OBBO: Give it up for the border people, Maasai markets

Wednesday January 1 2020

Art and handicraft represent the highest concentration of cross-East African story-telling in one place.

Art and handicraft represent the highest concentration of cross-East African story-telling in one place. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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When you travel through either the Kenya-Uganda Busia or Malaba border points, and you are not a regular in those parts, you will see something that might perplex you.

Because of the One Stop Border Point (OSBP), you have one crossing point. If you’ve done the paperwork for your car, you drive up to a boom gate, flash them, the barrier is raised, and you are in Uganda or Kenya.

However, there is a separate process for the “Malaba people” or “Busia people” – fellows who live in the border towns and surrounding areas on both sides. The swarms of motorcycle taxis (boda boda) bring the “border people” to the boom gate, and stop about 10 metres away.

The passengers alight, and walk on the side of the gate and cross. The boda boda also ride across, and pick them about 20 metres away and cross into Uganda or Kenya. The “border people” don’t flash or get stamps in their IDs, nor are the boda boda subject to inspection.

Like in the African village, border people “just know” who is theirs and who isn’t. There are transnational rules and routines that govern this community that can be impenetrable to those who are outsiders to it.

Who are these “border people” (BP)? They are and have been part of a disruptive lot, including business folks, government officials, and even security officers, who’ve created new networks (and kept alive some old ones), trading communities, who’ve found open spaces and nooks within states where they operate. Soon, they could be the norm, not the exception.


Consider the journey to the Malaba border. After Webuye, you drive along a largely urban corridor, and from Bungoma to Malaba it gets dense. With the emergence of extended urban corridors into the borders, BPs could easily be East Africa’s fastest growing population. Everyone from Webuye, through to Bungoma, Malaba, and onward to Tororo will become one large family of BPs.

Together with that, we have an ever-growing force of East African homogenisation that, one observer told me, is still little appreciated – the handicraft, or in Kenyan terms Maasai markets.

Art and handicraft represent the highest concentration of cross-East African story-telling in one place.

Along one row, you will run into Tanzanian carvings, Rwandan baskets, Ugandan art, Burundi drums, and South Sudanese bracelets.

Sometimes looked upon by border authorities as trinkets and play things and allowed unfettered passage, the men and women selling stuff in a Maasai market in the big towns in Kenya or Uganda could represent as many of 12 nationalities, going beyond the East African Community to include Democratic Republic of Congo, and as far away as Venda craftsmen and women from South Africa.

Someone asked me: “What is the difference between a Ugandan, Kenyan, and Tanzanian necklace in a Maasai market?”

“Wouldn’t tell you even if my life depended on it,” I said.

“Precisely. A specialist will tell, but the language of these arts has since really become one East African vernacular,” he said.

The transportation of these artefacts is enabled by an intricate regional network, most of it along corridors like Webuye-Bungoma-Malaba-Tororo, onward to Rwanda through Kampala.

If only East African roads could speak, they would tell us some eye-popping things about our future.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of the explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]