This story appears in the August 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
On a hot spring morning, Galte Nyemeto stood by the shore of Lake Turkana scanning for crocodiles. The water was shallow, the odds of reptiles low, but Nyemeto, a traditional healer of the Daasanach tribe, had come with a patient, and it would be very bad luck—spiritually and otherwise—for the ceremony to be interrupted.
Nearly all the larger and more dangerous hippos had been hunted out long ago, but plenty of crocs remained, especially here, below the delta where the Omo River pours from Ethiopia into Kenya. The river crocs, which sometimes follow the current south, are said to be more vicious and cunning than those hatched along the lake edge, though all are considered by the tribe to be evil incarnate, regardless of lineage. It meant Nyemeto was both watching for wildlife and gauging the spiritual trend of the day.
Here and there the brown water stirred from flat repose at the brush of a flamingo’s wing or the rise of a fish. From the west came the distant whine of an outboard motor. No crocs, not even a cow or camel. Satisfied, Nyemeto led a young woman named Setiel Guokol into the water and had her sit, told her to wash. Guokol scooped water over her face and splashed it onto her back.
Nyemeto, meanwhile, dug into the rich mud, lifted dripping handfuls, and in quick strokes daubed it down the grim line of Guokol’s spine.
“Badab,” she said. “Badab,” with each coat. Commanding death away by the word and the deed. “The lake is a cleansing place,” she said.
Nyemeto is known as a healer of last resort. When all else has failed—the medicines in the clinic, the white man’s god in the church, the aid groups in their cement houses—people bring their ailments and fears to her. In return, and for a small fee, she offers hope.
“I am the last stop,” she said.
And so to the lakeshore with Guokol. She had been sick for months and had recently worsened, growing weaker each day under the shadow of evil spirits, a condition the Daasanach call gaatch. By the time her relatives urged her into Nyemeto’s care, there was not much left of Guokol but a whisper of what had gone: strength, beauty, health. She was perhaps 30.
At the water Nyemeto dropped the usual roughness that often had her shouting at children and hurling stones at dogs. With a mother’s touch she painted Guokol with mud and rinsed her in the graceless morning heat. When they had finished, Nyemeto helped Guokol to her feet, and they returned shoreward, arm in arm.
“We won’t look back,” said Nyemeto, her shoulders set. “We have left the spirits behind.”
And Guokol, chilled to a shiver, slender as a reed, said, “I believe I will be well.”
Selicho lies at the heart of one of East Africa’s remotest regions. It is about as north as you can go in Kenya, more than 200 miles from the nearest major road, a short walk from the Ethiopian border, where the dry lands roll on, sharp, hot, and loosely governed, for another hundred miles. If you’re grasping after hope in this place, it isn’t far to Nyemeto’s door, and her turn to the lake for healing would not seem unusual. Faith and hope naturally coincide with water here, and for now Turkana offers all in abundance.
It is the world’s largest permanent desert lake and has existed in this region for some four million years, expanding and contracting in a volcanic trough along the edge of the Great Rift Valley. Ancient hominins lived along its shores, and early humans hunted, gathered, and fished here as they moved north on their slow migrations out of Africa. Ten thousand years ago the lake was far larger than it is now. Seven thousand years ago the lake was shrinking. Neolithic tribes raised mysterious stone pillars at holy sites above it. And now Nyemeto continues traditions rooted in water that may be very old, though no one can say for sure where they came from or when they were born.
But Turkana, like all desert water, is vulnerable. Most of the lake’s freshwater—some 90 percent—comes from the Omo River. Now the Ethiopian government’s plans for extensive development along the river, including a massive hydroelectric dam and water-hungry sugarcane plantations, threaten to disrupt the Omo’s eons-old flow and starve the lake. In the most dire scenarios, Turkana will over the years slowly shrivel and die, turning the local population into refugees from an African dust bowl.
Nyemeto’s people are among those who stand to lose most in the face of Ethiopian ambition, and against it they have little voice. Daasanach territory spreads across the border and was split more than a century ago by surveyors shoring up British interests on one side and the Ethiopian empire on the other. The division placed most of the Daasanach in Ethiopia; a much smaller group remained in Kenya. The tribe is one of the nation’s smallest and weakest ethnic groups.
There are roughly 10,000 Kenyan Daasanach people, but only recently did they gain their first elected representative, who sits at the county level—a world away from the parliament in Nairobi and almost dead last in line for aid. Many southern Kenyans don’t consider the lake, or people like Nyemeto and Guokol, to be part of their nation. There are no power lines, no high schools, no regular transport. In Nyemeto’s village even the Christian missionaries have abandoned their church. The Daasanach, like their lake, are, for all practical purposes, nearly invisible.
Michael Moroto Lomalinga, chief of the Kenyan Daasanach, has known this thin existence almost since he was born here some 60 years ago. Back then, the British still ruled, and the north was considered so far beyond use and salvation that maps simply labeled it “closed.”
“We are not officially counted,” said Moroto, who is tall and smooth-faced and goes by just his middle name. “We are listed as ‘others’ in the census. You can imagine this is a problem.”
Moroto lives in Ileret, a village of bleating goats and wind-whipped dust not far from Selicho on the northeastern shore of the lake. Like other tribal chiefs in Kenya, he is a government appointee. He’s held his job for almost 20 years, and it’s similar to a small-town mayorship. There are many grievances, much bureaucracy, the occasional rumor of corruption. But in April 2014, after a long drought, Moroto was struggling with more dangerous matters—all of them, in one way or another, over water.
To the east the Gabbra people had been pushing cattle into Daasanach territory. To the west the Turkana tribe was bothering Daasanach fishermen on the lake. Both tribes are larger, better connected politically, and better armed with illegal weapons. Turkana fishermen have overfished their own waters and now stray toward Ileret and Selicho, threatening raids, stealing nets, and sometimes killing Daasanach.
In this the Daasanach are not innocent, not without pride or guns. They have fought back violently and have often started trouble themselves. A man in the bush or on the water will always hear his own conscience loudest, no matter what Moroto says. Still, the chief must try to prevent anger from falling into age-old cycles of killing and revenge, which often last generations. There are water and fish enough for all, he keeps saying, even if he doesn’t always believe it.
“We Daasanach are a marginalized people,” Moroto said. “When we fight, it usually goes worse for us, and the government is not much help. They do not work on peace when there is peace. They only work on peace when there is conflict.”
And conflict is coming. For beyond the routine skirmishes of desert tribes loom the dam and the sugar plantations. Elected officials in Nairobi have hardly shrugged at any of it, but Moroto knows what violence a shrinking lake could bring. For him there is dread, and perhaps a certain relief, in knowing he can do almost nothing about it.
Abdul Razik lit a cigarette and set his bare foot on the small red gas tank. Beside it an enormous fish lay still on the boat’s floor, eyes big as golf balls, their light newly gone. The bright green boat, freshly painted, rode high on the opaque water. The green paint, Razik explained, was camouflage—to hide his new investment against pirates from the Turkana tribe.
A May morning, and Razik had just checked his nets—thin, spidery things kept afloat with old Coke bottles. There had been only the one fish. Heading home, Razik pointed north through a maze of tall reeds toward Ethiopia. He had not seen them, but he had heard of the dam and the plantations that threatened to dry up his life.
“If they stop the river and take all the water, and the lake disappears, it’s gonna hurt a lot of people,” he said. “Thousands of people, tens of thousands. So many depend on this lake.”
Razik is an entrepreneur, one of the few to glimpse possibility in Lake Turkana beyond hand-to-mouth survival. He lives in Selicho and married a Daasanach woman, but he is an Arab Kenyan, originally from the ocean coast. He owns four boats and sometimes brings a truck from Nairobi carrying a shipping container packed with ice. He buys the catches of his neighbors, fills his container over several days with two or three tons of fish, then returns to Nairobi, where he sells the haul.
Before coming to Lake Turkana, Razik had worked for years in a fish-processing plant in Kisumu, a city on the shore of Lake Victoria, far to the south. Victoria is Africa’s largest lake, shared by Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. It supports a multimillion-dollar fishing industry that supplies hungry regional markets and also annually exports to Europe thousands of tons of Nile perch.
High demand has severely stressed Lake Victoria’s ecology, and the industry’s success has brought many boomtown problems—lakeside slums, drugs, crime, poor wages and working conditions. Eventually Razik had had enough and left. “Besides,” he said, “the fishing was getting worse. The perch were disappearing.”
Razik considered his options. Lake Turkana had no industrial fishing operations, none of the boomtown by-products. Living would be rougher, perhaps dangerous. But competition would be low, and the lake did have Nile perch—just like the beast that lay in a heap of scale and muscle at the bottom of his boat.
Six years he has lived among the Daasanach. His business has grown profitable, and he’s come to love the tribe. It’s not always easy to be a Muslim in Kenya, but the Daasanach have never cared about his religion; his wife has even converted. Beyond that, Razik said, people in Selicho are peaceful and do not overfish. He plans to stay, to raise children in the small two-room house where he sometimes repairs motorbikes in the kitchen. As long as there are peace and perch and ice for his shipping containers, a man can be happy. He can see possibilities. Until he looks north.
Some 450 miles up the Omo River, in Ethiopia, the hydroelectric dam called Gilgel Gibe III was completed in January. Much nearer Lake Turkana, enormous bulldozers crawl over the dry lands near the riverbanks, scraping the way for sugarcane and cotton. Soon the effects of this work will ripple down into Kenya, with potentially devastating consequences for the 90,000 tribal people who depend on the lake.
“The Omo River is the umbilical cord for Lake Turkana. That’s the best way to think of the relationship,” said Sean Avery, an engineering hydrologist who’s spent years studying and exploring the Omo-Turkana watershed. “If you cut that cord, the lake will die.”
Avery lives in Kenya and has analyzed Ethiopia’s plans for the river for the African Development Bank and other clients. In 2013 the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford published a booklet collecting Avery’s work and summarizing his research on development along the Omo. His findings left him deeply depressed.
“When you take water out of the river and use it in irrigation in a climate like that, some of it will percolate back into the watershed,” he said. “But most of it will disappear.”
Avery and other experts say the danger begins with the dam, which is Africa’s largest, an 800-foot wall of concrete. Dams inevitably harm ecosystems below them. Gibe III will cause intense, drought-like stress to the Omo and the lake during its first three years of operation, when up to 70 percent of the river’s flow will pass through a reservoir.
Once the reservoir is full, the lake will slowly normalize—but then the sugar plantations come into play. Sugarcane is notoriously thirsty, and its cultivation in the dry lands of Ethiopia’s lower Omo Valley would be impossible without the dam to regulate the river. Tens of thousands of acres have been officially marked off for cane and cotton in southern Ethiopia, and according to Avery, tens of thousands more are slated for future plantations. Already planting has begun, and all of the growth will be fed from a single tap: the Omo.
It’s difficult to know exactly how or when these threats will unfold. The dam has been delayed many times since construction began in 2006, but the reservoir started filling in January. And though plantation development has already begun, the scale of agricultural transformation is not nearly as big as it could be.
Avery and others point to the slow-motion disaster of the Aral Sea for a vision of what may come. The Aral was once the fourth largest inland body of water on Earth, gleaming between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Beginning in the Soviet era, the two rivers that fed the lake were slowly siphoned off for cotton cultivation. By 2007 the Aral was nearly dead, its once rich basin a wasteland of dust, its surface scattered with rusted fishing boats and flats of corrosive salt.
An equally apocalyptic ending could befall Lake Turkana, destroying the livelihood of thousands of fishing people, turning them into desperate refugees. In the worst case, Avery said, the sugar and cotton plantations keep growing, and over many years the river diminishes, causing the lake to drop by 60 feet or more. Eventually, only two small lakes could remain. One of them would likely sit near Daasanach territory. The other would lie farther south, isolated, saline, and shallow.
The Ethiopian government has regularly brushed off criticism of its overall plans along the Omo. Several scientists interviewed for this story said almost no information about potential impacts has been made public. What is available, Avery pointed out, shows the Ethiopians have ignored Lake Turkana. “Their studies all stop at the border,” Avery said. “Why would they do that? It’s impossible to argue that it’s going to have no impact on the lake.”
Still, actions reflect intent, and perhaps most troubling for now is the government’s ongoing campaign of “village-ization” in the Omo Valley, where tribes of nomads and herders have been gathered into permanent villages. Government officials describe the campaign as voluntary, but Omo residents and several human rights groups claim traditional peoples are being forced into villages to clear the way for cane and cotton. Adding to a cloud of suspicion, the Ethiopian government routinely refuses to allow journalists and other investigators to visit the area.
In 2009 when photographer Randy Olson and I visited Gibe III, then under construction, while working on a story about the Omo, an Ethiopian official told me, “It is our destiny to develop this land. It is our duty to make the river work.”
His people too had seen hope glimmering in the water.
“The Ethiopians have been pursuing development at all costs,” Avery said. “In a way, you can’t blame them. Any number of nations have done this sort of thing with their natural resources. But it will be very destructive.”
In Kenya politicians remain mostly silent on Ethiopia’s plans, despite the troubling predictions and clamor of grassroots groups. Chief Moroto said there had been anger and small protests all along the lakeshore, even as far north as his village. But nothing had come of them. Officials I interviewed around Lake Turkana often refused to comment, saying they feared the political consequences. The truth seemed plain, though. It appeared now and then in a private complaint, an unhappy shrug, or a plea for help. Sometimes in a blunt statement.
One evening in Ileret I was talking with a policeman about security. Islamic militants from Somalia had been staging attacks across the border to the northeast. I asked if he felt safe in this part of Kenya. The policeman, a southerner, spat out a wad of khat and raised a finger. “My friend,” he said, “look around you. This is not Kenya. No, no, no.”
Later the old healer, Nyemeto, bounced the sentiment back. “Where is Kenya?” she asked. “I’ve never been there.”
On the sand flats outside Selicho, Abdul Razik found himself laboring somewhere in between these views. “This area means nothing to people in the south,” he said. “They don’t know about life here, and they don’t care what happens to these people.”
He stood in the shade of a massive ice truck. Meltwater fell from its bed in a sparkling stream, and small children danced beneath it, naked but for a string or two of beads.
The truck belonged to Razik’s friend, who was hoping to fill the hold with Nile perch. Fishermen were bringing up their catches, and some spoke hopefully of following Razik’s example, making more money in one trip than their families and neighbors had ever seen. It was a dream beyond most of them.
While we talked, Daasanach fishermen gathered around beneath the sun’s brutal glare, angry and questioning. They had bits of news and rumor, but they understood little of Ethiopia’s plans or Kenya’s silence. Razik had traveled, he spoke several languages, he knew more, and the others bellowed their concern to him.
Some asked where they would go if the lake dried up. Others said no one could ever shut off a river so grand as the Omo. A few swore to fight any man who tried. Razik translated and pondered and argued until he’d lost his calm and began stabbing the air with his cigarette and spilling hot tea on his belly.
But no fury lasts long in such heat. Nearby, men began cutting into a large perch; there was a great rip as the scales tore away. Soon hunger replaced anger, and Razik wandered over to the carcass. He knelt and slipped a hand inside, lifted out a long, slick organ. “Do you know what this is?” he asked. “I don’t know the name in English, but it’s very valuable. The Chinese pay a lot for it.”
The swim bladder is sometimes used in traditional medicines. Razik said he could ship it to Uganda and other places where Chinese communities were growing. One more possibility on the horizon.
On the last morning of Setiel Guokol’s treatment, the wind was up, the sun blinding. Normally, Nyemeto said, they would slaughter a ram. She would lift the carcass while Guokol walked beneath its dripping blood, one more cleansing rite. But Guokol had no husband to tend sheep, and her family was too poor to buy one. So Nyemeto boiled a thin brew of water and coffee bean husks, saying it would do.
Guokol had tried other remedies. She had crossed bush and riverbed to reach the clinic in Ileret. She was given a shot, a bottle of pills, sent home. No cure came. The Western name for her condition remained a mystery, at least to her.
She sat on an old black goatskin outside her hut, a red band of beads tight around her biceps, where the muscle had vanished. Neighbors gathered to watch. In Daasanach tradition—the tradition of many tribes here—a sick person would, if she did not recover, be carried away to a solitary camp beyond the village. This so death, if it came, would not haunt the living.
Nyemeto brought a large gourd and ladled handfuls of weak coffee onto her patient’s skin. She pressed fingers into Guokol’s shoulders, head, and legs, and paid special attention to her feet. “Take your evil!” she said, throwing her hands skyward. “Take your evil!”
The ceremony was brief. Guokol wobbled to her feet and wrapped herself in a red blanket, though the morning burned. “I am not afraid,” she said. “This is our way.” Bean husks fell from her hair.
She died that June. I heard she was buried not far from the lake. It was the season of floods along the Omo, and the brown water, rich in sediment and oxygen, would soon spill down into Kenya. Good water for perch, good fishing for men. The flamingos rising like flares in the sky.