Photo Credit/Blandina Bobson

Black Gold

Black gold is such a depressing name for something considered so lucrative. A name coined for oil because of its black colour when it comes out of the ground and ‘gold’ because of the perception that it makes everyone in the oil industry rich. So much is the craze of this oil in Turkana that there is a ‘Black Gold Hotel’ in Lokichar town, a small town in Turkana county which is at the centre of the oil exploration and where we spent a night during our mission.

Ironically, this ‘Black Gold’ hasn’t made a difference in the day to day struggles of the Turkana woman. The woman who bears the brunt of never ending disasters, ranging from drought to conflict to floods, mainly because the burden of taking care of the family falls squarely on her. The woman who treks for hours on end or climbs concrete tanks in search of water for both her family and goats. The woman who has to find firewood in the near desert plains of Turkana to prepare food for her family. The woman who would be married off at a very young age so the dowry can be used to sustain her family in disasters.

It feels weird to have even have the words ‘Women and Oil’ in one sentence. Sadly, this is not only a phenomenon experienced at Global fronts in the extractive industry that harbours the most elite and educated individuals but even in communities where exploration is happening. Communities and especially women who blame their exploitation on lack of education. I am left wondering who needs formal education to know their rights.  Well, this piece is not about exploitation, but the participation and representation of women even in this whole exploitation agenda in the Black Gold industry.

Isn’t it unfair that the women in these oil exploration fields are going through even worse predicaments than their male counterparts?  Men who took it upon themselves to make decisions that led to the exploitation by oil companies. Men who excluded the women because they felt they have no valuable contribution to make to the compensation agreements that they signed with the oil companies. Men that stuck to their age old cultural belief that a woman’s place is in the kitchen even though we living in the 21st century?

“Where there is money, women are told to stay at home or the meetings are taken far away where women can’t go”, explained a woman in Lokwamusing, one of the villages in Lokichar Basin where Oil exploration is happening.

Sometimes I think the women choose to go mum in the community meetings, where we expect them to get angry and demand for their rights to send a message. I would go mum in protest too. I would go mum because nobody thought I could give a meaningful opinion when the negotiation was taking place. Why would I take a fair share of owning up to mistakes I didn’t contribute to?  Why would I want to be involved in finding solutions when no one thought I had any valuable contribution to make?

You would think all this suffering the women go through is ticket enough for them to be involved in these meetings that concern resources for their community. Their pain and suffering can be felt in their words as they fight to be heard, albeit a little too late.

“Since the discovery of oil, we are like dead animals. The vultures are hovering above us waiting to eat us. Why can’t you help us fight these vultures?” asks a woman in Lochwaa village where six oil pads were discovered. She likens the village to ‘Lollidid’ mountains in the horizon of the village, a term that means ‘squeezed’ in the Ng’aturkana language.

The community feels squeezed by the government that doesn’t have their interest at heart, the oil companies that are out to make the most of profits from these oil fields and the men who feel they are better placed to make decisions for everyone.

“I am concerned about several things, schools are still the same, those pursuing higher education are very few, there’s no water and people are coming and grabbing our land by putting beacons”, she adds. As basic as it sounds, that is the bargaining chip that should have been used in these negotiations. Sadly, the all-male well-pad committees took whatever was offered with no fight. In a meeting in Lokichar one of the committee members said, “If we rejected the KES 7,000,000 that was offered, Tullow would have left. We are hungry, we need the money”. Am I surprised? Not at all. What do you expect when they are not involved in the day to day running of homes?  When they have no idea the effort, time and sweat put by the woman to run the home. That’s where it starts. That gives the women more bargaining power because they know where it bites the most.

Such is the discrimination and exclusion of the women in all spectrums of life that they are ready to give their lives to protect their resources. “They (Tullow Oil) will have to kill us before they get the water from Turkwel”, says Margaret Akal who is the Chairlady Maendeleo ya Wanawake (Development of Women group) in Lokichar. The desperation to be heard can be felt in all the communities we visited. In Lokichar, Apur Ewoi who everyone would consider ‘raia’ a typical traditional woman said, “Take me to college so I can get education to come and build the capacity of our people”.  Even in her old age, she is ready to give up everything and go to school if that’s the only thing that will help her community get what they deserve.

I am speaking to the business-oriented Tullow Oil, the male-dominated county government, the wisdom-filled council of elders, the enlightened all male well pad committees in Turkana and to any man who has sat in those negotiation meetings. Now is the time. Now is the time to make amends with the women you left out in the ‘Black Gold’ journey. Now is the time to include them, listen to them and act upon their opinions. Educated or not, traditional or not, that doesn’t matter. They have been running homes with the so-called limitations that have warranted their exclusion. What makes you think they cannot sit on the same table as you and negotiate. They don’t need education to demand for what rightfully belongs to them. They just need space to voice their opinion and to be heard. Not just in none monetary barazas under trees where they are expected to break into song and dance, but even in the forums where you negotiate for the millions in compensation for the oil exploration.