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On the Kenya Plain, a Pampered Town for Foreign Aid Workers

In many disasters, someone profits. This is the town that famine fed.

Just under a decade ago, this plain in rural northern Kenya was little more than a seasonal home for a few hundred members of the seminomadic Turkana tribe. South Sudan was gripped by a famine, and the flatland of Lokichokio was a good place to send relief planes full of food from makeshift airstrips.

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Now, the population of "Loki" - as the expatriates here call it - has swelled to almost 30,000, thanks to the growth of business of pumping aid into Sudan.

Some say that the aid facilities give Lokichokio the feeling of a resort. The pilots and other relief workers have comfortable accommodations, including pools, restaurants, and tennis courts. A United Nations pilot jokes, "At night this place is like Club Med."

That's a sharp contrast not only with conditions in south Sudan, one of the least developed countries on earth, but also with those of the Turkana people just outside the guarded compound.

Living in shantytowns or huts, the Turkanas spend their days grazing livestock. Women shave all but the middle strip of their hair and adorn themselves with strings of beads, while men are equally distinctive with dyed orange hair, feather headpieces, and earrings.

The huge influx of foreigners - and their money - is changing that. Many Turkanas now favor Western dress in hope of finding jobs in the compounds. Turkana clans from other parts of northern Kenya have given up their migratory lifestyle and moved here.

THE Turkanas say that this aid city has been good for their own development. "People who are working with the foreigners are becoming developed," says Daniel Losil, the tribe's deputy chief. "People are changing to town life. But there are those who don't want change, especially those who are rearing livestock."

The foreign-aid workers resent the image of Lokichokio as the lap of luxury on misery's doorstep. "If I wanted the good life," says one field worker for the UN World Food Program, "I wouldn't be doing this."

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The camp that most has the air of a vacation destination is Trackmark. The company runs charter flights, so it built attractive stone huts for its pilots. With an African flair that seems like a page from a travel magazine, it added oversize hammocks, a pool, a lounge with movies and cable TV, and cuisine so good that pilots complain they have to watch their waistlines.

"Our pilots are not aid workers who are out there to drop food into starving babies' mouths," says Chris Brennan, Trackmark's flight director. "This is a job for them. If conditions weren't good, they could just go somewhere else."

Perhaps the main drawback of the city built on Sudan's troubles is, ironically, the possibility that Sudan's troubles might one day be solved. It would not be the first time an aid-fabricated economy collapsed. But many here suggest that the famine - and the war that caused it - are not going to go away soon.

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