The rich Pokot culture

May 29, 2013

I have written about many experiences, from being cornered by a venomous cobra in a latrine, to being honoured with a two-minute chess challenge with Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

 By Solomon Oleny

I have written about many experiences, from being cornered by a venomous cobra in a latrine, to being honoured with a two-minute chess challenge with Rwandan president Paul Kagame.
But my first experience was of the Pokot tribe in Amudat district, north-eastern Uganda, and I found it uniquely striking. 
From a distance, blue rolling hills hug the blue sky. Thorny acacia trees pepper the landscape with an interesting silhouette. Amudat is in its infant stages of development because its indigenous inhabitants have remained firmly rooted in their traditional beliefs. The sparsely populated district is close to the border with Kenya.

Beginning of adventure 
While there, I walked into a restaurant for lunch. It was a one-room grass-thatched structure and the holes in the curtains were a clear testimony that it was previously infested by rats. 
Before I could unfasten my bag, a huge man opposite me said in a deep voice: “Pistol, use big gun, fire the tall visitor, kabooom kabisa!”
Immediately, five half-dressed men I had bypassed earlier on stepped closer. Their tough faces made it clear that I was ‘dead meat’. I began to sweat and before I knew it, I was on my knees beseeching the six goliaths to spare my life. My pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears, so I opted for ‘plan B’. I surrendered my wallet and laptop to them amid trembling. 
The men instead burst into laughter before rejecting all that I had offered. After this, I thought it was time to say my last prayers. A huge fella tapped on my shoulder and burst into laughter.
It was an exaggerated laughter that saw saliva drool through the gap between his teeth, which landed onto my left knee. I cursed silently. It later emerged that the man with the deep voice had not ordered for my shooting, but rather was welcoming his friends called Pistol, Use big gun, Fire, Tall Visitor and Kaboom Kabisa for lunch. 
According to Kaboom Kabisa, these were their real names. “Our culture permits parents to name children after anything that crosses their mind at the time of child birth. In my case, at the time of my birth, my dad kept exclaiming ‘Kaboom kabisa’ because he was overjoyed to have a baby boy. That is how I came to be called Kaboom Kabisa,” he said.
Game meat
Shortly after I was assured of my safety, I was served wild boar meat and posho because the other available option — posho and sour milk — was rather a strange combination for someone eating it for the first time. 
However, before I was served the wild boar meat, I was made to swear in Akarimojong that I would not share the experience with anybody. This was out of fear that I would leak  the news to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which has prohibited game hunting in the district to save the endangered wildlife.
A kilogramme of wild boar meat costs sh2,000, since it is sold in a hurry, compared to beef, which is at sh7,000 a kilogramme. 
Sadly, this greed for money is wiping out wild boar and antelopes from the area at a worrying rate.
Speaking of money, I almost forgot to mention the usage of both Kenyan and Uganda currencies here. In fact, camels are mainly sold in Kenya shillings, with a mature one costing approximately Ksh50,000 (sh1.5m).
One Camel is worth sh1.5m
Penalty for infidelity
After lunch, I took a walk in the company of Kaboom, my new found friend, who volunteered to be my guide. As we walked, a Pokot girl passed by and Kaboom encouraged me to pursue her, but only if I was ready to pay a fine of 60 cows if I was caught. 
The other punishment would be getting caned by an elder. These are the traditional ways of settling cases of promiscuity, infidelity and adultery.
View towards death
They might be one of Uganda’s most fierce tribes, but the Pokot fear dead bodies. As we walked, Kaboom showed me a reed-fenced house, whose occupants had fled when one of their relatives fell sick and died from there. 
“It is easy to convince a Pokot to wrestle down a lion, but impossible to persuade them to look at a dead body. It is believed that he who looks or touches a dead body will be the next to die. As such, as soon as they realise that a patient is about to die, the relatives abandon the place, never to return. 
“If the deceased is a man, it does not take more than one night to get over his death. But if it is a young unmarried woman, she is mourned for many years because her death is considered a lost chance for getting bride wealth in the form of cows,” Kaboom explained. 
Embracing education 
Gone are the days when many Pokot were not bothered to pursue education because of their obsession with cattle rustling. Today, many parents have enrolled their children in schools. 
According Ronald Mukholi, the director of studies at Pokot S.S.S, the overriding factor behind this revolution is the ambition of many parents who wish for their children to become politicians, so as to propel the development of the region. However, with most of the herdsmen still exchanging 10 cows for one gun, it is obvious that cattle rustling is still cherished by some Pokot. 
FGM persists 
According to Cherop Mzungu, an activist against female genital mutilation (FGM), the battle against female circumcision is still an uphill task. “From the look of things, there is no doubt that the fight against the barbaric practice is far from over.
Culture has it that a woman who is not circumcised is unworthy of marriage because her sexual appetite is too ‘insatiable’ for one companion.”
Since marriage is viewed as a means of getting bride wealth, over 85% of households do not mind going to the extremes to ensure their daughters are circumcised.
Strangely, it is the same culture that permits men to go on sexual adventures with any woman when their wives are pregnant, as long as the sexual partner in question is not married. To complicate matters, the use of condoms is considered inconveniencing, and consequently, the spread of HIV is a matter of concern in the area. 
Transport crisis 
When it comes to transport in Amudat, ‘the early bird catches the worm’. I had to reschedule my journey back to Kampala for the next day, having woken up at 9:30am, four hours after the only bus to Mbale had left. Yes the transport services in the area leave a lot to be desired. 
Flying toilets 
That aside, since the place is so rocky, it is very expensive to construct pit latrines. This has led to the escalation of ‘flying toilets’, locally termed as landmines, because when the locals miscalculate their strides and step on them, they explode with anger and curse bitterly.

How Amudat got its name
Amudat got its name from the Kanyangareng Bridge, under which flows the Kanyangareng River. Amudat’s location in the semi-desert has always translated into water shortage for much of the year.
As such, most of the locals used to flock Kanyangareng River to fetch water, especially during the late 1980s, since it was the only reliable water source around. Unfortunately, since it is a seasonal river, it would sometimes dry.
Therefore, people would camp in the middle of the water track for days as they desperately waited for the next time it would stream with water.
Like lightning which strikes when least expected, Kanyangareng often came gushing suddenly and swept away these locals, sometimes drowning a number of them, especially women and children who could not swim.
Before long, the locals started referring to it as the river that scoops. The word “Amudat” in the Pokot language means to scoop something in big volumes. It was only a matter of time before the name stuck like a tattoo.
It was at this river that I was also treated to the shock of my life, after seeing a couple bathing with their four teenage children - two sons and two daughters. Funny enough, they were not bothered to see each other in ‘Adams suit’. On the contrary, they were rather enjoying each other’s company!
Some families bathe in the river in Amudat 

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