MANDERA, Kenya (Reuters) - Visitors to north-east Kenya from the capital Nairobi are sometimes asked “How’s Kenya?” as if it was a foreign country.
The question, offered with real curiosity not irony, shows just how isolated the mainly Muslim and nomadic people of this vast, arid region on the borders of Ethiopia and Somalia feel.
“We have been treated as outcasts, completely sidelined while they pour money into central and eastern,” complains Mohamed Ali, deputy head of a school in tatty Mandera town.
With a presidential election on December 27, political parties headquartered in Nairobi are finally pledging to focus on development in North Eastern, one of Kenya’s eight provinces.
But with an electorate of barely 300,000 out of a total 14 million, the territory is clearly not a political priority.
Given the willful neglect of the past, people give President Mwai Kibaki credit for some improvements, like more bore-holes for water, the most prized commodity in a drought-prone region.
Most, however, say he has not done nearly enough — and seldom visited them.
That view, plus resentment over harassment of Muslims in anti-terrorism sweeps, means the province is expected to go for the opposition, which has led Kibaki in polls here.
“They don’t believe they are part of Kenya and they have good reason to think that,” opposition leader Raila Odinga says, though whether he would deliver or not to an area far away from his tribal base is a matter of conjecture.
Their geographical isolation heightened by the total absence of decent roads, the northerners’ ethnicity also unites them with tribes across the nearby borders rather than the rest of Swahili-speaking Kenya.
Both British colonialists and successive Kenyan governments have neglected development in the northern territories, leaving them bottom of most social indicators.
Amid a welter of statistics, many jump out. The ratio of qualified doctors to patients, for example, is 1 to 120,000 in North Eastern, compared to 1 to 20,000 in the far more populated Central Province, according to U.N. figures.
Also, 93 percent of women here have no education at all, compared to 3 percent in central, the richest area.
“The social indicators are among the worst in the African continent,” says Aadrian Sullivan, humanitarian adviser on Kenya and Somalia for the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department ECHO, reeling off shocking malnutrition figures.
“Yet this is a country where people pour in for beach and safari holidays,” adds the humanitarian expert for ECHO, a major aid donor to the region, with 16 million euros in 2006.
Northerners complain bitterly that the only proper attention they have had from central government was when soldiers poured into the region after Kenya’s independence in 1963 to suppress a pro-Somali secessionist movement.
Lasting four years, the “Shifta war,” named after the local word for bandit, had far-reaching consequences, with the government keeping the region under a security blanket throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
“They shot dead many people and injured many under torture. They also killed many animals,” said 68-year-old Yasin Abdi, recalling the war from his two-room dwelling in Isiolo town.
Going back further, British authorities had also closed the unruly region — whose barren lands offered them nothing like the lush central highlands of Kenya — for long periods.
Passes were needed to get in and out.
In more recent times, the region has suffered severe drought then floods, decimating livestock.
A recovery of sorts is underway, but it is only a matter of time before the next drought hits, aid workers warn.
Humanitarian needs are exacerbated by the rising incidence of cross-border and inter-clan conflict, as the population squabbles over shrinking pasture lands and water access.
And war in Somalia across the border has added to the mix, disrupting trade and sending refugees into Kenya.
With their traditional ways of life under greater pressure than ever, most locals are barely subsisting.
At a feeding centre run by Action Against Hunger at a village outside Mandera, mother-of-seven Amina Musa Digsi brings her sick two-year-old boy in the hope of enrolling him.
Her story is typical of other women in the queue at a clearing under acacia trees — only two cows and two goats left from the 2005 drought; a sick, 70-year-old husband; and a paltry income when she’s lucky enough to find and sell firewood.
A question about the election elicits bewilderment.
“I will vote if I am told to vote,” Digsi finally muses.
“I don’t know any of them. We are women, the politicians don’t speak to us.”
Editing by Giles Elgood