The Wells of Wajir    

In northeast Kenya, water has long been a source or wonder and tension

By / October 2019

The presence of water in the desert leads to legend and myth, tales of miracles. Did the Queen of Sheba really water her camels at the wells in Wajir, in northern Kenya, three thousand years ago? Did giants really dig these wells? Was the water really miraculously just springing up through the ground?

The control of that water, or lack of it, leads to eternal conflict.

The year Annalena Tonelli, an Italian social worker, was hired by the Kenyan Ministry of Education to teach English, hints of a coming drought began to appear in the NFD. Drought was so common and so devastating to the nomadic population of the north that Somalis named them according to their characteristics. Instead of remembering the dates of birthdays or anniversaries, people said, “I was born in the second year of Haraamacune.” Or, “My parents got married at the end of Siigacase.” Haraamacune, the drought of 1911-1912, Eater of the Forbidden Food, because in order to survive some people resorted to eating Islamically unclean food. Siigacase, the drought of 1950-1951, The Blower of Red Dust, after frequent sandstorms. The drought that was coming would be called Dabadheer, the Long Tail One, because of its longevity.

In 1956 Sheikh Caaqib Cabdullaahi Jaamac wrote a prayer for rain, a roobdoon, and in 1969 the prayer was played over and over on the Somali radio.

“Ilaahay raxmaan ee raxiimahow, Islaamka rafaadsan roob u liisey.”In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful, milk rain for us from our faith.”

Scant annual rainfall plus the extreme temperatures, constantly blowing dust, and the distance from any significant body of water, rendered Wajir’s wells miraculous. The earth’s surface was parched, the ground dry and cracked but underneath, streams of water seemed to flow out of rock.

One hundred and twenty-six wells dotted the land around Wajir. They were fifty to sixty feet apart, round and three to four feet in diameter. Each one sank thirty feet into the ground and contained, at the bottom, at least eighteen inches of an inexhaustible water supply. By 1969 many of them were filled with sand but the ones that remained open held steady amounts of water. Granted, it gave humans what was nicknamed the Wajir Clap, which men described as making them feel like they were urinating razor blades, but animals could drink with impunity.

The water came from rain in the Abyssinian mountains, over two hundred miles away in Ethiopia, but it ran underground, unseen and unacknowledged by the local people, until it met the limestone rock around Wajir and seeped upward through the ground.

Wajir’s disputed water wells in northern Kenya.

A map from the Kenya National Archives of the location of the wells in the 1950s.

A colonial officer wrote that Somalis believed the Wajir water was “possessed of peculiar properties and women who are unable to bear children are in the habit of visiting it in order to drink the water. While the water has certainly a laxative effect on the uninitiated, the medical officer does not consider its properties to be such as to increase female fertility; Somalis, however, believe it to be true.”

Eslpeth Huxley, who wrote extensively about Kenya and the Northern Frontier District, wrote, “A quasi-magical explanation of puzzling objects or events is common among almost all unsophisticated peoples.”

But it is cruel to fault people, judge them, or decry their ignorance when they have been given no other option. It isn’t as though Somalis chose amoeba-ridden water that made them sick. Somalis, in their quest for survival, water, food, and medicine in this region where there was only one hospital and it was often empty of medicine, where little food grew and almost no rain fell, were quite sophisticated and creative, willing to experiment with anything. They found ways to not only survive, but thrive, ways colonial officers or writers failed to appreciate.

The legend of the Wajir wells extended deeper, however, than simply to their medically curative powers. Two hundred years ago, or more, the details are vague, a group of pagan giants called the Madanleh dug the wells.

The Madanleh were possibly peasants in the fiefdom of the Ajuuran Somali empire and “so great was their energy that their immediate successors credited them with superhuman powers and physiques, hence the present legend that they were giants ten foot high and more.” Unusually long leg bones found around the Wajir wells contribute to this ten-foot high legend. Along with their height, they were said to have had massive noses, useful for sniffing out underground water.

Or, were they not peasants and allies of, but direct descendants of, the Ajuuran clan of Somalis? This would mean the wells were built by Ajuuran blood relatives, rendering them the rightful owners of the wells. This idea appeals to the Ajuuran tribe but is complicated by another part of the historical legend, untraceable to actual fact or documentation, that the Ajuuran were one of six tribes to attack and utterly decimate the Madanleh, wiping them from the face of the earth.

The Ajuuran were one of three major Somali clans around Wajir. The others are the Degodia and the Ogaden. Each of the Wajir wells is marked by symbols designating it as belonging to one clan or another. Access to water meant power. It meant survival. Access to water was worth dying for and it was worth killing for.

Fourteen years after Annalena Tonelli arrived in the NFD, dispute over water for animals and the possessions of weapons that had simmered for years, would spill over into one of Kenya’s most violent events, the Wagalla Massacre of 1984.


Read more about Wagalla, Wajir, and Annalena’s work with Somalis to fight tuberculosis in Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa, which releases October 1. You can find it at Plough Publishing, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, and Amazon.