about us Articles Classroom Join Us Search Links   Logo
Reed's Travelogue
Submit Article
Back to Newest Articles

Down from Embobut

February 23, 2001

The motion of the Landcruiser along the road was a lolling, snapping, jolting in a stifling heat sort of motion, a motion that shook the knots from my body while the head on my shoulders sought an equilibrium as elusive as it was imperative. What we talked about that day I don't much remember. What I do remember is the sweat and fuel fumes, the unending flavors of dust, and how, on my fifth day in-country, what I thought I knew was already dissolving into a chaos of questions.

Travel in Kenya concerns time, not distance, and the last of the morning's cool found us no further from Embobut than the golden shouldered height of the escarpment. The Great Rift Valley lay hazed before us, forever north and south, daunting in breadth and depth. Halfway down we paused at an outpost mission house, a satellite to the larger Catholic mission hidden among the acacias below us.

Father Anthony, the priest in whose good grace we all traveled, stood listening to a group of fathers and sisters gathered under an acacia tree. They had fled their mission the night before when the Marakwet, to whom they ministered, had received a letter from the neighboring Pokot warning of a cattle raid next day. Marakwet men milled about, quivers and bows slung on their backs, some clothed in western dress, some breechclouted, all barefoot. They spoke softly amongst themselves, looked often toward the valley floor, pointing. Anthony explained to us the renowned hostility of the Pokot, who were then warring with at least six neighboring tribes, and how they had recently been armed by the District Commissioner of West Pokot with automatic weapons.

I looked round at my other companions. Steven was the man I'd flown halfway round the world to see, a mentor and confidant to me, someone who'd reinvented himself time and again until he stood now, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, listening intently to Father Anthony and the others. Carl, another PCV, was a retired engineer, a planner of factories and a grandfather.

Engineer, adventurer, priest and pilgrim: we made an unlikely cohort of generations, cultures, politics and proclivities as we heard Anthony say clearly that we must reach Turkwell gorge by nightfall. When the other fathers urged us to stay, Anthony chided them for fleeing from the bandits and admonished them to return to their flock. They demurred and we drove on.

Approaching the Catholic mission compound on the Valley floor we saw soldiers loitering, leaning on trucks and jeeps. They lounged on the stoops, smoking and joking and tipping up their sodas, guns slung over their shoulders or laying across their laps. There were no sentries. No one questioned us. Driving away I saw them in my periphery ­ the measured, furtive motions of men stalking in the low bush, crouched and slow legging their way forward ­ men with bows and arrows hunting men with guns.

When we crossed a dry riverbed Anthony announced our entrance into West Pokot District. Here and there we saw small groupings of people, and whether we passed them at speed or a grinding crawl, they neither smiled nor waved. In a narrow section of road through a tree-lined wash we had our first encounter with the Pokots: a group of pubescent girls. Dressed in skins, their faces smeared with ash, they had been sent into the bush for the month prior to their circumcision. We stopped. They walked toward us from the nearby trees with long, thin cattle-switches in hand. These were not photographs. These were not abstract socioeconomic or anthropological concepts. These were female children of herders and warriors living in an arid, hostile climate, grudging citizens of a country that will likely never know the prosperity of even our First World poor.

They surrounded the truck, asking for money. They wanted the equivalent of thirty cents US to have their picture taken. Anthony refused with a wave of his hand. I asked why. Steven grumbled about being overcharged everywhere for everything, shook me off. Carl nodded agreement. The girls insisted and then when Carl lifted the camera from his lap, they began swirling about the truck, leering and jeering and raising the dust round us. When Carl and Steven leaned out the windows to try and get a snap they struck at the rig with their long switches. From the tree-line adult Pokots emerged toward the commotion. Anthony crept us forward till we were moving fast enough to escape the shrilling knot of humanity and careen away. The sounds of sticks and stones hitting the rig ceased and a part of me waited to hear the bark and chatter of small arms fire.

Stunned, I sat swaying in my seat, realizing I could write a whole hotheaded paper on the dynamics of this one interaction. Instead I asked myself: Who am I? Why am I here? Who are these people, and why am I with them? What are the rules and how do I come to grips with the fact that the man I knew, the man I love as a brother and have come so far to see, is obviously changed in ways I can't yet comprehend? I looked round me. What I had known before only mattered now if it could serve me here. More importantly: what could I learn, what could I unlearn, and how quick a study could I be? When my head banged against the window I didn't remember rolling up, I came back to my senses and stayed there.

Before long we stopped again. One hundred meters away they stood, a gauntlet of girls whipping the road with their switches, shouting at us. It seemed to me that word of our first encounter was moving faster than we could. When I wondered aloud why we hadn't just paid the first bunch of girls my mates glared. Anthony charged the roadblocks but eased to a crawl when they held their ground. We all rolled our windows up. They surrounded us and whipped the truck. He pressed forward gently and they beat on the windows with their hands. Some spit at us. A rock appeared in one girl's hand and finally Anthony gunned the engine and they fell away into the dust boiling up behind us.

I went to the lolling place then, the rag-doll place, the when-will-my-soul-catch-up-with-my-body place, and had just settled into a thickheaded doze when our stillness woke me. Poised on the lip of a deep wash we faced yet another group of girls. The road made a sharp turn on the opposite side and disappeared into the trees. We all looked at each other. They shouted. They whipped the dust with their switches. Anthony eased us over the edge, the engine racing as we bottomed out for the charge. He cut back at the lip and wheeling into the corner through the disintegrating gauntlet worked his way through the gears. I didn't look back. None of us looked back.

At Endo the German nuns welcomed us with fresh lemonade and a snack. They pointed up the hill toward a large building maybe three kilometers away: Embobut, from which we had traveled for nearly seven hours by road. We learned from them that an army convoy had been ambushed recently while on the next stretch of road after dark, and that the soldiers had abandoned their vehicles, running away into the bush. They asked if we had spare tires and we did. They asked after the vehicle's reliability and Anthony assured them it was sound. They warned us twice to be off the road by nightfall and Anthony promised.

Climbing into the truck I chuckled, remembering that in Kenya they say that if you have to die on the road, die with a priest so you can go straight to heaven. The nuns waved as we drove away into the afternoon heat toward Turkwell gorge, toward more questions and fewer answers than I ever imagined possible. When Steven turned and smiled and winked at me, I winked back, sighed and settled into the jostling few hours till dark.

-Hugh Hosman
Back to Newest Articles

Back to top