Desert Revelations

story and photos by Christopher Clark

 

As the bus eased through the gears, through the green corn fields and farther away from the small terminal in the town of Kitale, I tried to cast my mind back to the beginning, to figure out what it was that had drawn me to the wild and volatile Turkana region of Kenya in the first place. I guessed that the people I would meet once I got there might want to know. But the truth was that I still didn't really have an answer.

I could at least have said that it stemmed from books by long-dead explorers; and that I was looking for something very different; and that Turkana seemed a long way away from pretty much everything I had previously known. At 28 years old I had grown bored of and disillusioned with much of what I had previously experienced. Wasn't that enough reason? 

Either way, it was too late. I was on my way, heading north, already half way there. Soon the bus rose out of the the Rift Valley and gradually left the rich, thick vegetation behind as we entered a place of sparse open space and scorched earth.


The rumours about the poor quality of the dirt road to Turkana were by no means exaggerated. At times the bus seemed to defy physics, leaning precariously to the side, the ground suddenly almost within touching distance of the window. Many of whom I assumed were the more seasoned passengers whooped, laughed and slapped thighs as though it was all part of the fun. I held on to my armrests for dear life.

A few hours into our journey the bus passed a group of five or six men slouched on the sand with T-shirts covering most of their faces like balaclavas and AK-47s slung over their shoulders. As I stared out of the window at them, one of them saw me, stood up, lifted his gun aloft with one hand and waved at me vigorously with the other, and then they were gone.

We arrived at our destination, Lodwar, at a little before 11 p.m., roughly five hours late. Patience is a must for travelling in Kenya.

Though it was the region's capital, in reality Lodwar was little more than a small, sleepy town of simple wooden huts with corrugated iron roofs, bisected by sandy dirt roads. 

The next morning I found a local guide named Jackson and we hiked into the desert to see some of the more traditional Turkana tribal villages. We bought water and food as well as khat, a mild amphetamine that the Turkana chew almost incessantly to keep energy levels up and conversation flowing. Then we were off.

Within ten or fifteen minutes we were out of Lodwar and had soon left behind all traces of it. Desert stretched ahead of us like a great ocean with hills rising in the far distance like giant waves. We chewed the khat and maintained a good pace.

By 6 p.m. we had made it to our destination. We approached a small gathering of huts, the walls made of branches and the roofs of reeds. An elderly man sat and observed us quietly from its perimeter. A few children emerged from the huts but when they saw me they screamed and ran back inside. The old man spoke to Jackson. I asked him to translate.

“He says no white man has ever come here.” 

Behind the village I noticed a small building with a corrugated roof and iron pillars. I went to investigate. It was a small church. Inside on the sand were benches and chairs and at the front a small school desk served as the altar.

A man was striding purposefully towards us from a solitary hut behind the church. As he drew near he opened his arms.

“God bless you, my children,” he said in English, “I am the parson of this church. My name is Kumalo. Welcome to Lokoyo.” 

Kumalo took us to his hut and gave us water that resembled weak tea. He told us that he came from Kitale to Lokoyo on a mission to spread the word of God to the Turkana. He built the church himself from scratch. It had been difficult to gain any funding and much of his meagre life savings had gone into the building. His family was still in Kitale.

"Life is hard here," he explained, "the rains are failing. The drought is getting worse. Goats and cattle are dying and people are starving. Two children in the village have died in the last month from malnourishment. But at least I can bring God into their lives. And God can give them hope. He can save them. I have made it my mission to show them this”.

Kumalo's eyes seemed sad, almost desperate. He had struggled so hard and seen so little fruit. Things were getting worse. I wanted to help, but how? Nobody was helping him. He was alone.


It soon became apparent that he did not want us to leave. He made increasingly desperate attempts to prolong the conversation when it seemed to have run its natural course.

I realised that he was convinced I was there to help him, that his prayers had been answered. And not for the first time in Kenya, I had to apologise and say that I didn't think there was anything I could do. 

We returned to the village and the old man said to Jackson that we could spend the night there but that unfortunately they were unable to provide us with any food. No one in the village had eaten for a week.

The old man gave us sweet tea in hand-carved wooden cups. We sat and drank together in silence. I noticed some markings on the old man’s right arm, bumps like those that ridge a crocodile's hide. I asked what they signified.

“It means he has killed,” Jackson said

I asked Jackson to ask how old the old man was.

“He says he doesn’t know.”

I wondered how the old man perceived someone like Jackson. Jackson was a Turkana and had told me he came from a village not unlike the old man's. Yet while the old man wore the distinctive, colourful checked cloth of the Turkana around his waist and was otherwise naked besides a few traditional pieces of copper jewellery, Jackson, by contrast, wore jeans and a T-shirt with a beanie hat. Jackson had a phone and an e-mail address.  Jackson went to school in Kitale and wanted to go to Nairobi and study law. The old man had never even been to Lodwar. He spoke only Turkana whereas Jackson could switch with ease between Turkana, Kiswahili and English.

They were perhaps the past and the future of Turkana sitting side by side. How much longer could they both co-exist in this world? Villages like the old man's seemed to be fading. Jackson and others of his generation seemed to be gradually leaving this life behind as they looked to stride off into the modern world. But at what cost? And was there any other way?

As I sipped my tea and the sun slowly moved below the desert horizon, I became aware that it was not up to outsiders like me to answer such questions. And a part of me thought that maybe it wasn't up to God either.

 

Christopher Clark is a freelance journalist, writer and wanderer based in Cape Town. In 2012, he was voted one of South Africa’s best young writers by The Big Issue Magazine. To find out more, visit www.cawclark.com

 

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