Kenya: Eldoret, Lake Baringo
The road north from Eldoret to Lake Baringo marks a distinct transition from equatorial rains to the drier, desert climate of Northern Kenya. Lush greenery gradually gives way to spiky succulents and the red earth adopts a more powdery consistency.
This is also the turning point in our journey. To the North of Lake Baringo the increasingly rough road leads towards the wilderness of Lake Turkana and, ultimately, into Ethiopia. While in an ideal world we would have loved to continue on this route we had long since decided that the risks outweighed the benefits. This northern part of Kenya continues to be blighted by bandit attacks and border closures, and we have heard recent reports of cars being caught in the cross-fire. So Baringo is as far North as we will venture on this trip. But with so much to see in this part of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, this is perhaps no bad thing.
As we pulled up at *Roberts Camp* the first thing we noticed was that the lake’s waters were lapping the bar and several “bandas” (sleeping huts) were totally flooded up to their roofs. This was, it turned out, the result of the lake having risen an unprecedented 3 metres after an abnormally long wet season.
As we sat at the bar wondering whether to stay or go, we saw the blinking eyes of a hippo break the surface of the water just a few metres away. It was wallowing on what had been lawn just a few months before. With no other camping options we decided to stay in the somewhat poorly equipped campsite near the main building, partially compensating ourselves with a mediocre pizza overlooking the swollen lakeshore.
Wanting to make the most of our time here, we began the next day with a dawn boat trip out on the lake. This was a beautiful experience as the sun rose behind the lake’s three islands, bathing the western shore in a gentle golden glow. Hippos bobbed on the surface before disappearing out of sight and an incredible variety of birds began their daily routine along the lakeshore. This trip also showed the extent of the damage caused by the flooding – a formally exclusive lodge lay abandoned in the waters, it’s now hollow shell plundered of its fittings and even its roof and timbers.
Next on the agenda was a visit to a nearby Pokot village. The Pokot are one of Kenya’s lesser known tribes, accounting for only 0.1% of the population. They also do not share the limelight enjoyed by their southerly counterparts – the Maasai. This, together with the fact that they have only been formally introduced to tourists for 7 years, made them a highlight of our visit to this region. We hired a local guide (Julius) to direct us along the unmarked bush tracks and to act as interpreter for our 1 hour visit.
Julius began by explaining the presence of a brick building standing incongruously among the mud huts – aid agencies have been funding the construction of these permanent dwellings in the hope of settling these nomadic people and thereby reducing the bloody cattle herding conflicts that have escalated between here and Lake Turkana. Not surprisingly, the Pokot have completely rejected the modern buildings believing them to be too dangerous as their tin roofs and brick walls muffle the sound of approaching hostile tribes. So the brick building is used only for storage, and the traditional sleeping arrangements prevail. All males over 2 years old sleep outside next to the cattle kraal, while the women sleep together in the round huts. These mud huts are cleverly constructed around a wooden frame which is bare during the hot dry season to maximise air flow, and then daubed with mud during the wet season to provide protection from the elements.
As with most tribes, the clothing was an eclectic mix of traditional garments and improvised accessories, in this case flip-flops made from car tyres and belts made from seat belts.
Julius showed us into "Grandmother's" house and showed us all her possessions, including her rucksack, water carrier, necklace and more. In this village grandma is also the custodian of the sugar - which is kept in the tin box on the right!
The boys and women in the village then started singing and dancing, which was fascinating. They sang and clapped and used bells attached to their knees to beat out the rhythm. They had a similar style of dancing to the Maasai, where they jump to the music. At one point they even let us join in!
Julius also explained the problems associated with marriage dowry to us. In this region dowries are still required to be paid to the bride’s father in livestock, but all too often, in greater numbers than the hopeful suitor owns. The only solution is to beg, steal and borrow as many cattle and goats as he can get his hands on. Often this leads to violent raids on other tribes with the four legged bounty being rustled straight back to the unsuspecting father-in-law to be. Dowry paid, and bride safely secured, the unscrupulous groom makes off before the inevitable reprisal catches up with his in-laws (by following the cattle tracks to his house.) Though an age-old practise, which has always been something of a rite of passage for young men, these skirmishes are no longer fought with knives and spears. Rather, the proliferation of guns which have made their way in from Somalia, has resulted in a marked escalation of the death toll. Fathers beware: always credit check your daughter’s boyfriends!