In this jade-green sea in the moonlike desert of northwestern Kenya, the water boils with 12,000 crocodiles. Windstorms blast across the lake like artillery shells, swamping boats and drowning fishermen. Marauding tribesmen from the north routinely sweep down to steal cattle and burn villages. Near the lake's edge, where migratory Siberian shore birds diffidently tiptoe in the sand, skeletons of man's earliest ancestors have been unearthed. Every 30 years or so, parts of the lake disappear, desiccated in the equatorial sun.
It is here, in one of the more hallucinatory corners of the earth, that well-meaning, big-spending foreign donors have come to monumental grief trying to improve the lives of the Turkana people, a semi-nomadic tribe of cattle-, goat- and camel-herders chronically vulnerable to starvation.
The Turkana are a small tribe, numbering about 220,000 people. But their hard-scrabble existence and susceptibility to famine are typical of the more than 20 million pastoral people spread across the semi-desert heart of Africa south of the Sahara. When drought hits Africa, the pastoral people are usually the first to suffer and die.
As the continent recovers from its worst drought this century, padding margins of survival for pastoral people has become one of the overriding goals of foreign donors and African governments. In recent years, however, most "innovative" high-technology plans to help nomads have failed. Many have created more problems than they have solved -- splitting up families, turning nomads into beggars, triggering environmental damage.
The Turkana district is the site of several spectacular, damaging failures. But after 20 years of learning by fouling up, it is also a center for a revised development approach that attempts to understand the limits of this dusty, unforgiving land and the traditions of people whose lives are centered around livestock.
The expensive lessons learned here have parallels across Africa, and those cumulative failures are forcing donors and African leaders to rethink the wisdom of imposing outside solutions on the problems of nomads.
"When it comes to pastoralists, where the sociocultural factors are so subtle and so alien to big-city people, in Washington, in Niamey Niger , in Paris, then the odds are that the results of foreign development will not be good," said Robert J. Berg, an Africa specialist and senior fellow of Washington's private Overseas Development Council.
After participating last month in a closed-door conference in Nairobi attended by major international donors and senior ministers from nearly every drought-affected country in Africa, Berg said there has been a dramatic change in what these people see as the solution for drought in Africa. He said there is finally a consensus among policy makers that the survival of pastoral people must depend on the survival of their livestock, not on high-tech development projects.
Like Lake Turkana itself, which is a vast body of water encircled by denuded lava hills that look like shark fins, there is a nether-world quality to the many moldering monuments here to good intentions.
Consider the frozen fish plant. It was built to catapult the Turkana out of a centuries-old cycle of drought, destitution and famine and into a commercial venture that would rely on a renewable, environmentally neutral resource -- fish.
A widespread fear among donor nations in the 1960s and 1970s was that pastoral people and their herds were ruining their fragile lands by overgrazing. Fish, it was thought, would stop this scourge.
The government of Norway, where commercial fishing is a mainstay of the economy, spent $2 million on the "ice-making, freezing and cold-storage plant." It is a handsome, modernistic building with the understated, prosperous look of a suburban bank. Although surrounded by tin-roof shacks and desert, it would not look out of place on Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase.
The Norwegians, who divert about 1 percent of their gross national product to help the Third World, also built a road that connected the fish plant south to Kenya's road system and Nairobi. That cost $20 million.
The idea was for the Turkana Fishermen's Cooperative Society to sell lake fish -- Nile perch and tilapia -- in Kenya's cities. In the mid-1970s, when the frozen-fish scheme was hatched by visiting Norwegian consultants, local fishermen were netting record catches of these fish in a nearby cove of Lake Turkana known as Ferguson's Gulf.
By the time the plant was completed in 1980, however, it was clear that the fish plant was an ill-conceived idea.
For starters, to chill the fish from 100 degrees, the normal daytime temperature, to below freezing would have taken more electricity than was available in Turkana district.
"No one could have afforded to buy the fish that that plant would have produced," said Arne Dalfelt, senior program officer in Kenya for Norad, the Norwegian aid agency.
The frozen fish plant operated for a couple of days before the electricity was turned off, and it was converted into Africa's most handsome dried-fish warehouse.
Then, as it does every 30 years or so, part of Lake Turkana disappeared. The part that went away was Ferguson's Gulf, where 80 percent of the lake's fish were caught. The gulf disappeared because the Omo River, which flows out of southern Ethiopia into the north end of Lake Turkana and accounts for 90 percent of the lake's water supply, was running low due to severe drought.
According to a Norad report commissioned last year to figure out what went wrong here, the Norwegian consultants who recommended building the frozen-fish plant were deceived by a "temporary boom" in the lake's fish catch.
"When we see a lake, we think in fairly static terms," said Dalfelt, trying to explain Norwegian thinking. "We see a lake, we assume it will be there for 100 million years."
The consultants need only have traveled about 35 miles to the town of Lodwar, where colonial district records show that Ferguson's Gulf also disappeared in 1954. Apparently, no one checked.
Many of the 20,000 Turkana whom the Norwegians had brought to the lake shore, given boats and nets and taught how to fish soon were stuck without a renewable, environmentally neutral resource. Destitute and without their livestock -- which had died due to overcrowding and disease on the inhospitable banks of the lake -- many Turkana turned to food aid.
Out in the middle of the gulf, which is now a big mudhole, lies the research vessel Iji, a Norwegian gift to the Kenyan Fisheries Department. The ship, according to the Norad report, "appears to be damaged beyond the possibility of repair."
Fishing, however, is only one line on the learning curve of pastoral development in Turkana District in the past 20 years. There also is irrigation.
Like fishing, irrigation was seen as a way of taking Turkana away from the hardships of pastoral life and offsetting the destructive effects of the desert's continuous encroachment.
The idea seized the U.N. Development Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization in the 1960s, when 30,000 Turkana were receiving famine assistance after one of the district's periodic droughts. Drought comes here one year in four.
The U.N. agencies built several irrigation developments near rivers in Turkana district. Into a largely roadless area that previously had supported wandering Turkana herds and a few guinea fowl, they brought water pumps, heavy farm machinery, generators, pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation specialists.
The problems began, as one might suspect in an arid region, with the rivers. The rivers are highly erratic. They shift course radically. They break their banks and, for about four months a year, they dry up. The equipment needed to build an irrigation system along such rivers is expensive, and it needs a lot of maintenance. For example, after the rivers flood, irrigation canals clog with sediment and have to be dug out by farmers. In drought years, when the rivers dry up, all crops die.
The Norwegians, who began funding the irrigation projects in 1980 when the U.N. programs ran out of money, recently estimated the cost of irrigation and its benefits to Turkana pastoral herders-turned-farmers. Their report, based on a project involving 10,000 people at a place called Katilu, found that $25,000 had been spent on each farmer so that he could earn, in a good year, about $100 -- about one-fourth of the average per capita income in Kenya.
"They make that much only if they are lucky," said Dalfelt. "If they are not lucky, then we have to go in and give them food aid."
Richard Hogg, a British social anthropologist who studies the pastoral tribes of northern Kenya, argues that the fish and irrigation fiascos were partly the result of donor and Kenyan government prejudice against the wandering ways of the Turkana.
"The donors thought it was their job to get as many people as possible out of the nomadic life," said Hogg, who works for the British relief agency Oxfam. "And, of course, it is attractive to African governments to settle these people into towns rather than have them wandering around across borders."
Even the Norwegians, who say they remain committed to being the major donor in Turkana District, are not prepared to spend much more money on fishing or irrigation. Dalfelt said Norad is searching for a way to pull out gracefully from both projects. As the money runs out and the schemes unravel, their effects on the Turkana people have become painfully clear.
"They are poverty traps that make it more difficult, rather than easier, for poor people to better themselves," said Hogg, whose conclusions are shared by many development officials.
One unintended effect of fishing and irrigation has been to render many Turkana unable to marry. Neither fishermen nor farmers have managed to make enough money in their new professions to buy the livestock traditionally given by a man to the bride's family. With no livestock for the "bride price" (normally about 60 goats), there could be no marriage.
In the fishing project, Norad found that only about 25 percent of the women got married. The rest had become "concubines" who had no legal or moral claim on the wealth of the men and whose children were not the responsibility of the father. When the fishing turned bad, some of the mothers turned to prostitution to survive.
After all this failure, the evolution of development thinking in Turkana can be summed up by Norwegian aid official Dalfelt in one sentence:
"If we could back them up with what is natural for them, it is far more efficient."
To that end, donors in the region have accepted, with some important reservations, the view that the best possible use of the region's scarce natural grasses and water can be made by limited numbers of roving herds.
One current development program, administered by Oxfam with food from the U.N. World Food Program, buys goats from herdsmen and gives them to destitute Turkana in relief camps. Some of the reborn herders are failed fishermen and farmers. Each family gets 70 goats, enough to begin a herd, along with food for a year and some pots, pans and clothes.
Norad has trimmed the irrigation projects, getting rid of tractors that could not be repaired and corrupt cooperative societies that drained away the farmers' limited profits. Now, Dalfelt said, "Each man grows his own thing. Whatever he grows is his. They have all the responsibility and keep their own money."
Donors want to buttress what the Turkana know how to do with protection against what they cannot control -- periodic drought. Hogg said the region needs effective early warning for drought and a way of marketing livestock so that prices do not collapse before each famine.
"You can increase the margins for survival, but you can't remake their lives," Hogg said.
But what is realistic to a relief and development agency like Oxfam still seems a bit too defeatist to donors like the Norwegians.
"There must be more to development than just sustaining life," said Dalfelt. "We are still experimenting in Turkana. We are looking into industrial production of 120,000 head of cattle. And there are still a lot of fish out there in the lake. Maybe we should think about fish cakes."