Moving on, it seemed like we were the only sojourners towards these parched zones. To make the trip bearable, I thought of myself as a local tourist. But the joke was on me. Because this was not the Mara or Samburu with zebras and lions. We were in Turkana.
My phone lights up, to remind me of Cyndie’s message in WhatsApp. Cyndie was a fellow designer in Kisumu. The clock indicated 9.35AM. She must have just woken up. Last I talked to her was at 4AM when I was boarding the vehicle in Kitale. When I had told her I was traveling, to seek for opportunities in Kakuma, she had come up with a thousand reasons to convince me not to. She was yet to come to terms with the fact that I had left. Yet I was not sure of the excuses she would pull up this time. Cyndie was the type to hold onto an argument for hours, even days. She eventually got a bargain, mostly because she wearied off her opponents over time.
Gratefully, the phone was silent except for calls. I could not stand a chime or whatever after every other second. Therefore, every time there was an unanswered text, it would silently pop up the notification on the screen. Whatever got a tone had to be of high priority. [Do people even go there?] |Yes. Had I not answered this before? Am with company.| [Why?] |Donno, to explore maybe.| [Have fun.] |Nothing here is funny.| [Told you!🤣🤣🤣]
Yet at a glance one would have thought the place to be inhabitant. The climate was harsh. The heat was abrasive; the ground was galling. To survive here needed another level of endurance. To wade off Cyndie, I tell her that I needed to preserve my battery. She sends a series of heart emojis and a flying kiss.
We had just left Lokichar town under cloudless skies. The passenger next to me is Caroline Eyanae, who was also headed to Kakuma. In my many travels this was the first time being in the company of a Turkana lady. Here was was a slim jet figure with a skin as smooth as moonstone in an allure of it’s own. Nothing about her face was exaggerated – everything fit in place like a master’s handwork. From the full lips, a button nose to the pair of clear ovals for her eyes. The ankara head wrap elevated her chick bones similar to the models in magazine posters. By all standards she made black beautiful. You dig?
Earlier, when I had asked her to be my guide, Eyanae had first required an explanation as to why I was headed to Kakuma. According to her, many who went there were fugitives either running from something or towards another. But I was in my own country. The only fugitives were the itchy ideas trapped inside my head. That place is different. She had stressed. It could mess up that head. You will mostly feel like one, in the first few weeks. Frankly, this got to my skin. Was I a fugitive? Once in a while the thought would crawl in, and I would let it linger. Turning it over and over. So I could analyse what made a fugitive. But I found no answers. Perhaps it really took a sick mind to know what ailed madness.
Later on, she would confess to agreeing to sit by my side only because she thought of me as amiable. She even agreed to bring along her bag of dates. Thus, I was savoring this moment with every juice in my being. Much attention was drawn however to her slender neck. Granted, I could put her in my pocket and take her home. What was with men and necks? Next to Caroline was a fellow who slept most of the time. So I had not cared to know his name. Upon request, our driver introduced as John, agrees to play Lingala. He finds Koffi’s Skol – and the van seemed to gain some life.
Behind us were large tracks of dry plains with scattered desert vegetation. The thorny table-top acacias dressed the plains, in a stretch of miles towards the horizon, in the typical fascinating beauty of African Savanna. I was toying with the thought that perhaps this is what lay ahead of us. Then again, perhaps it was even worse. What do they say, the journey got tougher with every forward step? The more I studied this landscape the more I got interested in knowing how people survived in these morbid conditions. It was hot, and I was thirsty. My water bottle was empty, so Eyanae allows me to drink from her own. Which I drain in one long gulp. She gives me a knowing look with a wry smile. “Welcome to Turkana,” she whispers. My reply was big belch. She tried to suppress her giggling but ended up bursting into loud laughter.
Generally, I was very interested in the ways of the Turkana people. More so on how I was to live amongst them in Kakuma.
“What should I really know about?” I asked.
“Just three.” She replied, counting on her fingers. “Once inside, stay within Kakuma as much as possible. The shanga girls are out of bounds. And do not disturb the peace of the local man.
“Who are the shanga girls?”
“You will know them when you see them.”
“Mmh. Are they fashionable?”
“More like you?”
“Yes. And thank you. But I am not a shanga girl anymore.” She bit in her lower lip. Our eye-contact lingered. “Because I negotiated to go to school. That is why.”
Ahead, we spot a police roadblock. John, slowing down, halts next to the barricade before switching off the car radio. Conversations in the van died out too. This was the third check point since Kitale and it was no surprise to see him chit chat with the officers. Once done with the driver, one of the officers approaches the van door and requests for our identification papers. Like his friends, a riffle was strapped across his shoulders.
The three of us, at the immediate seat after the cockpit, hustled out our ID cards for the inspection. He took his time, slowly scanning through each of our cards, returning them once satisfied. Then moved to the remaining passengers. Forward came the ID cards. Someone handed over travel papers which were also scanned. Occasionally, a passenger tried to whisper something to him and he had to raise his voice asking them to speak up. Most of them were refugees, you could easily tell because they spoke about travel papers. This particular one was a young man, twenty or so. He said he was a student and was yet to renew his expired travel papers. He was asked to step out of the van. A lady, who was sitting next to him also followed. They were led towards the rear of the vehicle among the other officers. Minutes pass, and John goes over to join them. He returns almost immediately with the duo, starts the van and we speed off. Koffi picks up where he left but the vibe is not the same.
A passenger reaches out to the couple for an explanation. The lady narrates that because they had no papers, money had been required from them in order to proceed. They were South Sudanese students residing in Kakuma but had delayed to renew the travel papers in time last year. So they had to part with some cash. Some things were not so different in the North after all.
Inside, between me and Eyanae now lay something heavy. She was silent. I got lost in thought. To pass time, I chewed on the dates, but I let them stay in my mouth longer than they should. Somehow rolling the pits in the mouth helped me think. As my mind was bubbling over her earlier sentiments. Whether she had let out more than enough and was on the verge of recoiling. What was she thinking?
Outside, here and there like in the Southern side, were tall sandy anthills similar to the ones in Primary Atlas. Yet up close they presented a distinctive site. Sometimes, amidst the trees and shrubs, they formed sacred clusters of three or four. Other times, they were solo-perched on a hill, towering over the rest of flora and fauna. I roll down my window in sheer excitement to take pictures with my mobile phone. The results are pleasing enough for Instagram. Eyanae being on a phone call, signals me to shut the window. Koffi plays on. My thoughts go past him.
When she is done, I popped out the question. “Did you have to negotiate?”
“See,” Eyanae said, spitting out a date seed in her hand. “Having the shanga meant that I was specially set apart for marriage.” She set the seed in another plastic tin she had brought along.
She went on to narrate that her tribesmen assigned roles and chores to their children. And that not all of them were sent to school. Some were sent to the plains to graze, then there was her lot who were precisely chosen to live for marriage. If well maintained they were to fetch a good bride price.
I had to ask her what merited one to go to either choice. Whether there was some sort of voodoo consultation or something. To this, we simultaneously found ourselves laughing. Then she said that the old men of the house just knew. They observed how the children carried out themselves and how they interacted with the livestock. Other times they consulted their friends before a decision was made. The gentle one was sent to the goats, the quick-witted weakling sent to school and then the baby doll was left at home.
“This must be serious?”
“Yes.” She said. “Even the education officers are aware of this.” Then she picked another handful of dates which we divided between us.
I was baffled beyond words. This was far from strange, just ethnic. She watched as I bit into the dates, before shoving them into my mouth. I don’t even know why she kept at it. But she did things differently.
“Wai gvoji gheou ju endihgf avgd ichs?” I asked, still chewing on the dates.
“What?” she snapped.
I finished chewing then disposed the pits in the tin. My tongue was all sugar. “I said, why can’t they do anything about it?”
“That is just how it is.” She replied, pecking at her dates. “Most of my people are slow in appreciating classroom education.” She ate at her words like a bird.
“The officers therefore have to explain to our old men the importance of school to their goats. Either way the system could not just take all of their children away.” She turned to face me. “There had to be a bargain, Biko. Because livestock is our livelihood.”
“And your case?”
“Long story short, it took more than a fight.” She gazed upward, and my eyes followed. There was tears forming in the corner of her eyes which she was desperate to hold in. To giver her space, I turn to the window. The next time I glanced at her, the tears were gone, she was smiling, and winked at me. A very strange lady.
Later, Eyanae explained that her shangas were handed down to her younger sister, Tendayi, who had ceaselessly admired the jewelry. This was her bargain. Then she had proceeded to study a degree in economics at Kenyatta University, graduating in 2018. Now, this was her coming back from collecting her certificates in Nairobi. But had failed again because the college was in recess. She rants on about how the system was unfair on their delays to give her clearance. She had to normalize getting more of such treatment in most of Kenyan universities. I tell her. She had to be grateful her college was still functional.
We passed by a dry river bed and I managed to take a shot just in time. But was forced to roll back the windows almost immediately as we entered into a diversion. You would not want to mix heat and dust in a minivan. Some of the passengers, fast asleep, were swaying in rhythm to the rocky terrain of the dirt road. But Eyanae was awake on her phone. So I asked her what was up with the travel documents. “The papers allow the refugees to move in and out of the camps.” She was saying. “Yet once inside, no one even checked them about.”
“So should I be worried of any security threats?” What I really wanted to ask about was the risk of my ID being stolen in Kakuma. “By threats I mean thievery, mugging or night attacks.”
“Not at all,” she replied. “Turkanas are a peaceful lot. They are not the kind to care about such crimes.” She goes ahead to explain that much banditry had reduced mostly due to the disarmament programs. But this did not mean that drivers like John ever stopped for hitchhikers. The fear of hijackings were still looming. Also, the cattle rustling we heard about in the news happened across and along the Kenyan borders with Uganda and Sudan. These regions had a bit of grass that attracted pastoralists from the three countries. With that brought the rustling. But I needed not to be worried of these attacks either because they happened 70Km or so from Kakuma.
We also came across other small towns whose names I cannot recall even though she had had to repeat them word for word. Occasionally, we came by boys grazing herds of goats in the bushes. Some of them had camels too. I had counted about 15 in one herd. Yet Eyanae had shrugged that could not even match up to the ones along the borders. Scattered along the road were also homesteads fenced with thorns. Sometimes they comprised of manyattas. Other times there was a mixture of permanent houses altogether. However, the most common of all houses was of these leaves-covered walls with iron sheet roofing.
When we arrived in Lodwar, it was quater past 11 o’clock. The first thing I wanted was something cold and heavy. And a chance to stretch my legs. I was also tired and hungry. But could not eat anything in the hot sun. We therefore settled for cold strawberry yoghurts and sat in an open veranda across the streets, overlooking our van. There was a gentle breeze and this was refreshing.
Nevertheless, I was not in so much awe at the town as much as I was with the people. Particularly those who walked around on akalas with shuka wraps, dangling bangles on their wrists and ankles. The young men also carried around a peculiar stick and a funny stool over their shoulders. Eyanae identified those were the locals who were yet to adopt civilization. The stick was the distinguishing figure to a man. And the stool, commonly used for sitting, also doubled as a pillow. A wider majority wore westerm clothes, but still maintained a touch of their culture, in the choice of prints and jewelry.
Two tables from us was such a couple, drinking soda and eating fries. The lady had a yellow full dress with the Big Five animal prints. Her hair was braided in small spiky tangles, and a tiny ring plate peeped below her lower lip. The gent in full white kanzu over a pair grey khakis, wore a native black hat and tagged along a golden stud. In the middle finger of his left hand, he wore a strange silverish emblem never seen before. This Eyanae explained was an elephant’s tooth symbolising high economic or social status of the bearer. Either he was an elder to village or a chieftain of some sort. Because, besides the local trade and the livestock keeping, there was a flourishing gold mine in a town, not far from Kakuma, which had raised up a crew of kingpins who now operated the same way as the elders. Yet there was the presence of good money. The buildings were far much decorated for a desert town.
Then I saw this girl, as dark as dark can be, with a series of necklaces around her neck, walking down the street. Starting on her shoulders with a wider base, they climbed up to her chin, each line getting narrower. Forming a multicoloured pyramid of yellows, reds, greens and blacks. They swayed in the wind and danced to her steps. She was a walking rainbow. She also had her hair in the same fiery braids as the lady next to us. But this time they made her look like a young warrior. Head held high, she moved with grace, in sorts of calculated steps. Her shiny black skin radiating all confidence – she was comfortable. Eyanae pointed out that those were the shangas. Then it dawned on where she had gotten that long neck from. We watched her disappear into an alley.
I admit culture had many faces. On one side it was all beautiful, authentic, and touched on our very being. And it was celebrated. Yet flipped over, there was the meanings and values attached to it that made you question our very own humanity. And all over sudden you resented the very thing you had celebrated. This love hate feeling tasted funny in mouth, like salt and sugar mixed together.
“I was about her age, when they took them off.” Eyanae said, casting me out of my reverie.
“Oh.” I struggled. “Did they… Did she enjoy them after?”
“Who? Tendayi?” I nodded. “Very much. And am grateful she did. Otherwise I was afraid of forcing them unto her.”
She pulled in a long slurp of the yoghurt until it made that lapping sound. I stared sternly at her to shake from it. She had this naughty glow on her face. Turned her head away from me, but did not stop there. She pulled on some more. Even our decorated neighbours got startled from their conversation and turned at us. Then she burst out laughing and we all joined in. She was just in her own world. We were in Turkana for heaven’s sake. Do some wild. Or go wild. Under her influence, I let her dip her straw in my yoghurt, and we do more lapping. When it was done we ordered another round.
Honestly, I wanted to ask more on shanga but was not ready to face whatever I would exume. So I went on another way. “What does Tendayi mean in Turkana?”
Instead, she asked why I had not inquired of the local man.
“Since when did one question warranty another?” I protested.
“Since you met me, duh?” Eyanae taunted.
“I first have to see them.” I caved in. “Got my own peace to keep.”
“But so you may know, with them it is their peace over yours.”
“We will see.”
“No. You shall see.”
If that was something I was to be mindful of, she had cleverly hit home.
“So what’s with the name?” Clearly she was giving me a work up.
“The name is Zimbabwean,” Eyanae said, lifting her eyes at me. “Meaning, be thankful to God.”
“Yes. She was perfect.” She drank down this sentence in a quick slurp. A solemn end to us discussing Tendayi. We continued drinking our yoghurts in peaceful silence. Being around her was not that bad. Perhaps I had underrated fun and how enjoyable this place could be.
After awhile, John, the driver, came to our table and informed us that we could not leave just yet. There was so few of us going to Kakuma. As other passengers had reached their destination. So for the next stretch we had to wait for another vehicle with more passengers. It was 30 minutes away. Which was pleasing, because I had not fully rested yet. At this point, Eyanae chooses to let me know the placement of Lodwar in the map. About 250Km to the North was Ethiopia, to Northwest was South Sudan, and to the West was Uganda. Apparently Turkana was the only county in Kenya that bordered 3 countries. This fact really made her proud.
When the awaited van arrived, I was mostly grateful that it was just as spacious and comfy as the previous one. And also got to retain my seat next to Eyanae and John as the driver. The other gentleman had dropped off and another Somali man had taken his place. We were roughly 120Km from Kakuma, about an hour away. Eyanae dozed off almost immediately. This time, John played from a flash disk which he said had cool reggae jams. Eric Donaldson was the first to come in with Traffic Jam. Alike him, we had our ride in a minibus. Only this time there was no traffic and we were in the wild. I busied myself with the landscape. Since I rarely enjoyed daytime naps. Also, we kept getting on and off the tarmac into diversions. So I had to keep shutting and opening the windows now and again to keep the dust out. When we approached another police roadblock, I woke her up to give her identifications.
She explained this as the last check point into Kakuma. And the baddest of them all. Nothing fishy passed here. John having halted, the officer in charge did the same round of confirmations on our ID cards and travel papers. The Somali man climbed down to talk to another officer on the ground then returned back to the van. There was another gentleman who claimed he was a Kenyan but had left his ID in Kakuma. He was asked to say the same in his ethnic language which he did, and the officer interrogates him no further. He requested the Sudanese students who had no papers to step down as before. They were led to a group of officers across the road. This time they take longer than usual. I could see them talking and negotiating with the officers. John did not go to fetch them. Neither did he show any sign to. He remained on the wheels, and let the engine idle. Eyanae had said that the travel papers were the only permit for refugees to enter or leave Kakuma. Without which they risked being arrested for breaking the law. I was afraid the latter was going to happen. And it did. When John is waved, he drove us off slowly without the slightest hesitation.
But for this remaining trip, few words were exchanged between us. Awkwardly, the van remained quiet except for Israel Vibration with the Vultures. They seemed adamant to tell us of the rot in our society. They summed it up into a tale where a rat is running from a cat who was also being chased by a dog. Yet there were vultures waiting to see the great slaughter, so they could climb down and clean up after. Above all this there were other big guys who sat over yonder having all the laughter. These big guys laughed, sipped champagne, and had the best of wine. Ultimately they had assembled to mess up our minds. So the Vultures asked us What are you gonna do now? The rest of us sat in nameless adsorptions. We had just got ourselves a long Friday. Mostly, I pondered over the words of Joseph Addison.
If the minds of men were laid open, we should see but little difference between that of the wise man and that of the fool; There are infinite reveries, numberless extravagances, and a perpetual train of vanities, which pass through both.