Friday, July 31

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: First journey into Pokot

Ironically named, East Pokot is actually in far western Kenya, very nearly on the border with Uganda. A chief, who earned the position through an application process, told me it is a wonderful place during the rainy season, lush and green and full of cattle. East Africa, however, is in the midst of a five-year drought, and that time has not been kind to Pokot. It resembles a desert now. Rough, fist-sized rocks outnumber tufts of grass, and every shrub and every vine is well protected by thorns both long and short. Outside one small village, the people were forced to dig for water in a dry river bed. Over this same memory of flowing liquid, two-thirds of a bridge stretches. Perhaps the contractors decided it wasn't worth the effort to finish when one could just as easily drive through as over what had once been an obstacle.

The International Humanity Foundations has deep ties to East Pokot and the people who make it their home. Many of the children at the center are of the Pokot tribe and still have family there. The Foundation also runs two unique program in it, the Famine Feed and Survival, both of which I participated in for the first time this past weekend. Through the Famine Feed, we delivered bags of cabbage and maize flour to supplement the people's limited diets. International sponsors donated money through the Survival Program which we then used to purchase chickens, goats, calves, camels and cows at the local market and give them to families in need.

About a week before the trip out, the director of the Foundation began sending me emails dealing with issues of cultural sensitivity while among the tribal people. These were not minute items of etiquette like what the proper greeting is (The people, like all Kenyans, are great fans of handshakes. Conversations both between friends and between strangers all begin with one.) or with which hand one will be expected to cut their meat (They use their fingers). No, these issues were absolutely fundamental. She warned us that tribal people have a hard time thinking in terms of the future tense because they are so focused upon surviving in the present, that garbage and trash as filth are entirely new concepts as so many of their tools are made from stone and wood and can be disposed of wherever, that the feast-or-famine mentality is very real and very present. I needed to be aware of these differences and be prepared for them. For better or for worse, I read her warnings and remembered them but put in little further thought. Had I paid more attention, I would have realized this would be culture shock to the nth degree. These were not going to be like the differences between middle-class America and Western Europe or urban Kenya where, despite the physical distance, people still hold specialized jobs and buy most of the goods they use. These differences go to the very core of our lives.

It all washed over me while I was there. Without the earlier emails, I would have thought the Pokot only differed from me in their choice of homes, languages and dress. That's the consequence of dealing with any people only briefly and mostly in the very superficial role of photographer rather than friend or equal.

Before my journey into Pokot, I had wanted this post to offer great insights into the Pokot culture and life, but now I am afraid of such ambition. I spent a few hours with them. I know nothing beside what another has told me. Insight and revelation can come only later and a little bit at a time.

Thus this post is a reflection on the simplest of observations, the visual. Coming in, I was subconsciously prepared for something out of National Geographic: people in minimal clothing and that made out of animal hide and bone. I joked that I would struggle for an answer if the women went topless, and people asked me why my eyes were averted. So it was disconcerting to discover how similar their dress was to that which I see everyday. Many men wore polo or collared shirts, and both sexes sported tank tops. I saw plenty of T-shirts and wool caps for Arsenal. Short of their walking sticks and stools, nothing seemed as though it were handmade from materials available in the desert. The women's dresses may not have been bought from the local Tusky's, but they were at least made from printed cloth. Their sandals were crafted from strips of tire, not exactly a material cultivated in East Pokot.

Still, their style was distinctive. Those fan chokers on the women may have been made from beads built in some factory in China, but I certainly don't see anyone in Nakuru wearing them. Other plastic beads were used in original earrings for both the men and women. Some men wore skirts made from the same cloth as the women's dresses. Those men with hats kept a single feather in them.

It was a fascinating blend of the traditional and contemporary, the Pokot finding ways to make modern materials meet their needs and lifestyle. After all, culture is not a static thing, no matter whether you are in the suburbs of a rapidly-changing Western city or part of a tribe which prefers the lifestyle untold generations before practiced. Culture constantly changes and adapts according to the people and ideas and technologies and materials available to it. The difference between us of the West and the Pokot here, I believe, is whether we prefer to make those things adapt to us and our ways or whether we change for them. Given the Internet, our essential means of communication and business undergo an intense evolution. Given tires, the Pokot make sandals, a much different form of transportation than first intended. Marshall McLuhan may argue that our technologies structure our thoughts, but there may be more agency in this process than he anticipated.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong about all this. Perhaps my observations and reading of them totally missed the mark, and later journeys into Pokot will reveal this. We'll see.

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