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Memoirs of Marsabit Town

Tumaini medical center is probably one of the busiest institutions at the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) compound in Marsabit.

On the day I made a visit, more than 10 persons were waiting for a diagnosis to establish if they have HIV Aids and the extent to which it has developed, according to a staff at the clinic. Many of these persons, are women coming as far as Marsabit south (Laisamis) and Marsabit north (Chalbi) districts.

The clinic is located in Marsabit Central. It’s a Food for the Hungry (fh-Kenya) supported venture in conjunction with the Washington University of the US. It is a comprehensive clinic center where a study on HIV prevalence study is undertaken. It is not known how many of these clinics are spread all over Kenya, any one with an idea?

Many of us, myself included found it difficult to locate Marsabit. Google maps didn’t fair better in locating the mountainous oasis.This is mainly due to the rugged, ma’shiftas' (vigilantes) infested road linking Isiolo and Marsabit. It a 277 km distance. It’s through God’s grace that I made this adventurous travel to Marsabit. One travels by road using a lorry or a land cruiser.

To travel by a lorry, it’ll take you 8-10 hrs while a land cruiser will half the time of travel. There is only one land cruiser plying the route. It costs twice the fare price compared to the lorry. This explains the popularity of a lorry to a land cruiser. Many relish the the completion of Northern road corridor. Currently, the road has been tarmacked from Isiolo to Merile, 150 Km. Since, February 2011, a bus (Liban KBN 093F) routes between Isiolo and Marsabit. This is expected to drastically lower the costs of traveling.

Where is Marsabit anyway? 

Marsabit District occupies northern part of Kenya’s Eastern Province.It covers 11 % of the land mass of Kenya and ranked the second poorest district in Kenya. It is located in the driest region in Kenya.
Having over 85 % aridity and receiving less than 200mm in its lowland plains. The region is also endowned with wildlife around Marsabit Game park/reserve camp; in Loiyangalani. Marsabit is located in the Somali-Chalbi desert belt.

The population of Marsabit district is dependent on the natural environment for their livelihood. The main ethnic groups in the district include the Gabbra, Rendile, Boran, Samburu, Turkana and Burji. These ethnic groups are concentrated more in the some parts of the region. They are then perceived to only belong to those groups. This makes co-existence difficult and possible cause of conflicts.

There is a well organized traditional governance and leadership systems amongst all pastoral groups. These are either village based as well as regional and are composed of male elders.  The limited rainfall severely restricts vegetation cover. Agriculture is viable in only 3 % of the district land area. About 80 % are pastoralism's, about 10 % of the population practice subsistence agriculture and reside mainly around Mt. Marsabit; about 7 % are involved in commerce and trade and the remainders are salaried employees.

There is only one Government hospital ‘Marsabit Central Hospital’ and two mission hospitals. It serves the entire three districts (Central, North and South). The health facilities are far apart, poorly equipped and staffed. There are clear gender issues that inhibit the development of women and girls in this area.

These differ from one community to another but the effect is the same in the long run. Some of the issues are; forced early marriages, discrimination and marginalization of women who bare children outside marriage, have no or little say in how livestock is managed.

Since May, 2009, data on HIV infection is collected and compiled on weekly basis, according to Tumaini  staff. The infection rate is high in rural areas as it spreads towards the Marsabit town. The average national HIV prevalence in Kenya is 7.1 % (Kenya Aids Indicator Survey, 2007) yet only 84 % of those living with the disease do not know their HIV status thus the clinic expanded its testing services by starting moonlight VCT. This moonlight VCT is carried out twice per month.

For example, In ‘Wako Kayete’ manyattas due to idleness, poverty, landlockedness and especially strange marriage customs. For instance, a married couple is allowed to have ‘mipango ya kando’ meaning extra marital affairs.

This is only allowed if both husband and wife have knowledge of either partner. Unlike Marsabit, In Moyale prostitution is legal therefore as expected high Aids prevalence. Statistically, according to the staff, 60% are infected with HIV Aids in 'Wako Kayete' manyattas.

In the Marsabit town, the ‘mipango ya kando’ is also practiced. This is not only practiced by the locals but also the non-locals. The non-locals include government staff, NGOs, residence contractors.

The Aids pandemic is prevalence especially in women (65%) as with the overall infection rate is about 55% in the town. According to the staff, women Gushites prefer other ethnic groups especially Bantus due to their sexual prowess. It’s believed the miraa (Arabian tea) has an effect on men sexual libido. Most Gushites men chew this stimulant as a part time activity.

It’s surprising to note that the most affected age bracket in ladies (19-35 yrs) is lower than the male (25-40 yrs). This trend is mainly due to poverty. There’s a special class of ladies (50-60 yrs) with high infection rate. This is mainly due to satisfaction from young energetic males. By the way, while in Marsabit mention ‘Kiwanja Ndege’ and men shudder with fear.

According to the staff, 20 % of the children are also infected with HIV Aids. Most of these children are orphaned and hence enter prostitution or abused.

Young Osman Ibrahim from Marsabit will probably not live to see his sixth birthday. It’s expected that he’ll be transferred to Catholic children’s home in Marsabit for care especially as he’s put on ARVs. The five-year-old is a tragic yet all common example of how poverty and malnutrition have devastated pastoralists’ families in Marsabit region. His parents died with HIV Aids and he lives with his aged grandmother and a retarded 23 years old aunt. Osman was abused and currently his aunt is expectant.

In my own views, I recommend the following;
  1. Tumaini center should offer more other than free HIV test. Every individual who turns up for the test should be given free care package containing long lasting insecticide treated mosquito-net for malaria prevention, water filter and optional package of condoms for HIV prevention.
  2. Tumaini center, Food for the Hungry should add the component of nutrition to work as a comprehensive treatment especially for people on ARVs therapy.
  3. Simple, acceptable, low-cost interventions such as education on the harm of ‘mpango wa kando’ to the family, community should be employed. This includes open air films, manyattas' visits and many more.
  4. Government, Donors should complement each other. Proper legislature should be devised to ensure  human longevity.
These are some of the only ways to fight HIV Aids!


  1. Anonymous3:48 PM

    Interesting to note that a married woman can have a boyfriend when she already has a husband!

  2. It may seem surprising but these culture driven analogues. This is one of the factors that has led to as high as 65 % HIV infection rate in manyattas (villages).The 'Mpango wa Kando' ads currently being aired on TVs targets the urban neglecting the rural. If nothing is done, we'll end up with ghost rural towns.

  3. Chief Yusuf (Marsabit)8:48 AM

    In addition, AIDS is on an increase as a results of watchmens. They are migrating to Marsabit due to its potential, esp with the upcoming construction of Northern corridor. On a by the way, I would like to say that. It is not poverty that is a problem in Marsabit but poor leadership. There's too much clansmanship syndrome of tribes here. For example, during a major mitigation process such as Livestock off-take, only members of clans of the organisers benefit. If the team leader is a Boran, then he'll make sure his brothers, in-laws are hired as contractors leaving aside the qualified lots. I'm really ashamed at what is currently happening but what I know is that with the county structures, all will be in the past

  4. Pastor Kiragu (Isiolo)11:02 AM

    I agree with the chief. I am a resident of Isiolo for over 20yrs and I have seen the destructive nature of clansman-ship amongst tribes in these areas. There is discrimination on jobs, food and other basic amenities from one clan member to another. Our awareness of the need for education in our own community will prevent calamities such as Wagalla massacre. How this massacre started is a story for another time. Thanks

  5. Mamo (Marsabit south)2:21 PM

    Like any other region, Marsabit has its share of problems. As the District Livestock Prodn officer for over 15yrs, I have seen and experienced enough to know that we should think global but act local.For example, Index Based Livestock Insurance was a novel and promising insurance scheme for Marsabit's poor herders. It was not until we undertook a phase 1 off-take program (buying of livestock from drought stricken farmers), did I realize how insignificant the product penetration to the poor was. This completely contradicts what ILRI scientist thought: The researchers ommited the aspect of extension. This service would have provided civil education as to the importance of the product. The mis-conception with the locals is that a single premium is payable once in a lifetime and covers all the herd. This has led them not to adopt the product. Its one thing for the ILRI researhers to launch and even win an award for the same but it is another to sustain the product within the community. Intl institute such as ILRI, their scientists should refrain from living on their ivory towers and integrate with an extension network to create a link with the resource-poor farmers and herders. Otherwise, their products will be one-hit wonders and are bound to fail


  7. Mama Chamo Shop9:36 AM

    Is it possible to keep grade cattle in a dry place like Marsabit?

  8. @Mama Chamo Shop Its possible to keep dairy cows in the mountains of Marsabit county. However, you need to visit the dairy success stories around Marsabit mountain ( Songa dairy group, pastoral centre, St.paul secondary school and calvadera girls). The major challenge with keeping dairy cows here is the high feed and water requirements. If your serious with keeping some dairy cows contact KARI marsabit for more information. Also you need to source suitable breeds and so far the Boran X Fresian breed has proven to be the most suitable here for Marsabit. We advice you get the offspring born in Marsabit as they are already adapted to our environment.

  9. @Mamo (Marsabit south) Most appreciated for your comment about Index Based Livestock Insurance( IBLI). First and foremost as IBLI partners, we have offered extensive training in regards to sensitization of the product through video production in 4 major languages (Borana,Redille,Turkana and Samburu) that are spoken in Marsabit County. This training is inclusive of the chiefs, opinion leaders in most of the vast sub-locations. In Marsabit North the sub-locations covered are Bubisa,Turbi Burgabo,Forole,Hurr-hills,Maikona, Kalacha,Elgade, North-horr,Malabot, Gas, El-eso,Illeret,Saru,Garwolle,Dukana,Elhadi,Balesa. To the south of Marsabit the sub-locations covered include loglogo,laisamis,korr kargi, loiyagalani plus many others. In the central of Marsabit the covered areas are Gathamoji. We as IBLI partners invite you (Mamo) for our weekly radio programme at Marsabit FM.


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