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
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
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
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.