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A Visit to Wajir in Northern Kenya

Wajir County, Kenya

Wajir County, Kenya

Some facts about Wajir County

Wajir, according to the 2019 census, has a population of 781,263. The county consists mainly of featureless semi desert vegetation that is abundant with wildlife. The county covers 56,773 Sq kilometers. Wildlife include giraffes, ostriches, leopards and antelopes among many others. During our stay in Wajir, the howling of hyenas was a common sound in the night. The plains range between 150 m above sea level in the South and up to 400 m in the highlands with an annual rainfall 240 mm on average. According to the official Government website for Wajir County, the entire County sits on huge deposits of limestone that can be used for manufacturing cement. Limestones are associated with fossils, so archaeologists and palaeontologists should set up camp in Wajir county to explore and uncover new specimens that would add to our collective knowledge.


A Road Trip to Wajir in a Land-rover

On January 20, 2019, I had the good luck to travel for the first time to Wajir County, over 700 kilometers from Nairobi. I was to stay there for a record 17 days, the longest period I had ever stayed out of Nairobi as an adult. Wajir County is County number 8 out of Kenya’s 47 Counties. It is in the semi-arid north where pastoralism is the main occupation by the Somali people. Wajir is a large county, occupying approximately 10 percent of Kenya’s land mass. When I traveled to Wajir in a group of five, including the driver, on a hot day in 2019, construction of a tarmac road from Garrissa was underway. Garissa was already connected to Nairobi by tarmac. We drove past Thika, where we abandoned the Murang’a road and turned left past pineapple plantations and into pastoralists territory. Some of the the small towns before Garissa are matuu and Kaningo in Kitui County. One could see herds of cattle, sheep, goats and occasionally some camels. Eventually we started seeing large herds of camels that appeared to be grazing without an overseer. I was made to understand that the herdsman was never too far. Garissa town is the administrative capital of Garissa County. We stopped briefly in Garrissa town, first to pray and then to catch up with a meal.

Brief Stop over in Garissa, the Capital of Garissa County

Since it was heading to late afternoon three of us combined both the Dhuhur and Asir prayers at a mosque in Garissa town. One remarkable thing is that there were many old men inside, resting on the carpet and we had to find a vacant spot. We were soon off to find a restaurant. I was dying to try a dish of camel meat. I am not sure I relished the meat, but perhaps it was the way it had been prepared. The locals seemed to love spaghetti and camel meat. I was told that Wajir town is served with meat from 10 full grown camels daily. The Northern counties produce so many camels that camel meat and camel milk is transported to Eastleigh in Nairobi every day for sale.

Garissa University College was the scene of a terror attack by the Al Shabaab group on 2 April 2015. 147 students were killed and 79 injured before security forces managed to neutralised four terrorists. Garrisa, Wajir and Mandera Counties had been the playground of Al Shabaab terror groups for quite sometime.

After a hurried meal, we drove off again in order to spend the night in Wajir Town. We drove for several kilometers on tarmac before it fizzled out to “under construction status” before we had got to the next major town of Modogashe. The Chinese road contractor had placed barriers on areas that were still under construction and diverted road users to side bypasses. However, drivers were still able to overrun the barriers that were mostly bushes, twigs and shrubs in order to use brand new tarmac that had not been commissioned. Our driver was particularly good at overrunning those barriers but unfortunately, some of the bushes had thorns, a realization that came only when we were grounded with a puncture about 50 kilometers from Garissa.

From Nairobi to Garissa

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A Puncture in the Middle of Nowhere

We had just passed a township called Shimbirey, where a Chinese road construction company had built a for construction site for their materials and equipment.

We stopped to replace the punctured tire with a spare one,. It was about 4 pm and we had expected to get to Wajir town by nightfall. To our shock, the rim of the spare tire was not the correct size. A truck driver from the road construction company stopped to help, but there was no way it could fit in spite of being just a few millimeters on the wrong side. The only solution was for one of us to get a lift and deliver the punctured town to the nearest petrol station in Modogashe for repair then get another lift from someone traveling back to Garissa. We were stuck by the roadside with no human habitation on site. There were only wooded grasslands on either side of the road, as far as the eye could see. With the sun going down, I led the driver in Maghreb prayers by the road side. The nearest petrol station was not so near. It took about three hours for that seemingly simple operation, by which time it was long past 7 pm.

We drove more carefully this time, though the all weather road under construction eventually ended and we had to follow tracks over a wooded grassland. We had to follow tire marks made by buses, lorries and other vehicles. At some point we lost the tracks and went a long way in the wrong direction. On realization, we drove back and located the tracks again, arriving in Wajir Town at about 9 pm where we encountered tarmac again. Before 2014, there were no tarmac roads in Wajir town, a situation that had persisted for 51 years after independence.

Disheartening News of a Botched Terror Attack

We booked into the Palace Hotel for the night. As we prepared to have supper and some rest, we received news that there had been an attempted terror attack at the Chinese construction site at Shimbirey perhaps moments after we had left the scene of our puncture. Armed hooded men with AK-47 rifles had apparently kidnapped a man and ordered him to take them to the camp. But a report was made by one of the villagers to the police who were guarding the camp. Unknown to the terrorists, the Police were ready for them. This is how it was reported the following day, Monday 21st January 2019:

“...The militants are said to have started shooting indiscriminately prompting the workers who are housed outside the fenced camp to flee.

“The attackers were repulsed since the security officers were very alert. There was exchange of fire before the attackers escaped… Traces of blood as they escaped on foot indicate that quite a number of them sustained serious bullet injuries....” - theeastafrican.co.ke

Unfortunately, according to the report, a woman was shot from behind and rushed to the Garissa County Referral Hospital where she was said to be in stable condition. Three other people had also been injured. That report reaffirmed that we were in very volatile territory.

The following morning we left on a sandy road for a small town called Griftu, about 50 kilometers from Wajir town. From a geographical point of view, Griftu may have been under water some thousands of years ago. The soil is sandy and any rocky outcrop appeared to have been smoothened out like rocks in river beds. There was no soil as we know it, so the word muddy cannot be used even under very wet condition. Availability of water is a problem but we were fortunate to get accommodation in a tertiary institution where water had been piped from a bore-hole. Due to the heat, one had to have a bottle of drinking water in one hand at all times. If you neglect to drink water for a while, you will experience a burning sensation when you go to pee.

Onwards to Wajir

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A section of Wajir Town. Note the women with plastic water containers

A section of Wajir Town. Note the women with plastic water containers

A Section of Wajir Town

A Section of Wajir Town

Along a street in Wajir Town

Along a street in Wajir Town

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Trade Goods from Somalia

Wajir County shares a border with Somalia to the East. Traders can get goods for sale from the border, much faster than from Nairobi. Goods from the Arab world and the far east are common

and cheap in Wajir. I found that a pair of sandals was costing less than half the price it would cost in Nairobi. On the contrary, fresh bread that had to come all the way from Nairobi cost double the price. Maybe they now have a bakery in Wajir, but at the time, I wondered why there wasn’t one to keep the cost down. But then, industries are driven by demand so apart from a few visitors like me and my friends, maybe there wasn’t much need for bread. I discovered also that my favorite dish of chapatti was not a Somali favourite. Non of the restaurants in Griftu had ready chapattis. We had to make an order, then come late in the evening to collect. Since it would not make sense to order one or two, we ordered quite a bunch once in a while and carted them away to eat at leisure.

The Voice of the Muadhin

Dawns in Griftu reminded me of Lamu town where the voices of different Muadhins, calling the faithful to prayer follow one after the other until all the mosques in the vicinity have made the call. There was a mosque a few metres from the gate of our residence. Unlike in Nairobi where summons are in Swahili, the Friday summons were in the Somali language which I do not speak. This is understandable since over 90 percent of the residents are Somalis. At constructions sites, most workers were Kamba or Meru. I met a Meru man who transported goods with a donkey cart who could speak the Somali language.

One of the several mosques at Griftu

One of the several mosques at Griftu

A section of Griftu shopping center. Note how well padded the donkey harness is

A section of Griftu shopping center. Note how well padded the donkey harness is

Griftu Post Office - a relic of the past

Griftu Post Office - a relic of the past

A close up of Griftu Post Office - note the blue boxes that no one uses today

A close up of Griftu Post Office - note the blue boxes that no one uses today

My Culture Shock in Griftu, Wajir County

During all my 17 days in this small town, I never saw a single dog. To Muslims, the saliva of a dog is Najis – unclean, but the keeping of dogs is not haram.

“The Prophet (peace and blessing of Allah be upon him) said: "Whoever keeps a dog, except a dog for herding, hunting or farming, his reward will decrease by one qiraat every day." (Reported by Muslim, 2948)”

During my stay, we slaughtered a cow. To my shock, all offals – stomach and intestines were thrown to the marabou storks that had been waiting a few meters away. They knew there was something for them. The head was also thrown away, and so were lower parts of the legs. My Kikuyu community has a use for every part of a cow or goat, including the head, feet, stomach and intestines. The Head and feet are first burned over open flames so that the fur can be scraped away before they are boiled to make a much valued soup. After the soup has been consumed, the head is split open and feasted on by adult men, brains and all until only a clean skull remains. The legs are given to children to clean them to the bone. But in wajir, and I suppose all areas inhabited by the Somali, these are left to scavenger birds and mammals.

Slaughtering a cow - all the blood is drained to the ground and in innards thrown to the marabou storks

Slaughtering a cow - all the blood is drained to the ground and in innards thrown to the marabou storks

I asked the Somali who was our night guard why the Somalis do not eat the innards and heads of slaughtered animals the way Kikuyus do and this was his response much to my amusement:

“Somali tajiri, Kikuyu masikini” - Somalis are rich, Kikuyus are poor.

The Somali treat their donkeys with a lot of kindness. The harnesses and any part of a wagon that comes into contact with the animals skin is well cushioned with fabrics. You will not see injuries on a Somali donkey. When they deliver goods, they given some branches to snack on before the next assignment. In one instance, a donkey was waiting to be loaded with building materials. It handler had carried some branches of a shrub for the donkey to much as the loading took place.

The Kikuyu in areas like Limuru where donkeys are used to fetch and supply water to homes and urban settlements are whipped at short intervals. They are whipped to get them moving or even to get them to turn left or right. There harnesses are not properly cushioned and it is common to see gaping wounds. They also seem to only graze at night when they are not required for work.

One Hadith quotes Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as saying:

“A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious as a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.”

Marabou storks waiting for their share of the kill

Marabou storks waiting for their share of the kill

Terror-phobia

I must say that since the attempted terror attack at Shimbirey, I had a nagging fear that we would stand out as ‘non-locals’ and attract an opportunistic terrorist. The Al Shabaab group usually picked out non-locals and Christians to get publicity. Being a revert Muslim would not help if your identity card still has a Christian name on it.

Needless to say, we met with a lot of hospitality, friendship and kindness. We were a particular favourite at the local market where we purchased milk, bread and watermelons. Our host only made black tea leading to a yearning for milk tea. Surprisingly, the watermelons were very cheap when compared to Nairobi prices. We learned that the county produces a lot of watermelons by irrigating farmland with water from River Tana. The County is not completely arid after all. We made friends at a restaurant where we ordered Chapattis in bulk. When it was time to depart, our hosts were as sad to see us go, just as we were forlorn to leave Griftu. This time we took a flight at the Wajir International Airport and landed in Nairobi’s Wilson Airport after one and half hours.


© 2022 Emmanuel Kariuki

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