I asked the class to sing a song from the desert.
Michael put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, buddy. We won’t let them
forget those songs.” When we started the school I had told him that I didn’t
want our kids to forget their traditional values. “If they are going to help
the desert, they have to remember it,” I told him over the phone. A young girl with a bald head and thin lips stood up. She was a head taller than the other kids and her dress was already a little too small for her. She opened her mouth and a cold piercing melody cut through the classroom. The other children responded in a slow, rhythmic cadence. I recognized the song from Keu’s homestead, but I didn’t remember it sounding so tragic. “That young girl was singing a very important song in Pokot. It’s called The Land Question,” Michael said, clearing his throat. “When something important happens in our culture, we write a song. We don’t have books to write our history so we write songs, which are a bit easier to remember, by the way. So when our Pokot ancestors were kicked off their land by the British, they sang a mournful song as they walked. It is a call and response as you heard. The leader sings ‘Our land is’ and then the name of a place that was stolen by the colonists. ‘Our land is Kapenguria,’ ‘Our land is Kitale,’ ‘Our land is Mukatona…’” He listed off a dozen cities that dotted the edge of the desert. “And then the group responds with the question, ‘Why are you taking the land of our ancestors?’ So that girl is singing about the great tragedy of our people. That our land was stolen and now we struggle in the desert.” Michael pointed to a mountain several valleys away. Its massive base was dark, the top lost in blue rainy air and clouds. “You see that mountain? That was Tororot’s original holy mountain. It’s called Mount Elgon. But when the Pokot were forced away from these hills and into the desert, they felt that God lived too far away. So they asked him to move to Mount Mtelo near where I was born.” I looked at Mount Elgon, its peak shrouded in clouds. It seemed believable that God lived on its summit. “Do you think the Pokot will ever get this land back?” “Nobody knows,” Michael said with resignation. “In 1963 when the British left Kenya, they gave all the land to the new Kenyan government. And our politicians divided all of Kenya between the tribes. But the problem was that there were no Pokot or Karamoja leaders to represent us there. So the politicians gave our land to other tribes. In fact even most of the farmers in town are not Pokot, they are from other tribes. And they bought the land with their money. So it seems a bit unfair to take it from these humble farmers who have been living there for some fifty years now.” “That sounds like huge a mess,” I said. I remembered my dad telling me a similar story as we navigated his small aluminum canoe down a creek near our house. It was our Father’s Day tradition, the one afternoon of the year where we agreed not to fight under any circumstances. “They’re putting together a lawsuit to get this land back,” my dad said after fifteen minutes of paddling in silence. He sounded as if he had just started talking mid-thought. “Who is?” I asked. “The Native Americans. They are suing us for the land.” Dad had been a school teacher on a Native American reservation on the Canadian border for a year after college and would occasionally update me on the latest news from the reservation. “Us? Like our family?” I asked, surprised. “Well, not just our family. Everyone in town.” It wasn’t a big secret that our town was built on Native land. The town library was literally built on Indian Mound Street East. There was no doubt that the land had been stolen, but it seemed odd to sue my family for that. “Isn’t there a statute of limitations on land stealing?” I asked. “That’s what the courts have to decide.” My dad sighed. When he said “courts,” I imagined a room full of white people with formerly Native American addresses on their licenses. I told the story to Michael and afterwards his eyes narrowed on me. I waited, wondering whose side he was going to take. “It’s a huge mess,” he repeated. “That’s why these kids have to go to school, so they can buy back their land or build a new city in the desert or some other solution I haven’t thought of yet.” He grinned. “But the Native people suing for their land back is a creative idea, by the way."