Right now, someone, somewhere is talking about Kenyan roads. It’s a universal constant. Meet anyone who’s been to Kenya and it will be one of the first subjects you’ll talk about. “I’ll tell you about a road: it’s not a road, it’s a rock and if you try to drive over it, it’ll take you four weeks…to go one mile…with one vehicle…the world’s best 4×4.” “Ha! Call that a road? That’s like walking over a rubber-covered carpet draped over a freshly concreted drive. I’ll tell you about a road. It’s not a road, it’s an idea. It’s a gaping, concept and you can only cross it with jet propulsion, low gears and prayer” etc.
We’d taken a route from Kitui town (about 110 miles east of Nairobi) to Yungela – a bone-shaking, organ-altering hour or so drive away. The driver described the journey not so much as following a road, but more like traversing someone’s ‘shamba’ or farm. By now, after ten days of Kenyan roads, I’d been thrown around so much, some bumps were imprinted on my DNA.
It was early when we arrived in Yungela, but the sun was fierce. I’d come to see a road-building project in the area. The project is helping communities in the region not only to earn money to buy food, but also to develop their area for the future.
Last year’s drought
Families across the region were hit by drought last year. Each person I spoke to in Kitui, told me the same thing: crops failed, animals died, family members suffered from malnutrition.
The problem for all of those I talked with was finding the money to buy food.
Some of the women building the road said they would go days without food. One told me how her body had got used to hunger: she might vomit and feel faint and weak, but she had learned how to cope.
Another woman said there were times when she despaired because there was no food; she just wanted to leave the area. She would fight with her husband because of hunger. She said that one of her children suffered from malnutrition, but she couldn’t afford the beans the doctor prescribed to feed her child.
To ensure people could feed themselves, our partner in the area, the Catholic Diocese of Kitui, developed cash-for-work projects. These were schemes for communities affected by the drought that enabled them to earn money while they built something that would help them in the future. Each community decided on what they needed most – a dam, some trees, land-management training – and the diocese would then pay the people to build what they needed.
The people of Yungela voted on a road.
Problems they face
I asked one of the road builders, “Why a road?” She told me this area was very isolated. I looked and could see that we were in the middle of a steep valley. Each side was lined with a mosaic of rocks, trees and gorse, their road cut through this. A teacher on his way to class (on a nifty motorbike) said that without the road, the valley would take three hours to cross on foot…if you were fit.
The problems people faced in the area were stark: women died in childbirth because they couldn’t get to hospital easily. School children had to make a six-hour round trip to school each day because of the unforgiving valley. Even when there was no drought, they would arrive at school exhausted.
There was also the challenge of getting food relief – government rations of food for people in drought regions. The government couldn’t access their villages so the people would have to walk six hours to the nearest town to collect food and then six hours back.
Why the road helps
The women building the road saw it not only as a way to earn money to buy food, it also meant access to hospitals and schools. And it gave them hope for the future. “I can sell my crop now” one of the women told me. “Before the road, I had to sell what I grew at a bad price. I had to take what I could get for it. Now there is a road, the buyers can get to me and I can negotiate with them.” Her plan was to sell her crops and to get even more people to come to her.
Throughout Kitui there are projects like the road in Yungela that have helped people to survive last year’s drought.
I looked down the valley at the finishing touches the roadbuilders were making to the road. It was red, pitted and dusty.
“What do you think about this?” I asked one of the women as we sat together looking at one of Kenya’s newest roads.
“It is the rain of God’s grace” she said.
Author is MarkC