The Nomadic Pastorals of Dertu
November 21, 2007 — Garissa, Kenya
After a one day setback, we got the go ahead to hit the road to Dertu. Got an early start, but our armed escort, which was deemed necessary, was late so didn't leave 'til about 7:45. Our car had the driver K and Dr. B sitting in the front, Jess and F sitting in the middle, and me and the village chief of Dertu sitting in the rear. The other vehicle had three security guys with machine guns and a male nurse. A two-car convoy. The shorter route to Dertu from Garissa is about an hour and a half (110 km), but because of the rains we had to take the longer way around, about 160 KM on a mud rut of a road through the Ewaso Nyiro river basin.
Along the way we saw giraffes, antelope, these little half-deer/half-capybara looking things called dik-diks (or dig-digs) and warthogs. Hard to get pictures as we were booking along and barely able to keep up with the armed escort that was blazing the way.
We passed through the village where F got attacked because of clan rivalry (that was referenced in the Vanity Fair article about Millennium Villages)—a "miscommunication," as the village chief called it, based on an unfounded rumor. We stopped so our escorts could pray. Needless to say, F wasn't keen on getting out of the truck.
We plodded on. The escort truck was driving so recklessly that his back bumper came off. It stopped raining and was dry, but then it would be flooded or raining again.
The whole time, everyone in our Landcruiser was engaged in loud and animate political banter. The Kenyan elections are coming up soon, so things are getting hot and heavy, and we even passed convoys of trucks with metal loudspeakers blaring their campaign messages. They debated in Swahinglish, a boisterous blend of Swahili and English. The village chief was particularly ear-piercing as you'd expect. As we were arriving into the village of Dertu he was going on about how he could accept and live with Christians and people from other religions as long as they had a god, but if you didn't have a god, you were not human, you didn't exist. I considered voicing my beliefs but didn't want to disappear completely in a puff of dust.
We arrived in Dertu and went straight to HQ, where we were ushered into this cool hut made of intricately woven branches with a burlap sack roof. We were given Somali tea, which tasted a lot like chai. We were given an overview by the honchos (who were definitely rather honcho-ish) while I watched the field mice running in the burlap sacks over our heads. After that we visited the health clinic and the school. Then we came back to the big hut for tea and more discourse.
Note the orange beard on the elder above. Somali's associate the color white (also my last name) with death. So when the men go gray (or white) they dye it orange. Quite the fashion statement, especially with the skull caps and skirts.
Not much going on here in the way of agriculture. They are all about livestock. They divide their livestock into two classes, the grazers and the browsers, depending on whether they graze off the ground or from the bushes. Since camels are taller, they can browse the higher branches, so their milk is considered superior. They laughed at the idea of drinking goat milk. The nomadic Somalis (Auliyahan people) of this region are pretty set in their ways, which makes Jess's job difficult when she tries to promote food diversity and such. All they know is herding camels and "shoats" (as they refer to mixed herds of goat and sheep—although this word cannot be used in the singular, I like to think that such a beast could exist).
Huge issues with gender here too, the men completely dominate. it's hard for them to work with women that are of equal or higher authority in their jobs. We were talking about giving bicycles for the outreach health workers and they laughed at the idea of women riding bikes and dismissed it as not possible. These are hard things to change.
After that we walked around some more through Dertu. We stopped at a girl's boarding school. Nomadic families often leave their girls behind at school, and bring the boys along to help herd. Just judging by appearance, the girls looked healthier than the other villages in Africa, so maybe a diet of camel's milk and meat is not so bad after all.
Another interesting observation, just when you think you are in the middle of nowhere, along comes a U.S. Marine convoy of Hummers straight through Dertu. Given what's going on in Somalia at the moment, not too surprising, but strange that they'd be in Dertu. The locals didn't seem to mind their presence, and the village chief praised them.
Around 3 PM we departed for the grueling drive back. Another 4 hours back, with roads worsened by more rain. 8 hours of driving to hang out in Dertu for 4 hours, but worth it.
(c) 2007 Derek White & Jessica Fanzo