Africa 6

November 15  04 Marich Pass and the Pokot market

We have travelled quite a bit in the last couple of weeks. On Nov 12 we went into the West Pokot which is a four hour drive north. The road is merely undulating for two hours until Kitale (at about 6,000 feet) and then it starts to climb. On the southern slopes it is still lush and green although you can feel the air growing cooler. The peak reveals a stunning panorama of mountain ridges and the vast expanse of the Great Rift Valley and the distant ‘wall’ which traverses most of Africa.

The descent takes you into progressively drier terrain until thorn bushes and cactus predominate. There are no more wandering cows on the road, but large herds of goats foraging amongst the meagre plant life. I said ‘descent,’ but the road remains at about 5,000 ft.

We wind through small towns with children holding up eggs and gourds and small baskets for sale until we have to ford a river where the bridge was washed out in the last big rains. A lorry has stalled coming in our direction and sits on the sloping approach to the ford. Our hearts sink when we see that it was in tow and the steel hawser has snapped. But fortunately the driver beckons us to one side where there is just enough room to squeeze by. We did not relish the prospect of hours, and maybe a night, in the vehicle.

We come at last to a police check and are allowed through because we are headed for the Field Research Centre a kilometre further on. Had we been going further, to Lodwar, we would have had to wait for a convoy of vehicles. It’s at this point that the trucks carrying relief supplies to the refugee camps and famine stricken areas wait to move out, a half dozen at a time. Banditry is quite common.

The Field centre is situated at Marich Pass, a relatively low point on the road where a river comes close to the road, surrounded by stark hills. The centre is run by a retired geography professor (a Brit) and his Ethiopian wife and they receive students from all over Europe and N. America. The bandas (thatched huts) are spacious, if basic, and some even are self-contained! Cold showers are no hardship! The beds and chairs are home made from thin sticks and twigs and the chair legs were not measured to be of the same length!

We have visited here before and love the wide sweep of the river, the sharply etched slopes of the hills and the people always on the sandbars collecting water, bathing, doing laundry, playing volleyball. It is truly the centre of their life. There are crocodiles in a pool a few hundred yards away, but they seem to be lazy creatures.

The main reason for our visit this time is to go to a market held back in the hills about an hour’s drive away. On Saturday morning we stoke up on breakfast, slap on our sun screen and grab our water bottles. We expected the road to be a ‘bit rough’ as Kenyans say, but it was pretty bad with deep ruts and bumps! Our four wheel drive Isuzu with metal undersheathing is a blessing. As we draw closer to the market we pass streams of people heading in the same direction, many carrying large bags of maize to sell or to grind. It was just as well they were there, for signposts are non existent and the red dirt roads all look pretty much alike.

There was one tense moment just before the market when there was another river to cross. There was a pedestrian suspension bridge (at dinner that night we were to meet the head of the organization that supplies these bridges to communities throughout the country) but nothing for vehicles. We had a young fellow with us who is volunteering at the centre, whose name is Mike. So we "sent Mikey" to try out the depth and all appeared to be well.

A few hundred yards further on we rolled into the most incredible sight. Stalls, animals, noise, dust and heat might be the first impression. But then we saw the variety of people. The Pokot resemble the Masai and the Samburu in that they are mainly pastoralists and largely nomadic. Cattle are their wealth and cattle rustling is a major problem in the area. The men are normally all armed with AK 47s but they stash their weapons in the bush to come into the market.

The men who live outside the village wear a blanket, usually red, slung round their shoulders reaching to the thigh. They each carry their own little stool, shaped from wood with a "foot" and a small pedestal supporting a flat piece. They can rest their head on the ‘neck’ when sleeping, or sit on the upper piece. Every man’s stool is unique and personal and cause for violence if anyone else uses it.

They also carry a long smooth stick and maybe bows and arrows. Their headgear is a small green hat, rather like a fedora with beads, feathers and chains dangling from it at intervals. They also wear feathers in their ears. There were several "young bucks" strolling around in pairs, obviously eyeing the girls. They swaggered past, flipping their blanket over one shoulder in a "look at me" gesture. You could almost smell the testosterone.

The women are just as colourful. Most, probably all, of them go through the FGM ritual when young, which I didn’t care to think about too much. The married women wear their hair short with dangling hoop earrings which sometimes stretch the lobe. Around their necks they have large, flat, beaded necklaces or collars in many colours. Those with several children might wear five or six collars, one on top of the other. An unmarried girl wears a collar in plain wooden beads and an uncircumcised girl wears an ‘apron’ and a collar only. Bangles in copper or wood also signify a woman’s marital status and number of children.

Farther into the market we came upon a large group of women selling fermented milk from gourds. They were sitting on the floor in a large group, pouring the milk for customers from elongated gourds that were decorated with black designs. A little farther on another group were selling snuff, finely ground tobacco that was ladled out with tiny spoons. They were doing a roaring trade.

Most of the stalls sold regular goods: soap, cooking oil, clothing and fabric. I bought a couple of bright blue and red traditional blankets that will make great furniture throws. We also found just one stall where women were selling men’s stools, gourds and tiny baskets, so finely woven they are virtually watertight. The stall next door had all male customers, choosing bows and steel tipped arrows.

The market is so far from the main road and this area is so rarely visited by tourists that we paid regular ‘local’ prices. My scanty Kiswahili came in useful as many of the people spoke only Pokot and a little Kiswahili.

Our only regret is that we were not able to take more than a couple of pictures because ‘snapping’ can be considered offensive.

On Sunday morning we took an ‘ethno-botanical’ walk with a young man who is teaching environmental studies to the nursery school children at the little school run by the Centre. His mother is a herbalist and from a young age he was sent into the bush to gather plants for her. There are many uses for bark, seeds, sap and leaves, often for malaria and intestinal problems. He showed us the ‘sacred fig tree’ which is revered because in pre-colonial times it provided a large part of the diet. Circumcised boys and girls gather round it after their healing time to sing and dance.

After this trip I had to venture north again to the Kitale area to conduct some workshops. We were hosted by a local family overnight and the hospitality was almost overwhelming. The area was settled years ago by white farmers (it’s still called the White Highlands.) At one time there were 400 ‘white’ families, but I believe they are now down to four. After independence the land was bought out (there was an agreement with the British Government, unlike Zimbabwe) and people from may tribes were settled there. The farms are still large, although growing smaller because of the sharing of the farm between all the sons when the father dies.

We returned home bearing samples of what they grow (except maize): carrots, pumpkin, roasted ground nuts, unshelled ground nuts, a large branch of plantain bananas and a lovely woven market basket. Fortunately this time no live chicken! We can’t possible eat everything they shower on us (once it was 8 dozen eggs) so we pass some of it along to the watchmen in our compound who earn very little and have families to feed.

My series of workshops are now finished, although the computer classes will continue until just before Christmas. We hope to go away to the Aberdares (Happy Valley in colonial times) to Treetops if there is room. Then on to Samburu and back through Nakuru with its game park with many rhino. I’ll keep you posted.

Kwa herini (goodbye)