Friday, February 24, 2012

February 24, 2012. Road trip to Northern Kenya -- Elliot's first public reading of Laibon: An Anthropologist's Journey.

Elliot and Marty with Kanikis and family at their house in Northern Kenya

Greetings from Hawassa!

We returned Tuesday night filthy, exhausted and sore from our 9-day trip to Northern Kenya. But it was well worth the arduous effort. Elliot was able to see and talk to his adopted brother Kanikis (“Lembelen” of his book Laibon: An Anthropologist’s Journey and his great friend Lugi (“Dominic”) and their friends and family. 

Heading south, Oromiya Ethiopia
Sidama coffee area, Ethiopia, with ensete trees in back

Getting into southern lowlands, Boran camels

Market day
We left on Monday February 13 in the easiest and loveliest leg of the journey, a car ride through Southern Ethiopia to Moyale. It took us through the hilly, forested coffee lands of the Sidama, featured in the documentary Black Gold about the exploitation of Ethiopian coffee growers by the multinational coffee companies. The land is green, with coffee bushes and ensete plants (“false banana” – an amazingly hardy, staple crop) interspersed with maize and vegetable gardens. And the ubiquitous cattle and goats wander through fields and around the brightly-painted wattle and daub houses. Very nice.
Then we descended and the landscape became dryer as we reached the border town of Moyale. Camels became more common than cattle and were herded among the acacia trees and brush by Boran (the pastoral version of Oromo) boys and men. We made it to Moyale that night after an argument with our driver who wanted to stop at 3 pm halfway there. Moyale, Ethiopia, is a depressed and fairly ugly border town across from Moyale, Kenya, which is far worse. The paved road stops at the border and so does all semblance of civility. Without understanding what we were getting into, on Tuesday morning we hopped into a Bajaj (moped taxi) at the border which took us a quarter of a mile to the Moyale, Kenya town square and the driver charged us $12 for the ride! We were delivered into the waiting hands of the owner of a huge lorry set to carry sacks of grain and other lumpy stuff south to Marsabit and beyond. Again not appreciating what we were undertaking, we accepted a ride in the back of the lorry on top of those lumpy sacks, for 6 times the price that our other 20-or-so co-passengers were paying. We climbed up the 15 feet into the back and eventually took off. 

Crossing into Kenya, end of paved road!
Companions for 11 hours, Somali mother and 5 children (yes she does look young - may have a co-wife)
The passengers were the better part of the deal. There was a Somali family with five children, the oldest a 12-yo girl and the youngest an infant. They were animated and made the most of the dust, the heat, the bone-rattling bouncing on the rocky, rutted, and corrugated unpaved road. The father of this group, an army sergeant returning to his base, asked “What is the limit of family size in America? Three? Here I have seven children! Ha Ha!” (We can see our daughter Leah groaning.) There were other men of all ages, some of them choosing to sit under the wickedly hot sun just behind the truck's cab. We rode for a total of twelve hours that way, stopping once at the desert town Turbi for goat stew and a choo (toilet) that would make a reasonable person choose bowel impaction. Now that was an ugly town. We got to witness the famously-corrupt Kenya police in action there, when passengers got in a fight at the water tank and the cops came to arrest one or more of the fighters. They then demanded that the truck passengers pay a bribe to let the fighters go. Money must have changed hands because we got on our way again. We stopped again near sunset because three motorcyclists – two Dutch men and a New Zealander woman – had stopped in the road because one of their bikes had broken. Charging the bikers a fairly exorbitant fee, the driver loaded all three bikes and bikers into our already-overloaded lorry and we rumbled off.

Travel companion
Everybody comfy? Not really!
Journey ending, arriving in Marsabit
Gritty, hot and grumpy, we finally made it into Marsabit, but the hotel where we were to have stayed was full and a man led us to a smaller hotel without running water in the center of town. Again, the price for the room doubled as we crossed the threshold, but we weren't about to argue. 
Downtown Marsabit
Uptown Marsabit
That was Valentine's Day, and things couldn't get much worse. Instead, they got a whole lot better. The next morning we were able to contact Elliot's longtime friend and interpreter, Daniel Lemoille, a Rendille school-teacher and administrator. We changed hotels, met him and then were met by Elliot's dear friend Lugi. It was a joyous reunion. Lugi is 80 but he acts like he is 40, wiry and constantly moving. We ate more goat-meat stew and chapatis and then sat in our new room (with running water) and Elliot held his first public reading of the Laibon book, to Lugi and his teenage son and son's friend, with Daniel translating. It was very touching, and Lugi was definitely moved. They had shared lives many years ago and Lugi loved hearing Elliot's descriptions and seeing the pictures in the copy of the book that El gave him. (Lugi and Kanikis are both on the cover of the book.)

Elliot meeting Lugi Lengesen, his friend of 38 years
First Reading of Laibon: An Anthropologist's Journey, with Lugi, Daniel Lemoille, and Lugi's son and friend
He likes it!

That afternoon we took a few-hour trip into Marsabit game park via a taxi where we saw no elephants but were surrounded by thousands of butterflies and were led along the road by a large hawk. In town we bought items that we realized were essential for 60-somethings bouncing on unpaved roads in the desert – pillows!
The next morning Lugi, Daniel and we climbed on a bus to take us to the town of Merille. The bus was crowded and hot but it beat the lorry by a mile. We spotted an elephant on the side of a hill as we left Marsabit. (Good eye, El!) We reached Merille, a desert town with a reputation for banditry, in the afternoon and walked the two miles to Kanikis' small village (manyatta) by a mostly dry riverbed in the desert. Kanikis met us about half-way and there was another happy reunion.

Two mile walk up riverbed to Kanikis' manyatta
Elliot and adopted brother Kanikis the Laibon (medicine man)

He was not looking great. He had gained a lot of weight and he had many cuts made to his back, as local medicine to treat fatigue. But he had recently had malaria and was probably anemic. Back at his village he slaughtered a goat, so he could drink the blood to regain his strength, and he could feed Daniel, Lugi and us.
Kanikis’ village had expanded, as had what Elliot calls his “sorcery hospital”, which consisted of fourteen small houses made in a temporary fashion with palm leaves over a wooden stick frame. Here families cared for members who had been brought to Kanikis for treatment of various ailments. Elliot and Daniel spoke to several of the patients. One was a 17-year old girl who spoke fluent English. She said her left leg and arm had swollen and were very painful, but no hospital could treat it. Her parents persuaded her to get treatment from the laibon, and she had been here about a week. She told us that Kanikis threw his gourd of stones in a divination which revealed that a man whose marriage proposal she had rejected had found a laibon to sell him sorcery poisons to use against the girl. The girl, Zana, said she wanted to finish high school and did not want to marry him (someone probably chosen by her father to begin with). Kanikis treated her with herbal baths and tea, and she said she was already feeling better. She said she would stay there about two months, and pay Kanikis 1000 shillings ($12).
Later Elliot asked Kanikis to explain how the sorcery works. Elliot said “When I put a pot of water on a fire I can see it boil, but I cannot see how this sorcery works.” Kanikis said, in a very satisfying quote, “We Africans believe in the power of curses and blessings. It works the same way. I can show you how I do it but I do not want to do a bad thing.” Later he went into a detailed account of how he made and combated his sorcery medicines. He said he would only tell this to Elliot and Daniel, but no one else. This is what Kanikis has done for the past 38 years since Elliot met him as a boy of 8. (For that story, adds Elliot, read Laibon – An Anthropologist’s Journey!!) 

Kanikis checks out Laibon book, likes what he sees
In addition to Kanikis' manyatta, we visited the adjacent small village of Lugi’s second wife. (He has three wives). This was “Rendille” (called the tribal name as a nickname because that is where she hails from). She was living in a pretty poor state, and we wondered what Lugi does with the money we send him regularly. She told us (when Lugi was not around) that she gets no money from her husband, once in a while she gets a bag of corn from his other wife’s farm, but she really did not have very much at all. We resolved to send her money separately from Lugi in the future. But the joyous moment was getting to see Rendille’s son Larenbin, now married to a lovely woman with a baby girl. When we saw him last in 1985, he was a boy of 8 who lived with Leah and us at a mission station while Elliot finished his PhD research. Larenbin had a terrible bilateral ear infection for many years, and we feared he would lose all his hearing. But Marty treated him with antibiotics for ten days. Now as a grown man he seems to have retained some hearing. He has also retained his beatific smile, and deep affection for small animals. (He was petting a young goat for much of the time we talked to him, something people generally don’t do up there. If they touch their livestock, it is to calm them before milking or to slaughter them.)

Marty and Larenbin, sharing memories and Red Sox hat

Nkursa ("Rendille") Lugi's second wife, after many years without seeing her

Nkursa, still tough, still beautiful

Women of Nkursa's manyatta
Elliot wondered when he would be back again, as it just seemed to be getting harder and harder. But then we all agreed to revitalize an idea we had ten years ago, that of bringing Kanikis and Daniel to the United States, to talk about traditional medicine and indigenous people’s customs to an American audience. In the past they had even gotten as far as securing passports, but 9/11 intervened and they could not get visas to the US at that time. We will definitely try this again, so our friends at home can meet some of our friends from Africa.
Elliot, Kanikis, and his mischievous son

One of Kanikis' infant twins

Morning visitors

Kanikis's daughters wash up
Kanikis' growing family (twins make 7 kids)

Kanikis' manyatta early evening, warrior kinsman brings home the lamb chops
We spent two nights in Kanikis' village and on Saturday morning we caught a ride with an NGO Landrover commandeered somehow by Kanikis back to Merille town. There were no buses going North so, despite our previous solemn mutual vows never to ride another lorry, we submitted and caught the first one that came through after waiting several hours in the town. This time the back was not just filled with lumpy sacks, but the only “passenger area” was in front of a big stack of heavy bed springs that slipped forward whenever the driver hit the brakes, threatening decapitation to the unlucky passengers. Deciding that heatstroke was preferable to losing our heads, we sat above the cab for the five-hour ride back to Marsabit. 

Over-heated, tired and dusty, Marty requested a rain check for the Valentine's day celebration that we had missed. El was easily convinced and we spent the next two nights in the Marsabit Park Lodge, where we did absolutely nothing except read and watch the ibis, water buffalo, herons and ducks around the crater lake. The big treat came Sunday night when, sitting after supper on our back porch, we watched a hyena bounding through the high grass in front of the lake. It has been many years since either of us have seen one, though we have become connoisseurs of their night-time songs. 
Lake Paradise Marsabit Mountain
One of thousands of butterflies that week, here at Marsabit Lodge

Return trip home, another open truck
Not quite the PVTA Hampshire Mall loop.
Back in Ethiopia - Land of paved roads, civility and camels.

 Another hot, rattly bus ride on Monday to Moyale, Kenya highlighted by roadside ostriches and gazelles, and we were able to cross the border before it closed Monday night. We were in no mood for the money-changers that set upon us but called our family and let them know that we were alive. (Probably we were the only ones who had worried about that!) Marty in particular was happy to be back to Ethiopia, where thievery and corruption and heat are on a different scale. We returned to our apartment in Hawassa to find the only damage the smashing of our bottle of olive oil by our increasingly bold resident mouse (mice?) Since then we are tolerating the worsening lack of electricity with new-found stoicism. Anything is better than a lorry.
We also have gained a deepening respect for El's relationship to Kanikis and Lugi and the Ariaal families in Northern Kenya he has known now for two generations. The book captures the cross-cultural friendships that he still enjoys with people who are part of a profoundly different culture and geography. It is a hopeful experience and a hopeful book.
El is now readying to teach his course – he was finally told yesterday what it is to be! – to start on Monday. He went back to his campus office today, was greeted by five of his students, and noted that he really has had an influence on them. Three were sporting new beards!
Marty went back to work at the hospital today and was warmly greeted by colleagues and is preparing for a medical student lecture on Ischemic Heart Disease (in a place where nitroglycerin is unobtainable.) Hawassa is Hawassa: people struggle mightily but with admirable dignity to survive and build their community. We both felt homesickness on the trip to Kenya, but we appreciate being witness to the goings-on here.
Love to you and keep us up to date,
Marty and El


  1. This sounds like a beautiful and amazing trip! It makes me think of the unbelievable cross-cultural friendships I made in Tanzania. If only everyone could travel to new places and learn about ourselves and others. Reading your posts make me want to return to East Africa so much--hopefully soon after graduation!
    I really enjoy reading your posts and hearing about the wonderful things you guys are doing and learning!

  2. Hi Marty and Elliot, I am in awe of your stamina and what you are willing to endure to accomplish your various visits! And I admire that Elliot has maintained contact with Kenyans over the years and that he and they have so much respect and love for each other across the huge differences in cultures and living conditions. You are doing a great job of conveying the details of your lives and trips. I can't wait to read Elliot's book! Warm greetings for your continued good health and successful ventures! Love and peace, Sherrill