Once upon a time in Kotulpough

Usually, a single thrust of the spear should kill the bull. It is directed to the heart. For Lokortacha however, he had to make several attempts at bringing the bull down…

Welcoming ceremony at the church

It’s a beautiful village. Locals live in peace across the plain, undisturbed by what happens beyond their horizons. People here know only one language: Pokot. Everyone speaks it, including the youngest, and perfectly at that. Their tones and intonation are lyrical. When they speak, you’d lean in to try and grasp every detail which would mostly be lost in translation. It’s their medium of understanding, as it is a way to keep everything about them secret, and sacred. It’s their identity. I was drawn to not only the landscape of this place they call home, but also their unique and beautiful way of life.
You’d have to travel over 90km from the Kainuk-Lodwar highway to find this little-known village in Kotulpough. In place of a road is a dusty path that’s been made by a few vehicles, people who’ve dared to come this far. That junction at the highway marks the end of a lot of what we enjoy, we the outsiders. It’s mostly a lonely path, lined by shrubs and thickets. A hare would dash across once in a while, or a wild dog we saw once in the evening, probably out on a hunt one moonlit evening. You’d also come across a large herd of cattle, grazing gracefully across the plain. Anthills here challenge giraffes in height, they are the first to see the sunrise. They’re visible from a distance, towering above the acacia trees, the dominant vegetation here.

A church welcomes you to this village. It’s the only thing from the outside that has gotten here. It’s barely a year old. It is mud walled, with iron roofing. It doesn’t have doors and windows fitted yet. Every Sunday, faithfuls gather here to worship. The shepherd of this flock is not from among the community. He comes from the hills in the horizon to the west, from around Turkwel, over 100 kilometers away. Missionaries got him a motorcycle, which he uses to get to his flock.

We were received well. Women sang and danced. Their colorful beaded necklaces and headgears swaying in unrivaled unison. Their songs spoke of great joy. In their eyes, a glimmer of hope.

For many who have never been to this, and I believe many other villages away from urbanization, what I’ll write here will seem exaggerated. There’s no school here for the children of this community to access basic education. The nearest school is over 100 kilometers away. Those who’ve been able to acquire primary education are those who had relatives who live close to those schools 100 kilometers away. You wouldn’t miss the desire in the eyes of the young girls and boys to learn. Their awe in seeing cars cutting through their land, while they’re out grazing their animals. There’s no health facility here either. They rely on traditional and herbal medicine for their health needs. This is part of Masol Ward, Sigor Constituency, Pokot Central, bordering Turkana County to the east.

The community here has a lot to catch up on, considering the inequalities that already exist. We are here to continue the conversation about ending harmful cultural practices. Introducing to this community the fact that FGM is not only outlawed, but also a violation of girls’ rights, and that child marriage is a crime as it robs children of their potential in life. Everyone, including local leaders and community influencers can express themselves in only one language. Don’t get it twisted, I am a proponent of taking pride in, understanding, teaching our young and communicating in our first languages. I love the beauty and diversity of our local dialects. Language is a vehicle through which culture is passed down from generation to the next. It is a reservoir of culture and heritage, our identity. This is perfect, internally. In a fast changing world however, and considering this is the 21st century, they should be able to express themselves in Swahili at the very least, to help communicate and interact with the outside world. They are not to blame. They know little about what exists beyond the plains. Children only play and play, as well as look after goats and sheep. Young men take the cattle to graze far out beyond the horizon. You’d see them at dusk. Bells on the cows necks would signal their return. You’ll see camels too, a lot of them. There are 2 or 3 motorcycles in this village. The only form of motorized transport. Otherwise people walk for very long distances to water their livestock, get water for domestic use and to look for pasture.

You’d be mistaken to think that very few people live here until you attend a cultural ceremony. They haven’t forgotten or lost any part of their culture. We got to attend one such ceremony, well, at least we got to witness part of it. While the males undergo circumcision, there are other ceremonies they can take part in as they transition from one stature to another in society. One among these is the Sapana ceremony. Although circumcision is the main initiation ritual among the Pokot people, men among the pastoralist group also have the sapana initiation ceremony and an accompanying Sapana age-set system due to fear of imminent raids from the neighboring ethnic groups as they regard it a security risk to circumcise a big part of their young men together making them vulnerable to fight during raids. Many young men also perform Sapana, not as an initiation into adulthood, but as an optional ceremony in order to have a ritual of blessing performed on their behalf, to strengthen the foundation of their marriages, and their status in the society. They undergo the ritual often between circumcision and marriage or after marriage.

There are many activities that make up the Sapana ceremony. The most iconic one, and often strange to outsiders, is the spearing of the ox, or ram, or goat. We got the rare opportunity to witness this first hand.

A group of women and other community members going to witness the spearing of the bull

5 bulls were huddled in a small kraal at a clearing. Men, both young and old (who had undergone the rite) were sitting on their three-legged stools around a fireplace on one side. Women watched from a distance. It is an exercise that’s not usually permitted to outsiders, so we count ourselves lucky to have been allowed to be there to witness, and to even take photos, videos.

Lokortacha stood there with his spear. It was time to prove he could do it. He had a glaring wound on his left knee sustained from a motorbike accident. His fathers and other elders were there to offer guidance. He got into the kraal, and after being shown the bull he was supposed to spear, it all began.

Some people can’t stand the slaughter of any animal. Here is a situation where a fully grown bull is being speared. The requirement is that it is done in one thrust, all the while, when it’s among other bulls, without making a mistake. The odds couldn’t be higher. Some of my friends couldn’t watch as it happened, so they went away when it started. Others were emotional, many were shocked at the level of ‘brutality’.

Lokortacha being shown which bull to spear by an elder

5 bulls in a tiny enclosure of thorns. They have sensed danger so obviously, they’re running around in circles. You have a knee injury so you have to watch your step even as you try to accomplish a major milestone. Then your father and other men are shouting at you to do it the right way. No prior training is done, so you are really on your own here, and a lot can go wrong.

Suffice to say, Lokartacha didn’t kill the bull in one thrust. He injured the very bull and another in the process. Amid shouts and the confusion that ensued after the missed shots, he finally got his spear through the heart of the bull. It was painful to watch. After he pulled out the spear, the bull jumped over the thorny hedge and fell with a thud, a few meters away from the shed, dead. Ululations filled the clearing. Something wrong had happened though, and to appease the gods, another animal was to be killed. It was a goat this time. It was also subjected to the same spearing process, not slaughter. He held the goat’s hind leg with one hand, and used the other to spear it. I couldn’t stand it this time.

The mother and a few other women then smear the young man with ghee stored in horns. They apply it all over his head, hands and legs, as well as the spear as a blessing. What follows are ceremonial rituals, elders and young men who have gone through the Sapana rite drink blood from the bull. Meat is roasted and other activities follow, to complete the whole Sapana ceremony.

 

 

Although our stay was cut short and we couldn’t get a chance to witness what would happen after, we left Kotulpough appreciating the role culture plays in shaping who we are. The community lives far away from in dry semi-arid lands that experience very little rainfall annually and is characterized by constant drought, thus hunger not to mention diseases. Albeit their circumstances, they remain united, embracing the little changes in their community one day at a time.

Domtila Chesang addressing locals at the church building during the visit

Working with other partners and stakeholders, I-Rep Foundation, a locally initiated community based organization in the area is making huge strides in as far as education of the girl is concerned. Since inception it has been championing for the rights of girls who seem to be the most vulnerable members of this community. The CBO is a frontline grassroots organization working to change the narrative about the Pokot girl child by ensuring that the community is sensitized on the negative implications of harmful cultural practices like female genital mutilation and child marriages.

During this visit the organization had embarked on taking the first children from Kotulpough to school after several previous visits and work done. Since there are no schools around the children had to be taken away from their homes to Ortum Girls boarding primary school which the organization partners with. This initiative was hugely embraced by the local community who came out in numbers registering their children for this very rare opportunity to see their children live a life different from the hardship they were used to.

 

Domtila Chesang, I-Rep Foundation

With very limited capacity and serious financial constraints the organization could only take 6 for a start. Few months later the number has tripled. I spoke to Domtila Chesang the founder and CEO of the CBO and she sounded stressed up.

 We are overwhelmed, I am almost regretting why I started this idea but we are keeping hope alive while fighting one day at a time

 

 

She told me that some people had been so kind to offer some support but it’s not enough the girls are not only being provided safe refuge but also given education and they have daily needs.

How do you tell a girl NO, when she clearly says she doesn’t want to be cut and married but want an education instead? How do you tell her NO I can’t support you? Because she will definitely be cut and married off at 12 or 14.

The first cohort is now able to write their names and are determined to catch up with their classmates, they can now comprehend and speak Swahili. The main challenge is sustaining the already received girls in school throughout the year as the organization finds ways of managing the new numbers coming from the villages.

While this is a noble initiative by I-Rep Foundation, there is need to call upon the leadership to take responsibility and ensure the right to education for the children of Kotulpough is granted. Those boys and girls deserve an education in order to be able to meet their aspirations and to be able to change the story of their homeland, Kotulpough.

If you have an interesting story you’d want to share, write to me via: stories@yegonemmanuel.com

News Reporter
Emmanuel Yegon is an all-round communicator who is passionate about photography, poetry, broadcast journalism and digital strategy. He is committed to growth in the field of communication and best practice of journalism. Co-Founder and Communications Director ~ Mobile Journalism Africa www.mobilejournalism.co.ke

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