Tana River County


Discover Tana River County

Spatial Location of Tana River County in Kenya
Spatial Location of Tana River County in Kenya

Brief Overview of Tana River County

From its pitch in the Aberdare Mountain Range to the end-of-the-line at Kipini, finally debouching its water over the silent estuary at Ungwana Bay into Indian Ocean, River Tana streams for almost 850 kms, making it Kenya’s longest. As it navigates through the arid, wild and far from civilization backcountry, sparsely inhabited beyond 5 kilometres of the river banks, its importance for generating hydroelectric power and sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people along the river are clearly and inextricably linked. From the Aberdares, River Tana flows east, north, east again, before commencing on the lengthy 500 kilometres southerly flow aligning with the entire northern and western franks of Tana River County – a title that answers to the superlative presence of this mighty river. Tana River County is dominated by a complex ecosystem running from spectral canopy coastal forests, riverine strips, wooded bushland, thickets with grassland plains and mangrove fens. By far, the most striking ecologies in Tana River County are River Tana Delta and its little-travelled 72 kms coastline.

Besides River Tana, there are several small rivers, more proper laghas, flowing in a west-east direction from Kitui and Makueni Counties all draining into Tana River. Even so, Tana River County is a predominantly arid area with little land use. Pokomo tribe, noted as the native ethnic community, survive on exiguous subsistence tillage along the Tana insomuch as the minority Orma, Somali and Wardei tribes are pastoralists, habitually on the move in search of pasture for livestock. The pastoral communities make up 15% of the population. Indiligence and inequities, in distorted and indistinct forms across the county, as a result of dire climate denuded of rain, looms heavy on all of its horizons. Poverty levels stand at 77% making Tana River County the 5th poorest County of Kenya. There are seven large ranches in the County – Wachu (307 km2), Kibusu (250 km2), Haganda (120 km2), Kitangale (200 km2), Idasa Godana (510 km2), Giritu (433 km2) and Kondertu (200 km2) – and out of the seven ranches only Idasa Godana Ranch can be said to be active, with about 10% of its acreage put to use.

The principal line of communication in Tana River County is the B8 Malindi-Garissa Road, through Garsen and Hola (Bura), that’s oriented north-south and running just 30 kms outside the eastern boundary for 347 kms from Malindi to Garissa. The second road, a bit more engaged, connects the B8 Malindi-Garissa Road with the A3 Thika-Liboi Road at Garissa, and this travels east to west for about 70 kms in the northern area of the county through Bangali. Owing to the comparatively low rainfall and to the indigenous practice of overgrazing, with both cattle and goats, the vegetation profile over much of Tana River County is mainly of the thick thorn-bush type with restricted grass, excepting the riverine areas along Tana River marked by an abundance of greenery and woodlands. The ground slopes away southwards with few low hills. Tana River is one of six counties in the Coast Region. It borders Isiolo County (north), Garissa County (east), Lamu County (southeast), Kilifi County (south), and Kitui County (west).

Bura Overlooking Bura Irrigation Scheme. Image Courtesy of Jerome KL
Bura Overlooking Bura Irrigation Scheme. Image Courtesy of Jerome KL

Salient Features of Tana River County

  • County Number 04
  • Area – 38,862 km2
  • Altitude – 6200 ft
  • Major Towns – Hola, Madogo, Galole, Bura
  • Borders – Kitui, Garissa, Isiolo, Lamu, Kilifi

Brief History of Tana River County

North of Ozi and Kipini along River Tana to Garissa live the Pokomo. There is evidence that some Upper Pokomo (split from the the Lower Pokomo based on settlement along River Tana) may be descended from serfs of the Witu Swahili on the mainland off Lamu. The Pokomo number about 65,000 today, and their population appears to have doubled in size over the past 100 years. At present, they live in densities between 15 and 150 per km2 of land, being more densely settled toward the mouth of the river. Pokomo tribe, alongside the Orma who inhabit the surrounding scrub land, together account for 91% of the population in Tana River; which has the lowest population density among the counties that make up the Coast Region of Kenya. Since their settlement here beginning in the 17th century, the Pokomo have endured many disruptions to their socio-economic wellbeing. The Galla were for many years the tyrants of the Pokomo, continually raiding and harassing, when not actually enslaving them. Greatly affected by Galla community over the centuries, much of their lexicon is clearly derived from Galla, as are their personal names, their clan names, and some of their institutions. The onset of Christianity and Muslim beforehand further split the community. The Upper Pokomo are thought of more as Muslim-influenced and less as practicing Muslims thanks to their culture having been considered hostile to Islamization. This is because their kinsmen Orma are Muslim and the Pokomo were very inimical to both Muslim and Christian missionary influence.

Early missionaries and explorers soon found that the region and its people were unbreakable. At least three of the early colonial officers posted at Bura were reputed to have become so oppressed by the area that they committed suicide, while in 1862, an eccentric sultan fled here, decided to dub himself ‘Simba’ (the lion) and proclaim the sovereign ‘State of Swahililand’ that duly issued its own currency and stamps; it didn’t last long, a British expeditionary force razed the ‘state’ in 1890. Just before the outbreak of WWI, a settler, Charles Whitton, set up a plantation on the delta; it failed, he retired to Lamu where, for forty years, he was the Lord Mayor and universally referred to as ‘Coconut Charlie’. Percy Petley also experimented disastrously with agriculture in the region; failed and retired to Lamu, where he set up the Petley Inn. Reputed to have ‘slayed a fully grown leopard with his bare fists’, Percy frequently told his guests that they had better cook their own suppers; and those that remonstrated were asked to leave. Although Tana River County is sparsely populated, it also has a lengthy saga of tribal conflicts. Other setbacks that have transposed Tana River County beyond local solutions include: its economic and political marginalization, its long and involved resistance to assimilation, its resource depletion, lagging demographic changes, its climatic conditions, its cattle rustling and small arms proliferation, and the adverse government policies. Tribal conflict in Tana River County dates back to the 17th century when different communities started settling along the banks of River Tana – in particular the communities from Ethiopia and Somali.

The Hola Massacre Monument at Hola. Image Courtesy of WikiWand
The Hola Massacre Monument at Hola. Image Courtesy of WikiWand
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15 Attractions in Tana River County, arranged as one would visit these - north to south - with the aid of in-depth narratives, images, strip maps and distance chart: 

Adamsons Falls Bridge, Kora National Park, Adamson's Monument, Arawale National Reserve, Bura East Conservancy, Methodist Church Hola, Mau-Mau Hola Monument, Tana Primate National Reserve, Mchelelo Bandas, River Tana Basin, Bura Irrigation Scheme, Tsavo East N. Park, Delta Dunes Lodge, Kipini Conservancy, Red Cliff Camp 

Geography, Land-Use, Highlights, Population, Roads, Airports, Climate and National Monuments in Tana River County