OPINION: An ideal East African story

Friday September 13 2019

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

On Tuesday we visited Kapchorwa, a district in eastern Uganda spanning the Mt. Elgon area, which shares a border with Kenya.

In August 2018, Kenya’s Vice President William Ruto, was in these parts, with Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, flagging off the construction of the Kapchrowa-Suam Road, which will link the two countries.

With our Kenyan registered car, and lots of photography stops, the locals in the area must have thought we had something to do with the road. No, we were there partly to sniff around and get a sense of what this road, now long-forgotten by most people after last year’s flag off, might do. Perhaps developments there are worth a little more attention.

The Chinese are on site, and there is quite some work going on, and gravel being piled up. The big people spoke of this taking 36 months. Looks like it might happen.

They also said things about how the road was a “game changer” in East Africa, and would bring the fruits of regional trade to the doorsteps of millions from Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. Sounded suspiciously too grandiose.

The idea seems to come from the fact that from the Suam border post, the road into Kenya will traverse the existing Endebess–Kitale road into the Eldoret Bypass. The Eldoret by-pass involves the construction of basically a new road.


Anyway, put all that together, you have an expanded transport pipeline to Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, and somehow Ethiopia will get a piece of it through this flow.

It is all a little too much for us small people to understand, but we could figure out a few more down-to-earth things.

The lands of Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo districts through which the road passes, though being battered by environmental degradation, are still quite fertile. They form part of a belt in Uganda that is selling food to Kenya like it is going out of fashion.

The days before the big market days in eastern Uganda are feverish, without lots of sacks of food being loaded up. On market days, the Kenyans come in droves and swoop it all up.

Last year, trade officials in Kampala toasted to some statistics that made people very pleased in Ugandan officialdom.

For the first time in donkey’s years, Uganda had a favourable trade balance with Kenya – and all its neighbours.

According to Bank of Uganda figures, in the financial year 2017/18, Uganda had a trade surplus of $122.78 million with Kenya (exports of $628.47 million against imports of $505.70 million). A large part of that was food.

The thing though is that that is only a small part of the story. When you drive around eastern Ugandan, along the main roads and towns, there are many signs of Kenyan seed companies like Simlaw, advertising their locations in the country and products. So, quite a bit of the food exported by Uganda to Kenya, is made possible by Kenyan seeds.

Our mouths and stomachs unite is very complex ways. The road will also likely change the food business around the Endebess-Kitale-Eldoret corridor.

There is something else. With every passing year, Ugandan middle and long distance runners are threatening Kenya’s athletics bacon.

Those Ugandans who, according to Kenyans, have suspiciously Rift Valley-sounding “Kip” and “Chep” names, and might well be Kenyans hiding among their cross-border Sabiny cousins and pretending to be Ugandans, are from Kapchorwa-Kween-Bukwo that will be thrown even more open by the Kapchorwa-Suam road.

Those long distance world medals, Kenya should begin preparing to share half with Uganda.

My Kenyan travelling partner, kept chuckling when we passed towns like Cheptui, Chesebere, and Kamorok, asking me to reassure him we were still in Uganda, and not in the environs of Eldoret or Pokot.

Students of history will know that most of the areas from the Uganda border up Baringo and Naivasha were the “Eastern Province of Uganda” until they were transferred to present day Kenya at the start of the 1900s, as was indeed part of Kisumu.

When you think of it, Uganda is perhaps much better off being connected to these Kenyan regions by roads, rather than them being part of it. It would have been impossible, even for a strongman like Museveni, to govern.

-The author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3