ms Omache.
Early Childhood Development teachers employed by the Mandera County government are part of the worried lot camping at the airstrip within Mandera KDF camp.
Mandera employed 360 ECD teachers in July with 80 per cent of them sourced from other counties.
TEACHERS WANT TRANSFERS
Ms Gladys Njue, a teacher, says that were it not for a college assignment she would have been killed along with her colleagues.
“We had planned to travel together with two of our colleagues Peterson Mugendi and Geoffrey Mureithi who were both killed but we decided to attend classes at Mandera District Centre of Early Childhood Education where we have enrolled for a diploma course,” said Ms Njue.
A police officer who requested anonymity said that working in Mandera is not for the faint-hearted. Most of the officers, he says, are usually fresh graduates or those transferred on disciplinary grounds — putting to question the government’s commitment.
The officer says some of his colleagues are now asking for transfers.
In last Saturday’s incident police officer Kennedy Otieno was killed together with his wife Beatrice as they travelled for Christmas holidays.
A civil servant in the office of registration of persons described Mandera as a hostile place to work due to the porous Kenya–Somali border.
Most areas in the North Eastern region bordering Somalia and Ethiopia suffer a myriad of problems ranging from poor or non-existent road infrastructure, water scarcity, inter clan conflicts and general insecurity — which has been complicated by the addition of Al-Shabaab in into the equation.