Saturday, 11 May 2013

Living with the Pokot (Part 2) - Kenya

                                           The Pokot circumcision ceremony.

In the 1980s I was living with the Pokot in Northern Kenya, working on a camel programme, with  the occasional visit from Sir Wilfred Thesiger passing by on the way up to Lake Turkana.

The Pokot were locked in a near permanent cycle of cattle rustling with the Turkana and the Karamojong from over the border in Karamoja, Uganda. Unlike today fighting was mainly with spears, with automatic weapons appearing only in the most extreme of circumstances. It was their equivalent of Saturday afternoon football, and served greatly to alleviate the routine of their daily lives. 

A principal driver in all this rustling was to accrue enough cattle for the bride price 'lobola', which is a cause of unending disputes across Africa.

Like many nomadic tribes in the region each individual belongs to an age set that moves through the stages of life together from childhood to old age. One of the most important rites of passage within Pokot Society is the circumcision ceremony and their passage to adulthood.
Given that a consequence of the operation would be to have hundreds of men of fighting age out of action for days if not weeks, the ceremony had been delayed again and again whilst the prevailing security situation was so volatile.

Eventually with many of the age set now well into adulthood it was decided that they could wait no longer and I was fortunate to be there, to see many friends advance through a key stage of their lives.

This is not the place for an anthropological analysis of purpose and meaning within the ceremony, suffice to say it was hot even for the oven that is Pokot.  In clearings across their territory groups of initiates were brought together under the auspice of an elder who was to act as compere for the day. Each initiate attired in dyed skins and tasselled faces (nicely weighted down with coke and fanta bottle tops) paraded past his fellows whilst cheered on by the surrounding mob of women and children.

The master of ceremonies formed them into a semi circle

A final blessing

Cheered on by the women and children
Then as the groups were marched off to the hills, their singing faded until all that remained was the hum of cicadas in the intense heat.

A very hot day in Pokot

The next days armed with first aid kits & supplies of painkillers I  headed to the hills to dispense some relief to the survivors of the ordeal.

At first they were nowhere to be found until guided to carefully camouflaged depressions in the hills, which had been layered over with branching and vegetation providing approximately four feet of clearance above the ground. In these darkened caverns, when one’s eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, were dozens and dozens of silhouettes most sitting in absolute silence.

Painkillers were applied direct to mouth to prevent their use elsewhere. It was clear that the circumciser had taken a while to get their eye in, or the knives had been of an unusually blunt design. Celibacy seemed an entirely reasonable life choice for some time after.

Then finally when led away from the hidden lairs back to the valley floor with a gift of goatsmeat wrapped in aromatic leaves, I felt very fortunate to have been part of a rapidly disappearing Africa.