Pokot communities are notorious across East Africa for their supposedly combative, violent nature. Perceived as fearless warriors and cattle herders, legend has it that the Pokot are willing to lose a limb to defend their bovine companions.
“We are a very peaceful community,” says Edna Kaptoyo, a Pokot civil society leader, who resents the stereotyping of her community. “We do not retaliate even when provoked several times.”
The Pokot trace their origins back to southern Ethiopia, before migrating southwards to Kenya some 2,000 years ago. The Pokot today reside in northwestern Kenya, as well as in eastern Uganda where they are known as the Karapokot.
Even if stereotypes about violence are inaccurate, it is true that cattle are indispensable to the Pokot.
Tradition dictates that herds are divided amongst Pokot families, to ensure everyone is protected against hardship. When drought and hunger strike, or when there is a special ceremony or ritual to undertake, the Pokot are obliged to donate cattle to those in need.
A contract is effectively formed between two families in this instance. If you donate a cattle to your neighbour when he is in need, he is later required to gift a calf to you once the cattle you donated has given birth. It is also forbidden for a woman to marry into any home which received a cattle donation from her family.
While it is widely assumed that the Pokot live exclusively in Kenya’s dry and infertile plains with their cattle, Kaptoyo is eager to point out that this is also a misperception. The Hill Pokot live in the rainy highlands and practice farming. “You may be surprised to learn that we grow crops, such as watermelon,” she says.
In stark contrast to modern intensive farming techniques, the Pokot are sustainable custodians of the land, soil and its fertility. They are careful to use only a limited tract of the territories they control at any one time for cattle grazing, preserving the rest to protect its soil fertility for future grazing.
There is a natural synergy between the Pokot people and their environment. For example, the Pokot know when drought is imminent by observing the behaviour of local animals and plants – providing a signal for the community to move. Watering points are considered sacred to the Pokot, and it is banned to cut down certain trees which have spiritual value.
These Pokot values and culture revolve around Tororot – their supreme being or god. Ceremonies are regularly held in his honour, to celebrate a good harvest for example.
One of the most important such ceremonies is known as saintagh’, which Kaptoyo describes a deeply spiritual occasion “bringing the Pokot nation together.” Saintagh’ is the culmination of a year of preparations and is organised every June. Only the the Talai clan within the Pokot tribe are entitled to lead the ceremony.
“Saintagh” is a serious occasion for appeasing Tororot, which helps in mitigating a natural disaster like famine, drought or floods, and averting bad omens in the future,” explains Kaptoyo.
However, these Pokot traditions and customs are coming into conflict with modernity and urbanisation. Younger generations are less aware of these traditions and rites of passage; “my brothers do not know how to negotiate for dowry on behalf of their sisters or nieces, which is their responsibility as male members of the family,” says Kaptoyo.
Kaptoyo has proposed that a ‘school of living traditions’ be created, for young Pokot to learn about their culture and history. She is deeply committed to challenging stereotypes about the Pokot, perhaps east Africa’s most misunderstood community, and to ensuring that their heritage is protected.