“ Rocks or hills can never meet. Only our peoples can come together”. A Pökot saying
Under the acacia tree, Makiab, the old man, was looking at the Mountain Tiatiy, a sacred mountain, ‘where the sun rises and where the Pökot believe life started’. He was looking afar. He was remembering the time when as a young Pochon, he used to fight against the Turkana, the Maasai for cows and goats. It was a way of life given to them from long generations. While he was in his thoughts a very young great-great niece Giselle just came from the school. She likes to spend time with him. She is very curious. Makiab likes to recount stories of his tribe. Today, she wants to know the origin of her tribe: the Pökot.
Makiab said that one night around the fire his great grandfather told him: “The old people of our tribe recounted that first two Pökot people descended from heaven on a cloud. As they came closer to the ground, the cloud moved over the territory that would become their home in a few moments, and they were amazed at the beauty and the bounty of the land. The cloud then stopped on the top of a mountain and the two people were lowered down onto the flat surface”.
The old man continued: “Still today on the top of that mountain, which is situated near Lomut village, in the West Pökot District of Kenya, those first traces of the Pökot people can still be seen, as they are embedded in the hard rock. These prints are also accompanied by all the animals’ prints that came down with them from heaven – cattle, sheep, ostriches, goats, chickens and so on and the report that some of the elders still know how to get to that place or have seen it themselves. From then on the people multiplied and became the Pökot tribe”.
Kenya has a rich diversity of different tribes, numbering 42 altogether. Among these the Pökot are classified as Nilo-Hamites and fall within the Kalenjin cluster. In colonial times the Pökot was known as the ‘Suk’ people, a name they resented because it is the name that the Maasai gave to them. In the earliest times, the Pökot were agricultural people and lived in the mountainous area of the Elgeyo escarpment, in the western wall of the Great Rift Valley, in the northwest part of Kenya. Here they were constantly ‘raided and harried’ by the Samburu tribe from the Kerio valley. The Samburu then left the Kerio valley, leaving it open for the Pökot to descend into the valley and occupy it. From there the Pökot raided other tribes, including the Samburu, and started increasing their wealth in livestock.
Because of this historical chain of events, today we find two groups of Pökot: the agricultural (or hill) Pökot and the pastoral (or plains) Pökot. But since the pastoral Pökot have originated, it became the ‘aim and ambition of the hill Suk [Pökot] to amass sufficient live-stock to enable them to descend into the plains and join the pastoral Suk [Pökot]’. Later on the Pökot were raided by the Laikipia Maasai. They fled via their mountains of the Elgeyo escarpment to Uganda where they found safety with the Karamajong tribe of Uganda. They borrowed many of the Karamajong’s ways and customs while living with them. One of these is the ‘sapana’ initiation ritual which is still religiously followed today. After they lived with the Karamajong, they returned to the Kerio valley.
Although no one can say with certainty exactly how the history of the Pökot tribe evolved, it is clear that they were formed and intermingled with many African tribes. Although they mixed with other tribes quite often, their own tribe was given structure and a system of reference through consecutive age sets and the naming of these.
Clan & Sub clan
Giselle asks why her cousin who is Pökot like her belongs to another clan. Makiab, the old man, looks at his great-great nice, and said: “We, Pökot people are divided into clans and each clan has many sub-clans. Clans are like a family of families. The sub-clan is the real family name each individual knows. But everybody knows what other clans they are related to.
Each sub-clan must have a history behind it about how it came to be”.
One of the interesting features is the name and the prefix. The clan has a name without any prefix. But the sub-clan goes always with the prefix ‘kaa, home of. When a Pochon man has to identify himself he says, “I belong to ‘kaa….’”, or “we are ‘chepö’ ….”, referring to the name the women in his clan carry. A woman will always called herself ‘chepö‘, daughter of a certain clan. In fact when a woman is married she cannot be addressed by her maiden name but by her family name, the name of the sub-clan.
Every Pochon know his sub-clan because he must take care not to marry with members of his clan. People of the same sub-clan consider themselves almost as brothers, and they help each other whenever the occasion arises. The names of the sub-clans derive from nicknames of those who started the lineage, or from the area they came from.
Another interesting feature about the clans is that they have a ‘totem’ which in Pökot is called tyony, that is, tyonytanyu, our animal, our thing. There is a kind of relationship between the people of the clan and the totem through which the people respect it, and the totem protects them. Thus if prayers are addressed to ilat, this spirit will listen better to his relatives than to anybody else and the same applies for the sun and so on. If the totem is an animal the people of that clan cannot kill it unless it has committed a great offence, and only after reproaching it not do so again, (Ilat has its own animals which the people of the clan respect very much, e.g. snakes, crocodiles, fish).