In Kenya’s Wild West -or- What National Geographic told you Africa would be like

Our life this past year in Kampala has not been without oddity and drama of the sort that could only happen in Africa. But I can’t help but feel that ours have not been the strange or crazy experiences that many of our friends and relatives in the US would like or expect when they ask us questions about our living situation here.

When, for example, people ask us about the biggest dangers we face here, our answers are about traffic and how the decrepit streets are filled with inept drivers. This is true and actually quite hair-raising stuff, but I’m sure most people would be more interested in tales of having to flee angry guerillas or hungry gorillas (neither of which be true).

I don’t blame people who haven’t been to Africa for having images or perceptions about life here that are either outdated or unfounded. I myself didn’t know what to expect before my first trip to Africa only two years ago. Quite frankly, it’s hard to know what to do with some of the stereotypes about different regions of Africa that seem so absurd, and yet so entrenched.

Enter the Pokot of western Kenya…

I had traveled to Pokot once before to visit our friend Michael Kimpur, but during that visit, we mostly stayed in the Pokot highlands, which are largely settled by agriculturalists. On this most recent trip, however, we ventured out into the heart of Pokot — the lowlands where the nomads live.

This trip was so extraordinary that the next few posts on this blog will probably be about different aspects of our experiences there. So as a context for those forthcoming posts, I wanted to share some episodes and photos to give you an idea of how unlike Kampala (and how very like National Geographic portraits) Pokot country is:

The boys who shot the dik-dik, with their kill

The night we arrived, some herdboys brought us a dik-dik (small antelope) they had just shot with bow and arrow. They skinned it, gutted it and we cooked it over the fire.

While we were there, we slept in a hut made of mud, sticks and animal dung.

The lowland Pokot don’t think of themselves as Kenyan or as being in a place called Kenya. They think of themselves as Pokot, and the most important borders for them are the boundaries with the Turkana and the Karimojong, neighbouring tribes with whom they often fight over cattle.

As men from the surrounding area were sitting around one day, one of them asked about a church that had just appeared near his village. He wondered what it was all about and why the people were always shouting and banging drums. One responded that after a church came to his area, they were able to defeat Turkana and Karimojong.

The sick boy, and a monkey that one of the herders caught as a pet.

The last day we were there, a child was sick with what everyone assumed was malaria. The people gathered around thought they should sacrifice a goat to appease whatever had caused the sickness in the child. Michael called someone who worked at the clinic in the area who came with medicine and a lecture about bringing sick children to a clinic before taking time to perform animal sacrifices.

As we drove from Alale (the place we were staying in the lowlands) back to Kapenguria (the town in the highlands), we crossed over into Uganda, and then crossed back into Kenya. It’s a meaningless border, really: There’s not even a sign to mark it as an international border, and the Pokot live and move on both sides of it anyway.

The only way anyone has to get around in Alale is to walk — sometimes for days at a time. Naturally, everyone we passed on our way back to Kapenguria wanted a ride somewhere. At one point we had 15 people in our Land Rover. At others, we had animals, both live and dead.

In short, Alale is the kind of place that might affirm your stereotypes, even as it blows your mind.

Faith provided a modicum of sanitation to the whole ordeal of skinning and gutting the dik-dik

Us with some of the Pokot in Alale

Faith and I ‘helping’ some local women milk a camel.

Michael looking on as a man loads his sheep into our vehicle

Update: To read more about Daylight Center and School, which we were visiting during this trip, click here.

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4 responses to “In Kenya’s Wild West -or- What National Geographic told you Africa would be like

  1. Tremendous blog! Thanks for allowing us to join you through your words and pictures. God be with you.

  2. It’s awesome to read this. I myself also had the honor of visiting Micheal’s family in Alale only about a month and a half before this post. Great description of the environment. It’s quite a place. That’s awesome that you got Dik-Dik! I got to have a goat.

    • Eric, I think you set the bar high for future visitors. Someone at Michael’s church asked us if we also were learning Kiswahili.

  3. It sounds crazy but true. I was born and raised in Kenya but the Pokot Lowalands and Turkana have largely marginalised and forgotten by successively governments leading to the situation as it is.

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