"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Lake Turkana Finale – Ritual Hecatomb and a Boatful of Fish

The monotony of my forced sojourn in Soricho, which I have described previously, was broken by two noteworthy events.

First was the arrival of two British travellers in a land-rover. It was just after midday and I was snoozing happily in the shade on the said mattress, when a group of children darted into my haven yapping excitedly, and politely - yet insistently - dragged me out. I was only half-awake, slightly confused and blinded by the blazing white sun so I proceeded cautiously towards a blue jeep parked in the middle of the village. The men saw me approach. If the look of utter disbelief in their eyes is anything to go by, I must have been a rare sight. Shaggy hair, half-closed eyes, black skirt hastily tied around my hips, and a throng of children who formed a moving cloud around me as I walked lazily towards them, must have made me seem more like a tribal witch than a fellow-traveller. They looked like tough guys, and they were doing a slightly more original than most “Clapham Common to Cape” route in their land-rover, but they freely admitted, after hearing of what I was doing in this middle of nowhere and how I got there, that I was, to use their vernacular expression, “the one with balls of steel”.

While I was flattered, I have to say, for the record, that at no point was the whole Northern Adventure particularity harrowing or dangerous – of course it’s easy to say so in hindsight when everything turned out well, but in truth a single mother with a toddler in tow could easily have done it. In any case, we talked about a camping site in Clapham Common I stayed at a few years back, the unbearable heat of the desert (i.e. the weather), and directions (follow the dirt truck, between the two big acacias turn left and then slightly uphill) to Illoret where they were headed. The whole experience was surreal and I could have just as well dreamt it. But I politely waved my apparition goodbye as it vanished slowly in the white cloud of dust.

The second event was much more exciting but more perplexing. On the second day I was woken up with the sunrise by the sound of hooting and shouting. It did not sound particularly threatening but I decided to get dressed quickly and see what’s going on. As the clamour came closer, I saw a group of men, half naked but with interesting head-dress, jog in line, spears, sticks and hooting devices (trumpets? vuvuzelas?) in hand. It looked like a cross between a military morning drill and a rain dance. They jogged briskly around our kraal, made a lot of noise, disappeared behind other huts, still making a lot of noise, only to return a few minutes later and jog in the opposite direction, still noisily.

I was very baffled indeed. The hooting was slowly dying down in the distance. My companions were still asleep, the village seemed to be only just stirring, and I was barely half-awake. I considered crawling back to my tent and pretending it was just a dream but my curiosity got the best of me. I closed my tent hurriedly and rushed out of the kraal in pursuit of the jogging warriors. At first, I was trying to look casual and vaguely dignified so I walked, albeit swiftly, through the village. Soon however, I realised that will never get me in line with the running men; moreover, the children, who, as usual, took no time to crowd around me, obviously realized what I was after and were nudging and prodding me to go faster. In face of such peer pressure I broke into a run.

Now, it is worth mentioning that I strongly dislike the idea of jogging; non-competitive ‘as fast as your legs will take you’ running is slightly more fun but a rather pointless endeavour, hardly worth the name of a sport. I am by no means very fit or used to any kind of prolonged physical exertion. But this run felt divine.

The air was still delightfully cool and clear of dust, the sun was low on the horizon and all the short shrubs, little rocks and animal bones over which I daintily hopped were basked in a soft orange glow. Soft wind whistled in my ears, competing with the joyful squeals of the children accompanying me and the staccato of their little feet. I was surprised to find that after a few minutes of medium paced running I did not feel tired or out of breath. I sped up, leaving the children behind me, save for three older boys who were obviously challenging me to keep up with them. We raced towards the warriors, jumping over the bushes, bones and morning shadows. I felt alive, refreshed and very, very happy.

Only for a moment did my step falter as I remember Abrdizzak’s warnings about snakes and scorpions, apparently abundant in the area. The realization of the hazards made me very conscious of the absurdity of my chase – after all I did not know for how long, where to and to what end the phantom joggers were running. For all I knew they could be the official Kenyan marathon team or a cattle-raid party – and then what? But as I was still enjoying the run I dismissed my fears. Besides, no scorpion or snake would have been silly enough to remain on the path of so much stomping, or so I reckoned.

After over 15 minutes of running, which is more than I had done in years, we caught up with the warriors. They were surprised to see me but did not pause; I was very uncertain of what I should do. I did not want to just join their procession in case I was violating any taboos – there were no women among their number – and I did not want to give the impression I am mocking them by doing what they were doing. But if I wanted to keep up I had to jog with them. I decided to keep smiling, keep a little distance and keep running. The little boys cheered me on.

The party of joggers was some fifteen-twenty men strong; they were all fairly young, apart from a middle aged man who was leading the procession. His cloak was red, his head-dress most elaborate and he held a white stick with which he would rhythmically hit the ground as he intoned the lead of the chant. They would jog for a minute and then walk for thirty seconds. Every now and again a part of the group would break away from the main body and run slightly faster in a roundabout way and then rejoin the procession. Slowly, I began to grasp the point of the exercise, or at least I thought so. They seemed to be an invitation party, or heralds if you will, running through different mini-villages to let everyone know that an event is about to take place. More and more people were joining our procession – some joined the runners, other slowly gathered on the fringes. Women also appeared, but they did not run, only formed little circular groups in which they chanted and rhythmically rattled little plastic medicine bottles with coins or stones inside.

The second task of the runners was to provide the animals for the forthcoming event. We would run straight into a herd of goats or sheep, the frenzied animals bleating and blenching in fear all around us as the men chased the biggest and fattest ones. They would catch them by a leg, tie a string to around their neck and then shepherd them along with us back to the main procession. After about forty minutes of such routine we were already a very formidable crowd of warriors in line, children in tow, women on the fringes, goats in between and one fat white bull in front led by the mzee in the red cloak. We marched for a while back towards my village and then stopped in a circle of huts where another crowd of men, bulls and goats, was assembled.

Still uncertain of what’s going on, I watched the spectacle unfold. The men were gathered in semi-circle around the animals, the women were standing in a tight group a little way off, performing the characteristic neck-jerking dance, in which you hop from one leg onto the other, back straight and let your jaw jolt forward making your necklaces dance and rattle (video demonstrates the type but was taken elsewhere, among the Somburu tribe). Most of the women were bare-breasted, their necks and faces painted with ochre; they held the little plastic bottles filed with stones in their hands as rattles. One of them, obviously concerned at my lack of sense of rhythm, pressed one of those bottles in my hand and demonstrated when to rattle and when to jump. My sense of rhythm is almost as bad as my running stamina, but if I closed my eyes and tried to let the chanting guide me I could just about keep up with the dance to the utter delight and amusement of the other women.

In the meantime the men were killing the goats and cows. It was a bloody spectacle, and I will spare the reader the gory details. Enough to mention that they would first try to knock the beast unconscious by a stick hit on the forehead and then bleed it by a small neck incision. Soon, over fourteen carcasses would be lying in concentric semi-circles on green branches. The goats were being killed without much ado; the bulls on the other hand were first forced on their knees and then, when they were down and held fast, one of the dancing women would come over and dance faster and faster around the bull. Her head would jerk uncontrollably, her arms would fly about wildely and her body would tremble in trance as she approached the bull to place an item of her clothing or jewellery on its horns or neck. Usually by that point her frenzy would be so great, shouts so vociferous and movements so chaotic that she would have to be caught and held fast by her companions. Two of the women collapsed entirely, white foam dripping from their mouths, their eyeballs rolled up and their bodies twitching convulsedly in the dirt. I admit freely I was a little scared.

This went on for over an hour, with over twelve bulls being sacrificed, and I still did not understand the reasons behind it. I tried to enquire but in vain. All I could say in Dassanech language was ‘a cow’ – a word highly relevant to the occasion but unfortunately not bringing in any additional information. All they could do was nod as I pointed, grinned and enunciated. Yes, these indeed are cows. I felt like an idiot.

I decided to go back to the village and ask if Abdrizzak knows anything about the reasons behind this hecatomb. He did indeed, or so he claimed. Apparently, this was an offering in hope of a successful raid; or rather a joint celebration cleansing the family from committed past crimes and ensuring its raiding fortune. I do wonder. If there is an anthropologist reading I would very much appreciate your thoughts on what was that that I have seen. Unfortunately, I cannot provide any pictures for I have rushed out of my tent entirely unprepared leaving my camera behind in a rare act of utter idiocy.

Despite such attractions at the end of third day I was desperate to leave Soricho and cross the Lake. Abdoud and Abdrizzak left on their truck but before they did they had ensured me that there would be a boat going the next day at dawn and all I need to do is to talk to the owner in the morning to discuss the price of passage. I had bad feelings about it, but to my surprise the boat was there and ready to leave at daybreak the next day. The haggling I have described here (47.); for now it suffices to say that finally, after two and a half days of forced sojourn in the middle of nowhere, I was led to the shores of the lake to embark on the boat that, against all odds and warnings of the naysayers, would take me across the treacherous waters of Lake Turkana.

I did not expect the boat to be QEII or the passage to be smooth as punting on the Cam but I was quite unprepared for what followed. As we got to the boat it turned out that this decrepit nutshell with a tiny engine is already packed to the rim (literally) with what – I was informed reliably – was 6,600 dried and salted fish, stacked beautifully in two piles. I was urged to clamber onto the fish and make myself comfortable. Three other men and the driver were seated on the other pile, I had to share mine with no one but one little, wet and indignant goat. I made myself as comfortable as it was humanly possible while lying on dried fish and tried not to think about it.

It is now clear why some people had warned me about the Lake. When we set off its face was smooth and pristine. But as the morning wind picked up and we ventured onto the open waters the waves grew to seriously threatening heights. I am not feint hearted, and I do love water, but – as the waves rolled over our little boat, their splashes drenching absolutely everything onboard – I must admit I felt rather uncomfortable, haphazardly sliding to and fro on the now remoistened, slippery and very stinky fish. I was not scared of drowning but the thought of the many crocs inhabiting the Lake made me hold on to the fish rather tightly. It was a very long four hours.

It was a very long four hours but we made it to the other shore safely. I was there greeted by the chief of Loralang, treated royally, and put on a transport to Lodwar, from where I could, inshallah, get a transport to Sudan. It took me a week, but I have managed to traverse the deserts from Marsabit, cross the famed Lake Turkana and make it to the Sudanese boarder safe and sound, even if a little smelly.

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