NEAR ISIOLO, Kenya (Reuters) - After a century of broken promises, a paved road linking Kenya to Ethiopia is no longer a mirage for a desert region choked by remoteness.
Hurling up a cloud of blinding white dust, Chinese road engineers are helping to lay down the first kilometers of tarmac to replace a 530-km (330-mile) forbidding rock track that joins Kenya’s farms and port to landlocked Ethiopia.
The stretch of road from Isiolo to Moyale on the border is one of the last unpaved sections of the Great North Road, a British colonial dream to connect Cape Town to Cairo.
But where Britain and post-independence Kenyan governments failed, China is leading the way: helping to build a major trade route that will open up the northern half of Kenya, a region that has been effectively sealed off for 100 years.
In what is a now familiar sight across Africa, China’s drive to secure minerals, oil, and a place for its workers and industries to thrive is converging with Kenyan government plans to tap the potential of undeveloped regions.
The road could turn promises of oil into reality and increase tourism and trade in a starkly beautiful land where, until now, only banditry, desolation and poverty had flourished.
“This progress is going to benefit the whole area for tourism. Once it is finished, we can already see more trade,” said Wu Yi Bao, project manager for the state-owned construction company China Wu Yi (Kenya) Co.
China Wu Yi is building the road with 4.3 billion Kenya shillings ($63.94 million) from the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Kenyan government.
According to AfDB estimates, paving the road between Isiolo, 340 km (211 miles) north of the capital Nairobi, and Moyale could boost trade between Kenya and Ethiopia along that corridor fivefold to $175 million from the present $35 million annually.
Trade between China and Kenya last year was worth $959 million, a 48 percent rise over 2006, according to the Chinese embassy in Kenya.
The tarmac of the Cape-to-Cairo road goes missing at the squared-off edge of pavement at the end of Isiolo.
Here one finds all the restless bustle of a quintessential border town because residents say it’s the frontier between the “Kenya Mbili” — Swahili for the two Kenyas.
“People in the north feel like they are not part of the country,” said Hussein Sasura, assistant minister for Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands. “When someone leaves for Nairobi, people say he has gone to Kenya.”
Hopes are high that the revamped road will draw more tourists and create more revenue for the people living here.
But some people are suspicious of China’s motives, mirroring the ambivalence towards the Asian giant’s investment push felt by many Africans.
Residents of some African nations, like Zambia, complain that China is undertaking a second colonization by focusing on Africa’s resources and dumping its cheapest goods here. China denies this, and has a 50-year history of bilateral trade and cooperation with Kenya.
The Chinese have an immediate interest in rebuilding the first stretch of the Isiolo-Moyale road, so that it can move heavy equipment into Merti, roughly 80 km (50 miles) east of the end of the 136 km (84.5 miles) it has committed to build.
China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Sweden’s Lundin Petroleum AB are carrying out seismic tests for oil in Merti in preparation for drilling next year.
Residents in Isiolo have been suspicious of oil exploration since a 1980s venture yielded nothing amid murky circumstances.
There are other signs of simmering resentment.
One Chinese engineer was shot and killed near the Merille River by shiftas — or bandits — on April 21. Tribal elders say he was targeted because of a feeling that not enough men from the area had been employed by the Chinese.
Wu said at least 150 of the nearly 200 people on the project were Kenyans and all the day laborers were locals.
After the shooting, the Kenyan government sent its elite paramilitary General Service Unit to the Merille River area to disarm youths and provide a security presence.
There is little doubt the road will offer a lifeline to northern Kenya and could signal an end to years of neglect.
Under colonial rule, Isiolo was an outpost at the edge of the closed Northern Frontier District, which spanned the top half of Kenya from Uganda and Sudan in the west, across Ethiopia to Somalia in the east.
“In those days, Europeans were not allowed to stay there because it was too dangerous and the climate was too harsh. You had to have a permit,” said George Cardovillis, a Kenyan descended from Greek traders who wanted to set up shop at the Ethiopia-Kenya border in 1914.
The government ordered them to keep going more than 600 km (373 miles) south to Maralal.
North of Isiolo to Ethiopia, not much has changed across desolate stretches of black volcanic stones and reddish sands since Cardovillis’ forebears trekked south in a donkey train.
The sun still blasts shimmering heat waves down from an enveloping sky. Mountains loom in a gunmetal haze across the plains. Water is scarce. Electricity, telephone lines and most other services barely exist.
Amid this desolate beauty are some of Kenya’s most unspoiled national parks, rarely visited because of their remoteness.
Barely 50 km (31 miles) past Isiolo lie three game reserves that rival the famed Maasai Mara for the volume and variety of animals. This is where “Born Free” author and naturalist Joy Adamson settled to raise leopards until her murder.
“We think our occupancies will double when the road is finished,” said Jayne Nguatah, manager of the Sarova Shaba lodge in Shaba park. “It will be a Christmas gift to us.”
The Sarova Shaba is built on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river, where crocodiles feed and Samburu and Borana herdsmen water their animals. Baboons and monkeys roam the main lodge, which is built like a treehouse and straddles a natural spring.
But infrastructure is not the only problem for those seeking to build a viable tourism industry in northern Kenya.
Banditry and tribal clashes are common here, thanks to weapons flowing in from past and present conflicts in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. And security forces are spread thin.
Nomadic herders roam for pasture and water for their sheep, cows, goats and camels, as they have for centuries. But today, some carry AK-47 assault rifles, while others brandish Sterling-Enfield rifles from colonial times.
And despite the Chinese engineers’ industry near Isiolo, far to the north in Moyale, some people doubt the road will ever reach them. Plans to extend the tarmac beyond the stretch being reworked by the Chinese are still on the drawing board.
“For 45 years they have been promising us that road,” trader Gumucha Gisiko said, waving his hand dismissively as a frown rose above his red henna beard.
“Seeing is believing.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Muiruri