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We have settled into a few nights in the village of Korr, one of the largest settled villages in the Kaisut region with a surrounding population of 14,000 people. Bound by a need to support each other in a harsh place, Somali Muslim and Christian communities (African Inland Church, Catholic and Lutheran) co-exist peacefully with traditional Rendille and Ariaal animist communities.
We are staying at Amina’s – tall huts made of branches that are covered in burlap with chicken wire for windows. Amina’s daughter, Shalom, supervises the cooking and we enjoy njera and tea in the morning and stews, rice, chapatti and potatoes at night. It is unusually hot for Korr, and the town sleeps in the middle of the day – napping in the shade of a tree or on the side of a stone-block house or hut.
On Friday morning, we leave Amina’s camp before dawn – making our ways in the dramatic still night towards the nomadic villages of the Nemeray region. Driving with the high beams on, I search the area for yellow hyena eyes but see only an occasional hare and a small herd of gerenuk antelopes.
As the dawn breaks behind the Mathews Range, filtered light shines down on Ongel’i village. In the distance, we can see school children, distinctive in their tattered uniforms with bits of blue cloth. Hoping for some extra help from teachers before the school day begins, these older children are the first to arrive at school. As we get closer to the village we see the young children leaving the circle of huts, each carrying a stick of wood (for the fire that will cook their lunch) and a bowl for the ration of food (maize and beans) that will be their main source of food for the day. Soon an older woman leads her small herd of goats out into the dry scrub. Another group of women start the long trek to the water hole, carrying large jerry cans on their backs.
We have made repeated visits to Ongel’i village and they have made us feel very welcome. As we unpack our gear, the mzees (older men) wander over with their walking sticks, red blankets wrapped around their shoulders, spitting tobacco or other bodily fluids every few minutes. John Lomurut’s Mom quietly participates in some of the shots that we take of the village and the people. Her best friend has adopted David duChemin and given him a name, Akeno. Corwin has also received a name – Korweya – from Goob Baringo village.
On our way back from Nemeray, we stop at Goob Barmin village. This is the home village of Halhalo, the woman whose photo has been featured in many of BOMA’s publications. Halhalo is an exemplary role model in our business program. Recently her business group provided the funds to pay for medical care for her brother’s child who was seriously ill.
When Kura and I made our first presentations about the REAP program to women in the Korr region, Halhalo stood skeptically at the back of the crowd. She is a tall woman that is hard to miss with her strong, dark features and I could not take my eyes off of her. I knew that if we could win over Halhalo, then we would have an important ally in our work.
Halhalo and I have seen each other on numerous occasions since that time, and despite our many differences, we share a bond. It is apparent as we pull up to the village. I have not even opened the door of the vehicle when I hear the wails and hoots of Halhalo. “Mama Rungu! Mama Rungu!”
I step out of the vehicle and am bowled over by Halhalo as she presses her cheek against mine. We hold each other apart, arms grasped, and look into each other’s eyes. Halhalo looks thinner than last time I saw her, but her gaze is strong and fierce. She welcomes us to her hut and sets about making us all feel comfortable. She agrees to be photographed by David, but the images are not posed. They are an animated collection of photographs between Halhalo and I as we chat and laugh. Halhalo is a character. She pulls out her husband’s short wave radio and tunes it to Rendille radio, a weekly broadcast from Nairobi from 5 to 7 pm. As I sit with Halhalo, holding her hand as she listens to the radio, I was caught in a moment of hope that wishes for a world that will bring equality and opportunity for people like Halhalo.
Reluctantly, we leave the village at sunset, but not before David has initiated a game of soccer with a broken down lump of a ball that keeps all the children, most of them naked, occupied in a joyous activity.
The next morning our good friends, Kit and Chip Chamberlain of the Ross Foundation fly up on the Missionary Air Force flight to Korr. We meet them at the airstrip along with an enthusiastic group of singing women. Kit and Chip are here to see the area and visit BOMA’s projects. After another lunch of stew, cabbage and rice, and lala kidogo’s (short naps) in our huts, we pack up the gear to go out to Gray White – Kura’s two hills given to him by the elders. Shalom shows up with tables and chairs, a few Tuskers and the warming pots that hold another delicious dinner. Halhalo arrives with some of the other women from her village and we are treated to haunting songs of alto humming and high-pitched wails. Mischievous Halhalo is the leader of the group and she nods her head at me, smiling.
Before the sun has set, Halhalo announces their departure. They are anxious to return home in order to prepare for a night of traditional ceremonies around the new moon. We sit quietly on the rocky hill, talking in hushed voices. The heat dissipates and the wind blows. Kura thanks us for joining him in this place that was given to him by the elders who have stood off at a distance, watching us. Now, they make their departure known, and their bodies are a dramatic silhouette against the setting equatorial sun.