Africa, April 2019, Vol. 84 No. 3

Turkana Environment
John O'Callaghan

Care of the ecosystem is crucial to Turkana, Kenya. Nomadic people, like the Turkana, live on the edge already, so any change for the worse could be disastrous. Rainfall is problematic but the people have developed a finely tuned system of survival which has seen them through many hard times. We all remember the famines in various places, including Turkana, over the past sixty years. If the rain fails for a few seasons in a row people run into trouble. And this is more likely to happen with climate change.

Pope Francis brought the care of our world to everybody’s attention with his encyclical on the environment. In it he calls on people to wake up to the dangers facing humanity if we continue misusing and abusing our common home. Turkana is a part of the world which is home to almost one million people. It is about the size of Ireland with a hot, dry climate and suffered in the past from serious droughts and famines. The standard of living is still very low but people survive nowadays as many have jobs. Many more depend on food handouts or cash payments from the Government or NGOs. And many rely on the traditional nomadic way of life.

People need to be informed of climate change, and the need for everybody to be responsible for their own homeland. They have to live there and also hand it on intact or improved to their children. This is possible with their own amazing methods of survival enhanced by modern science. They have the most drought resistant trees and crops and animals imaginable and they know how to live off them in a sustainable way. Development asks us to add to this foundation so that life is not only maintained but improved for the good of all the people.

There is an urgent need to manage the situation as the population increases and the way of life changes. We can be careless, not to mention greedy, in the rush for food and riches. Trees are cut down for firewood and for sale as charcoal. Business people are more concerned with profit than the good of the ecosystem. So it falls to the Government, and now to the Church, to make people aware of the new situation we find ourselves in.

It is not too late to take some necessary steps. More can be done by the Christian people than what we are doing.

There is a need to build up what can be called a ‘political will’ in society. It is essential that everybody, nomadic or settled, become aware of the situation. It may be possible to get assistance to deal with climate change but more important is that people take ownership of the work ahead, do it, make it their own and benefit from it. Without this change of attitude, this political will, I cannot see any chance of success. With this agreement among all the population of Turkana it may be possible to meet the new challenges facing us.

The problem is that people say that their hands are full already. And this is true; between the need to get food, deal with sickness, pay school fees, and many other demands in the homes. But as the Pope says this world is our home and whether we can afford to neglect it, is a decision we all have to make.

There may be something practical that the people, government, county, the Church, and NGOs can do together. Can they agree to set aside large areas of Turkana to grow trees and forests? This would require full agreement and support from the people – settled and nomadic. Over the years many people have planted trees around their homes, using mainly imported trees. This has provided shade and colour to the towns and overall has been a success.

However, it seems that local tree varieties are even more drought resistant than these imported trees. If planted and looked after for one year, they will take root and continue to grow, slowly, on their own. We see these trees growing even in the driest parts of Turkana today – edappal, ewoi, edome, ebei, esekon and many others. The agreement of all the people is required to set aside the land and to keep all domestic animals away for up to ten years. In return many people would get employment in planting and taking care of this new forest. And in thinning and managing these new trees as they grow, in selling firewood and charcoal. Many young qualified people could work on introducing new varieties, new industries based on forestry.

Is this proposal beyond the ability of the people to implement? Or to accept? But such demanding steps are required to protect and hopefully improve the ecosystem in Turkana.

I have heard leaders in Turkana call for the involvement of school children in the care of the environment. No doubt children can make a huge difference if they are made aware. Almost all schools have successfully grown trees as school projects, but again more can be done.

As well as growing trees children should be taught to love and appreciate their homeland. It is their home and it is special. With modern communications it is no longer a remote or deprived part of the country. It has two good rivers flowing through the land, has a huge aquifer underground, and now has a developing oil industry. And Lake Turkana can be further developed for fishing and tourism. It will be a good place in which to live in the future.

There is a need to get the children to value their own culture, the history of their people which goes back millions of years as we know from discoveries of some of the earliest human fossils along the shores of Lake Turkana. It is crucial to teach the children their own customs and protect their language, their skills of survival, songs and stories. All are in danger of being lost as people look down on their recent memories of poverty and famine. A famine is something we can learn from. Not something to forget. A new outlook is necessary to take care of Turkana as a whole. They have made huge progress in recent years. The challenge now is to complete the job and go in the right direction. Basically this is in their own hands – there is no room for mistakes or excuses. They are more qualified than anybody else in the world as it is their home. It is part of our common home too, and we hope and pray that other people will look after their own homelands as well.

Fr John O’Callaghan was ordained in 1966. He has ministered in the Diocese of Lodwar since 1967. He has a keen interest in education and development.

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