A man and his two goats are walking across Turkana.
The goats walk in front of him, stopping momentarily to browse between the rocks. The man doesn’t stop. He only stops to take a sip of water, and then goes right back into a slow, deliberate, walk. He doesn’t seem to notice the sun crawling to hide behind the mountains in the horizon. Or how the yellow light hits the water, glistening and shifting with the waves. He doesn’t seem to see the other man in the water, alone and mostly naked, tugging a fishing net in the setting sun.
He sees it, because the human brain is like a lens in sweep panorama. He sees it all but because he sees it every day, he doesn’t stop to take it all in. He doesn’t need to. The majestic symphony of nature in the background is to him just another setting sun. His akalas, made from old tyres cut and made into ridiculously comfortable sandals, have his stories. That sun will set, and it will be dark, dark as hell, but he will keep walking until it is too dark to see five feet away. Then he will stop, tie the goats, curl himself on the open ground with a stool under his head and fall asleep. At first light, the journey will continue.
Time moves here just as it moves everywhere else.
Turkana and its neighbors, Samburu, Pokot, and areas where primarily pastoralist communities like the Rendille live have had a single story for too long. The story, one of hardship and conflict, is easy to paint because it shows the ends of the world. It suggests that one should appreciate the fiber pillows they sleep in because somewhere in Turkana there is a guy who has to put his head on an ekicholong every night. That where you are is much better, even if it’s not, because there’s someone somewhere who has much less and is living worse than you. It is one of the side effects of a consumerist society.
The question we never ask is why, if life is so hard in these parts, people have lived here for centuries. We want better, and easier, we want to live in a place where life is easy and manageable. But nothing in life is cheap, whether you pitch camp at night in a house in Karen or in a manyatta on the shores of Lake Turkana. Whether you have artificial lighting from Kenya Power or natural lighting from Mother Nature, time will always do that thing time does.
The image of Turkana as a place of hardship and nothingness is the danger of a single story. The people here live in small manyattas made of thatch. They build facing the lake, offering a gorgeous view of the horizon. Homes are clustered into villages, and villages far from each other. Some like Loiyangalani are thriving towns, with everything including a random (empty) Coke fridge standing in a compound. Distance is a concept. People who travel from Rongai probably get more tired than the guy who walks from Loiyangalani to Baragoi.
There’s conflict, but to judge this place by that would be like avoiding Nairobi because someone got robbed on River Road. Beyond the stories of pain and blood are more thrilling stories of the men and women who live in these places where nature went overzealous with the paintbrush.
As tarmac disappears and you head onto dusty roads where the Landcruiser is at home, you see the hills in the horizon and wonder how no one lives here. Human beings will always find water, especially where there’s none. The dust will turn into rocks, miles and miles of rocks. Dark and round rocks litter the horizon and beyond that the mountains and the occasional acacia tree. It looks like nothingness, but it isn’t.
You come to Turkana expecting to be bombarded with topless women who will not augur well with your spiritual upbringing, especially the commandment about nipples. You expect to see them wallowing in utter poverty, waiting for you to give them water and food because they are a forgotten people. But that’s not Turkana. But the human spirit is weird, anyone can adapt to anything, I think, except death.
Home is a decision, not a place.
There’s a homeless man who lives in the Pangani underpass, on the side of the fork that heads to Forest Road. He is dressed in layers upon layers of tattered clothing, and often seems immobile. He sleeps in the middle of the ruckus of matatus hooting and subarus revving past. He sleeps as matatus burn their brake pads and people try to beg their tanks to have some miraculous shot of fuel to them to the Shell. He sleeps through it all, and reads when he is awake or goes to find food. In our gilded cages, whether we fuel them or pay fare, that man lives a terrible life. It’s an image that’s easy to shape because single stories sell much more than objective ones.
On the lakefront, you meet the El Molo people and realize that to them, extinction doesn’t dominate their every waking minute or prevent them from swimming in the Jade Sea.. Extinction is nature’s plan. Every time a child is born, someone dies. Sometimes the person who dies is eaten by a crocodile, punishment for taking someone else’s fish. It’s not cruelty, it’s part of life. They want better for their children so fathers will sit them down on their lap on small rafts made of three logs and row all the way across, to school. Every Saturday morning, they will row back and get them, and bring them back on Sunday. They live. They breath. Extinction is what scholars constantly remind them they are doing, as if its a disease.
Life here goes on. From a vantage point above the village, you can see the two-year olds running out of the manyattas at first light, screaming their heads off. Their mothers follow, chasing them and yanking them back into the houses. Adults are naturally grumpy morning people, whether on the shores of the Jade Sea or in a small apartment building in Kinoo. Morning means adult things, like food and bills, here and everywhere else. Toddlers are toddlers everywhere, except maybe here they get much less judgement for running around stark naked and barefoot but for the sein and shengeis around their ankles. It’s actually bliss, allowing things to hang free, fight gravity early and harden heels while young. The wind blows hard, but blows warm, and colds are almost unheard of.
I think there’s nothing like barren land. You only need to see how goats here browse between the rocks, and still seem to get enough to look healthier than those skinny things they sell at City Market. To the naked eye, nothing could survive here, except the random acacia tree that insists, like a guy selling steering wheel covers, on growing. Land is only as barren as the people who live on it. On this side of Kenya, the Turkana, the El Molo, and other communities who live here are as fertile as anyone else. Perhaps even more. They live on beachfront properties, which makes the urbanite in me green with envy. Also, an ekicholong is a surprisingly innovative device, working as a decor piece, a pillow, and a seat all at once. It is designed to be practical, and is in fact, quite comfortable. An ekicholong should be high fashion, with big guns holding meetings around low tables as they sit on these carved seats.
Loiyangalani is home for the next night or two, with runs to the Chalbi Desert and wherever else the dusty roads leads. The idea is not to make a calendar, it is to tell stories.
One Story is good,
till Another is told.