Oil and Isolation

Kenya’s government recently announced that oil had been discovered in the Lake Turkana basin, an isolated region whose people have long been the butt of other Kenyans' jokes. But the potential for conflict over oil exploration and extraction in the region is no laughing matter.

NAIROBI – In Kenya, there is a running gag that sums up how far away the Turkana people live from the rest of us. When a Turkana man leaves for the capital, Nairobi, the joke goes, he tells his family, “I’m going to Kenya.”

In recent weeks, ever since Kenya’s government announced that oil had been discovered in the Lake Turkana basin, more jokes have emerged. A picture of unidentified happy, half-naked black children I had seen on my Facebook friends’ profiles many months ago began circulating again, this time with the caption, “Discover Oil in Turkana…No More Dry Skin.”

At first, I chuckled at the jokes. As a Maasai, I have heard every Kenyan joke about how “uncivilized” my people are, so I was happy that someone else was in the spotlight for a change. But when I saw a photo of a topless Turkana woman doctored to look as if she were breastfeeding a white baby, my attitude began to change.

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