The Forgotten People of East Pokot

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The last time that I had seen such dry, parched land was in my early twenties when I made my maiden trip to Kaikor village in Turkana. I remember how shocked I was when our rickety truck huffed on in land so dry that it felt as if it would crack open up any moment and swallow the helpless truck.

It was as if in a previous life, a massive flood had swept through that land and left behind nothing but rocks, sand and shrivelled thorn trees.

A decade later, I was in the same dry embrace of what environmentalists refer to as dryland. But for the people of Chemoling’ot in East Pokot, it wasn’t really dryland, it was just home. The only home that the old, old blind lady before me had known for the possibly one century she had been on planet earth.

The old lady’s eyes were wide open. If Lomada, the Secretary General of Chemoling’ot Youth Group hadn’t whispered into my ear that she was blind, I would have wondered why she was staring at me intently.  Was something wrong with my green safari shirt? I would have wondered. Or maybe a sukuma wiki (kale) remnant was stubbornly sticking out of my mid upper teeth again?

I was the one doing all the staring as my small video camera focused on the old lady’s face. Her wrinkles were just as dry as the land beneath her bare feet. Huge, circular green-yellow earrings dangled quietly from the big holes in her ears. Because half of her teeth were no longer in her mouth, it seemed as if she was grinning or grimacing constantly. How old was she? I wondered. Had she ever visited Nairobi, or even the nearer Nakuru? Had she ever eaten three meals consistently for even a week?

A cold trickle flooded the back section of my neck, startling me and yanking my attention away from the old lady and the questions in my mind. My left hand instinctively sprinted backward to wipe away what I soon realized was profuse sweat.

It was hot. And dry and dusty. Carol, one of the three friends who had invited me to come and film a short documentary about East Pokot had a layer of dust all over her round chocolate face. She smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up. Carol was a dreamer like me and we both imagined that the documentary I was filming would usher in lasting change to East Pokot.

‘Bwak,’ Carol had said during breakfast earlier that morning, ‘wouldn’t it be awesome if people here would start enjoying such a breakfast every single day!’

I had remained silent, feeling guilty about the piece of chapati that was a few inches away from my eager and ready mouth. Equally silent were the two other friends that we had come to East Pokot with. Ann was light-skinned, dreadlocked and talkative. Ken was light-skinned, tall and introverted. The two of them, together with Carol and I were all idealists who were trying to be pragmatists.

A shrill chant invaded the atmosphere. It felt like someone was wailing, when in fact, it was singing. An old man (it seemed as if most of the one hundred or so people in the gathering were quite old) was the lead soloist of the chant/wail.

Ajugakolomaiiiitaporatiiiiiikameeeeenaposaakkaaaaa..! This is how his chant sounded in my ears, like one long word that was occasionally interrupted by an even longer exclamation mark.

I shifted the camcorder from the old lady to the old man. There was a striking resemblance between them and I almost asked Lomada if they were brother and sister but another gripping site demanded the attention of my panting Sony camera.

A little boy, bare-chested with dazzling dark hair, was devouring tiny brownish wild fruits with the speed and fervour of someone who had to be very very hungry.

‘Those are wild berries’ Lomada said in his high tenor voice, ‘that’s the only food available to many of these people during extremely dry months like this one.’

Dryland. One word within which live all manner of human travails. One word that contains one million hunger pangs that never go away.

No poverty. This is the very first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). The little boy with dazzling hair was born in the same poverty that afflicted his father and grandfather.

Zero hunger. The little boy’s sister, who was seated next to him throwing one berry after another into her mouth, is not aware that the second SDG is calling for zero hunger. But she is so aware of the hunger pangs in her stomach that she has accepted them as her unquestionable plight.

Good health and wellbeing. This third SDG is alien to the old man who was leading the long chant with longer exclamation marks. He had never been to a hospital. For him, ailment that can’t be treated with the few herbs that can stand the dryland heat is meant to linger on in his ever frail body.

The old chanting man, the old lady who looks like him, the little boy with shiny hair plus his sister and all other people in Pokot, Turkana and all of Africa’s drylands were mostly not helped by the soon-to-be-defunct Millennium Development Goals. Only time will tell whether the Sustainable Development Goals will be any different.

All I know is that what I experienced with my own eyes, what I continue to see from the video that we filmed, are people who have been let down by a world that often spends more money to talk about their hunger than actually feeding them and helping  them to feed themselves in the long term.

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