As Ghosts of Cancer sweep Marsabit… – by Laura Maina

Narissa Allibhai Environment, Politics & Society 4 Comments

Northern Kenya is known as “The Cradle of Mankind”  due to the famous paleoanthropological site ‘Koobi Fora’[1], which hails one of the oldest human fossils, a 7 million year old from Turgen Hills. The region also unique as home to East Africa’s only true desert; to the world’s largest desert lake, Lake Turkana;  to the elephant with the largest tusks ever seen; and to the smallest Kenyan tribe, the Elmolo (which fears extinction despite the repetitive song of conserving our heritage and culture).

Despite possessing such rich heritage, the region struggles with severe marginalisation. The area is sadly infamous for illiteracy, poverty, insecurity, inadequate infrastucture, ill health, malnutrition and maternal deaths. Marsabit has long experienced various challenges including terrorism attacks, cattle raids, lack of social amenities and  infrastructure, not forgetting the region’s harsh climatic desert conditions.

The discovery of oil and gas deposits in this marginalised area is projected to make Kenya a regional energy hub for Eastern Africa, although this vision is threatened by the poor business environment, insecurity, regulation issues, and most recently the collapse in oil prices[2]. The discoveries sparked the growth of the multi-billion LAPPSET project, which is purported to be developing an oil pipeline that will see the transportation of crude oil and liquid natural gas across the  East African region.The benefits from the region could be significant if governance and accountability of the projects are up to par.

While on one hand, the oil discoveries have led to investment and development, on the other, residents of Marsabit County who happen to be living in the midst of the rich resource hub are mysteriously dying. Marsabit’s population of 291,166 has been hit by a deadly cancer epidemic. These deaths first hit the news in 1994[3], when the then North Horr MP, Ukur Yatani claimed they were caused by radioactivity from the dumped wastes of oil exploration in the 1980s. In 2009, the then M.P Joseph Lekuton raised the matter in parliament on whether the oil exploration caused the deaths; at the time two cancer cases were being reported weekly to the local dispensaries. As of 21st of October 2015, the media reported approximately 500 deaths3, due to diverse forms of cancer; breast cancer, stomach cancer, throat cancer and mouth cancer. Speculated causes still vary from radiocativity from non-sealed wells dug by the oil companies in the search for oil, to high concentrations of mercury, nitrate, nitrite and arsenic mineral components that have seeped into drinking water from the wells dug by the oil exploiters.

Cancer in Marsait toon - BM

Recent updates on the crisis indicate a conflict between The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and the Ministry of Health. KEMRI was tasked to fact find on the epidemic, and claims that they submitted the report to the Ministry of Health; whereas the latter insists that they have not received said report from the KEMRI team[4].

Back in 2004, the National Enviromental Management Authority (NEMA) led the enviromental assessment on oil exploration; the report however did not make it to the public domain. In 2009, the Water Resources Management Authority analysed the water from boreholes and wells in the Kargi area of Marsabit and rendered it hazardrous (components of nitrates, nitrites and arsenic), recommending the use of alternative sources for domestic use.

Thoughts that disturb me on the matter are:

  • Why isn’t the report public?
  • Will the report’s findings be shared with the affected people?
  • Were the policies requiring a credible Environmental Impact Assessment really followed, given allegations on radioactivity and water pollution?
  • Was civic education administered to affected locals to ensure they were informed about the projects and ways to protect themselves? Or did the ‘illiteracy’ stereotype become an excuse?
  • Are the hazardous wells sealed and were the alternative sources of water put up?
  • Has the quest for economic independence (through exploitation of oil resources) trumped the value of the lives of the historical guardians of this land?

Cancer in Marsabit - quote

The implications of such arrogance on how society functions are alarming. Are the deaths of the Marsabit people irrelevant to Kenya’s quest to enjoy the fruits of their land? As the Cancer Awareness month of October draws to a close, what have we to say to those suffering from the mysterious cancer epidemic up north? Not forgetting the faithful Halloween custom followers in our midst who will be dressing up for what is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain in the eight century, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. Meanwhile, the ghosts of our people in the north go ignored. Pains me.





About the Author


Laura Arudi Maina is a psychosocial graduate who is passionate about understanding diverse life phenomena through research, writing and dance. She desires to bring social change and cohesion through changing of perceptions on various discriminatory attitudes amongst all persons in the society.

Laura is currently on the market for human rights work.

Comments 4

  1. Barmasai.E.

    Why we are always too blind to see what right in-front of us…..we only see what we are looking for….
    Good Read, can’t wait for the continuation..

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  3. Professor Kithaka wa Mberia

    Suchg magnitude of a suffering is truly dishertening. Men and women of good will should should do everything posible to bring the sad information to public knowlege. Of special interest is know what was “dumped” in the area. Were they really “wastes of oil explorations” or were they deadly substances from another country and another continent? Did oil exploration really take place or was the “exploration” simply deception and cover-up for damping radio-active material from some American or European nuclear reactor? If such radio-active material was dumped into our country, was our Government part of the conspiracy? Is so who, who was given “kitu kidogo” to allow the dumping? If the dumping was done without the knowledge of the Government, why do we spend tax-payers’ money to pay salaries to the national intelligency service?


    Hello. Am a university student wishing to carry out what is the exactly cause of the cancer menace in Marsabit county. My main objective is to assess the dietary intake of the people of marsabit to find out if it is related the cancer disease.
    Kindly update me if there is any link between cancer and diet in Marsabit.

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