Adventures in the North, Part II: Kawalase and Turkwel, the Bridges of Life in Lodwar, Turkana County

Lodwar town, the capital of Turkana County, north-western Kenya. This town is tucked between two rivers, the Turkwel and Kawalase. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode

Lodwar town in Turkana County is sandwiched between two rivers.

At the southern end is Turkwel River, the largest and the only perennial river in the County and which drains its waters into Lake Turkana. This river originates from the slopes of Mount Elgon on the Kenya-Uganda border.

At the northern end, is the Kawalase River, a seasonal river and a tributary of the Turkwel River.

Lying downstream, Lodwar town has for many years borne the brunt of the perennial floods occasioned by these two rivers. And many people have lost lives, property destroyed and livelihoods crippled.

Turkana County is an arid area and rains are erratic. But whenever it rains upstream or in the County, it pours and Lodwar town is always chaotic, from the pain inflicted by the furious floodwaters unleashed by these two rivers.

Most noticeably, for along time, the onset of rains has always been an ominous sign of trouble especially for the transport sector in the area. Kawalase, on the Lodwar-Lokichoggio-South Sudan highway, has hit the headlines, severally.

It is here that stories of people and vehicles being swept across the river have made regular fodder for the news media. The seasonal river has swallowed many vehicles and lives. No wonder Kawalase in the local dialect loosely translates to ‘‘one that carries everything.’’ The river has lived to its name. And painfully so.

River Kawalase in the dry season. The seasonal river has claimed many lives whenever it is flooded or breaks it banks, paralysing transport along the busy Lodwar-Lokichoggio highway to the northern-western part of Kenya and South Sudan border.PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode

For a long time, without a formal bridge on the wide seasonal river, crossing over it has been a risky gamble. A herculean task. A matter of life and death. And for sure, the deaths have ben many.

If the rains got you on either side of the river, you would need to exercise your patience, until the waters subside. This doesn’t happen in a twinkle of an eye. In worst times, you would have to spend your night on the other side, or wherever you are.

‘‘If the floods over Kawalase get you in town (Lodwar), you are doomed. The waters can take even a week to subside. At one point, people started entertaining thoughts of shifting locations permanently to the other side of the river (the town side),’’ Moses, a guard and a resident of Lodwar told me.

There have been stories of women who only went to the market in Lodwar town to fend for their children, only to be marooned there until the following day. They would spend uncertain nights, worried about their children on the other end of the town.

People stranded by the banks of Kawalase River, Turkana County as others attempt a risky crossing. The river has claimed many lives in the past years. PHOTO: The Star.

And then there are daredevil drivers, who, through sheer underestimation of the risks involved, attempted to cross the swollen river. Some have lived to tell the story on near death experiences. Some, not. They lost their lives.

Women.Men.Children.No one has been spared the fury of Kawalase River. This has been the story of ordinary folks. And of drunkards, who, underestimating the fury of the river, have been swept away.

And this has been the case, again, and again and again. Year after year after year.

‘‘So many people have died in the area. For sometime, we almost believed there were evil spirits there. In fact, while crossing the river, one was always warned never to look sideways, lest they are beckoned by the evil spirits,’’ says Jacinta, a resident of the town.

And sometimes, when it floods upstream, distress calls would come through to Lodwar, for people downstream to be cautious.

A bridge over Kawalase River

The newly constructed bridge over Kawalase River in Lodwar town,Turkana County. This bridge consructed by the Kenya National Highways Authority will save many lives in the area.PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode

But beginning October 2020, the story has completely changed. The construction of a massive bridge over the river has ushered in a fresh breath of life.

This bridge was constructed by the Kenya National Highways Authority (KENHA) through the Chinese contractor, the Third Engineering Bureau of China City Construction Group Company Ltd as part of the ongoing construction of the Lodwar-Lokichoggio-Juba Highway.

This stroke of magic has made extraordinary difference in the town. It has solved an ages-old conundrum.

Complete with pedestrian walks, this bridge over Kawalase River has now become the bridge of life.

‘‘This bridge is the best thing that ever happened to Lodwar town. Since it was constructed, no more people have died,’’ John, who is a guard and a pastor in the town says.

A new bridge and a new challenge

The newly built Kawalase River bridge. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

For many years news media has been awash with stories of young men with extraordinary courage who have helped stranded people cross safely through the flooded river Kawalase.

They saved many souls. It was their source of livelihood. For these men, the onset of rains has always signaled the onset of the harvesting season. By saving the terrified citizens cross the river, they in turn eked a living out of it.

But now the construction of the bridge over Kawalase River has brought a new challenge. It has effectively rendered them ‘‘jobless.’’

‘‘The young men who used to profit from the misfortune now are a suffering lot. Every day they witness people passing over the bridge in peace, they feel bad. They need to be taken care of lest they destroy the bridge,’’ warns pastor John.

With nothing to do, it is now common to find some of them just lounging under the bridge when the heat is unbearable and to sight their next prey.

‘‘They now waylay drunkards who are unable to cross over the bridge due to inebriation…And rob them,’’ adds John, who has been a preacher in the town for 18 years now.

They have also become innovative in their tricks as well.

While this new bridge will save lives, the youth who used to eke a living out of saving stranded people trying to cross Kawalase River, are now rendered ”jobless.” It is not uncommon to see some of them idling under this bridge occasionally waylaying unsuspecting passers-by. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode

The most common trick from their book is often to hoodwink unsuspecting citizens, telling them that the police are arresting people over the bridge, or deceive them to go under the bridge to have a better view of the new imposing structure.

Those who fall prey to these tricks are robbed.

But with the COVID-19 curfews and regular police patrols in Lodwar town have thwarted their efforts.

There are a few who have decided to venture into businesses to secure them legitimate income.

‘‘The most enterprising ones have ventured into the boda boda business. These young men used to smoke bhang and do all manner of ills,’’ another guard in the town tells me.

Since the coming of devolution in 2013, Lodwar town has grown incredibly fast. It is a relatively secure town.

‘‘The town is safe. No incidents of insecurity. A few theft incidences were dealt with and the criminals vanished,’’ says Allan, a boda boda rider in the town.

A new bridge over the Turkwel River

The Turkwel River in Lodwar Town. This is the largest and only perennial river in Turkana County. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode

From the slopes of Mount Elgon and the Cherangany Hills, the Turkwel River stretches almost 340 kilometers through the Southern Turkana Plains, the Loturerei Desert near Lodwar before emptying its waters into Lake Turkana.

The current bridge over the Turkwel River as you enter Lodwar town is a narrow one. In fact it is a one-way crossing.

But adjacent to it, a new bigger and broader bridge is nearing completion. This will also be one of the greatest structures that will ease transport on the ever-busy Kitale-Lodwar-Lokichoggio-South Sudan highway.

The current bridge over the Turkwel River.The narrow bridge is now being replaced with a wider and higher bridge.PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.
The new bridge taking shape over the Turkwel River.It is being constructed by the Kenya National Highways Authority (KENHA) through the Chinese contractor, the Third Engineering Bureau of China City Construction Company Group Ltd. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

Whenever river Turkwel breaks its banks, it can be quite destructive. It does so whenever the Turkwel Gorge dam overflows.

But it is not just Turkwel and Kawalase rivers that have been a source of nightmares for residents of Lodwar town. Other seasonal rivers like Lomunyenakirienok, Lokichar and Napasinyan are a spectacle to reckon with whenever it rains.

While the two bridges will save many lives that would otherwise have been lost through risky crossings, they are not a panacea to the flooding menace in the town and other parts of the Turkana County.

This will require innovative approaches to safeguard the town from the perennial damages caused by the floods, which have a consequence of derailing economic development every time it rains.

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