Garissa Town is the headquarters of Garissa County, and the gateway to North-Eastern Kenya.
Going to Garissa by road, will initially send you through Thika Road. Perpetually jammed over the past decade, this road is currently being upgraded into a 12-lane superhighway. This prestige project of president Mwai Kibaki and his coalition partner, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, will doubtlessly be written into Kibaki’s legacy when he retires in 2012 (did someone say “Kibaki Highway”?).
Shortly after Thika, the scenery changes. From the green, crowded surroundings of Nairobi, you suddenly enter the hilly, semi-arid and sparsely populated Ukambani (land of the Kambas).
After Mwingi, the home town of Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, the landscape gradually gets flatter and more arid, where dry riverbeds bear witness of the seasonal droughts. Eventually, you reach what locals emphasize is the “last mountain from here to Hargeisa”, and after that, the landscape turns completely flat, monotonous, and densely covered with low bushes. The last stretch of a few km is the only part where the road is seriously potholed, so when you get there, you know you are close. The police checkpoint by the river is the “entrance portal”, and once past it, there you are!
Garissa Town is a peaceful and quiet place, that takes great pride in its official status as the safest in Eastern and Central Africa. It is the place where the pastoralists living in the surrounding areas come in to do business during the day, and then go back home. As a consequence, Garissa Town doesn’t offer classic urban attractions, night clubs or wining and dining. That is not what people would go there for in the first place, as the top attractions are outside town. There are plenty of small shops, though, and every Wednesday, the town is bustling with life during the Market Day.
Garissa is the unofficial capital of Kenya’s Somali community, and a showcase of their culture. It’s probably the best way to experience the Somali way of life without crossing into Somalis proper – a journey few non-Somalis without a death wish would consider.
Enter into a conversation with any local, and the friendliness and hospitality, key to the Somali culture, will strike you. The general mood is hectic and energetic, and any interaction lasting more than a few minutes is generally accompanied by a cup of boiling hot spicy tea, with lots of milk and sugar.
Time observance in the Somali parts of Kenya is very different from the rest of the country. Outside Nairobi, things generally go by AST (African Standard Time). In Garissa, time consciousness is at almost German-style. Be late for anything, and people may ask sarcastically if you come from Nairobi!
Most of the population in the region are pastoralists. Hence, livestock is a prominent aspect of the town and its surroundings. Cows, camels and goats roam the streets, and fresh, delicious meat is dirt cheap. In addition to the town’s current abattoir – a cornerstone of the local economy – a new, high-capacity one is being planned with the aim of turning Garissa into a center for meat production and exports.
There are 2 good hotels: the Nomad Palace and the Almond Resort. These are completely up to international standards, yet nicely priced (€24 per night at the Nomad Palace). They also have nice restaurants with amazingly tasty steaks.
The fact that Garissa outclasses far bigger, and assumingly more cosmopolitan towns in Kenya in terms of hotels, says something about the Somali business spirit. Aggressive entrepreneurialism is a key component of the culture, and the Somali community is an increasingly visible part of busienss scene in Kenya.
Garissa is an overwhelmingly Muslim place, crowded with cute little mosques. None of the quality hotels serve alcohol, or even allow guests to bring it. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, you’re not likely to walk into one here. I did see a small place advertising the sale of booze in an outskirt of town, but clearly, this is no place for the thirsty traveller. Those are not in Garissa’s target group in the first place, so if you plan on rocking all night, this is probably not your top destination.
Tourism is the new strategy for Garissa as a second leg for the local economy, in addition to livestock. With the introduction of local governments in Kenya as a result of the new constitution, Garissa County looks set to invest aggressively in attracting visitors.
There is already the Bouralgy Giraffe Sanctuary, with a growing population of Rotschild giraffes. Other animal species in the sanctuary include the rare, long-necked Gerenuk (aka. “giraffe gazelle”), that only exists in this part of East Africa. The park also encompasses smaller populations of 26 other species of game animals, and more than 450 bird species. It is just 10 minutes south of Garissa town, along the green river belt, lush with acacia trees. Built and maintained by local visionaries, the park has suffered from the lack of support by the central government and the meager resources available to previous local authorities. With the new, strengthened local governments in Kenya, the giraffe sanctuary is already being targeted for significant upgrading.
Tana River, one of the major rivers in Kenya, runs just outside Garissa town. Crowded with snakes and crocodiles, it has a great potential to attract adrenaline-seeking travelers, ready to pay what it costs to get close to the dangerous animals in a boat. Unfortunately, there was no such option available during my visit, so I hope someone from the soon-to be-created Garissa County tourism authority is reading this, and acts on it by the time I return!
You don’t have to travel far outside Garissa before you find yourself in the wilderness. The surrounding landscape of dry shrubs and bushes, and coarse sands, are one big pasture for thousands of camels, goats, cows and donkeys. Occasionally, you will also spot small villages of semi-permanent structures made from mud or straws, that are the homes of the many pastoral families inhabiting the area. Looking to the booming tourist business in North African countries, by Bedouins, offering camel rides in the desert, along with meals and shelter in tents, one can only hope to see similar packages to be offered to travelers in Garissa in the near future.
The combination of safety, good infrastructure and massive cash inflows from the Somali diaspora has made Garissa the fastest-growing town in Kenya. The impressive thing is how this growth has been achieved without a rise in crime. The place still has the atmosphere of a cosy and quiet small town, with no highrises and only a few multi-storey buildings. That is likely to change in the coming years as the growth continues.
As tourism is a rather new concept being promoted, it is still very much “work in progress”, but with great potential. Local forces are aggressively pushing to promote this new source of growth. The director of the Giraffe Sanctuary even came with me in the car, for a personal guided tour when I visited the park! Expect to see camel-back desert expeditions with village sleepovers, and crocodile sightseeing river cruises being marketed massively in the coming years. I know for a fact that I will be among the first to try out those activities once they are launched!