The Sokotei tree is a treasure to the wildlife and people of northern Kenya. The dense low branches provide tiny dik-dik antelopes with a good hiding place from raptors; noisy francolins and helmeted guinea fowl have a cool midday place to escape the heat and sun. Elephants, especially the young ones, love to eat the succulent leaves. Local residents like the firm flesh and fresh taste of the branches and cut small pieces from the tree to use as toothbrushes. Sometimes they call the Soketei the toothbrush tree.
30 years ago, a young mother from Korr gave birth to a small baby boy under the spreading branches of a Sokotei tree. The baby was given the traditional Muslim name of Omar. But because of his birthplace, he was also called Sokotei. Now a grown man, Omar provides field support to The BOMA Project. He changes tires, cooks meals, runs errands, sets up our meetings and sings beautiful love songs on our long drives. When all is going well, I call him Omar. When there is an emergency, it is always Sokotei, three syllables being more appropriate as in, “Sokotei, there is a scorpion in my hut!” or “Sokotei, did you hear that gunfire?”
The day after our meeting with the Bayo savings group, we stopped by Omar’s mother’s house. She was waiting for us, and Omar’s sister was there too. They came over to the vehicle and we chatted for a few minutes. I handed over 5000 shillings and Omar’s mother quickly rolled the money into the folds of her dress. The funds would be used as a payment to the elders who would help them arrange a wife for Omar.
Over the next few days, we continued our travels, visiting with BOMA Mentors and businesses and meeting with village leaders. Our final night was in Laisamis village and as we enjoyed a meal of our last bit of rice and cabbage with a few warm tuskers, word reached us that the elders had decided on a suitable wife for Omar. Before we settled into our huts, I grilled Omar.
“Are you sure this is how you want to find a wife?” I asked him.
“Yes, Mama Rungu. With this job I am traveling all of the time. It is hard for me to meet women and I am too shy to ask them to be my girlfriend. My family will arrange a marriage for me and I am okay with this”
“But what if you don’t like the girl your mother picks out?”
“It will be okay, Mama Rungu. She will pick a traditional girl and I know that I can take good care of her.”
The next morning we said goodbye to Omar who caught a lorry going back north.
The woman that the elders had chosen was very beautiful. Omar was very pleased with their choice. Unfortunately, the young woman was in love with another warrior and she used the threat of impending marriage to pressure the young man to marry her. Which he did. Omar was devastated.
But the story gets better. In the meantime, a young woman named Soroy, from Lengima village, was about to be married off to a much older man. Alone and frightened, she ran away from her village to Korr, Omar’s home. They met, and Omar offered to marry her. Unfortunately, the elders of Lengima did not agree. They came to Korr, captured the young woman and brought her back to the village. She escaped again, traveling at night through an area known for its lions and hyenas. Again the elders took her back to Lengima. Finally, Kura intervened. He sat down with the elders for an entire night. They talked, drank tea, and talked some more. By morning the elders had relented. The girl could stay and marry Omar.
By the time I heard the good news I was back in my farmhouse in Vermont. Omar and Soroy had a simple ceremony in Korr and they have a room off of his mother’s house. Someday they will have a big ceremony and Kura and I will provide the bull that will be slaughtered. I hope that I can be there for this joyful day.
When I called Omar to congratulate him I asked him, “Are you happy, Omar?”
“Yes, Mama Rungu. Now there is someone who loves me.”