The Pokot people live in West Pokot County and Baringo County in Kenya and in the Pokot District of the eastern Karamoja region in Uganda.
They form a section of the Kalenjin ethnic group and speak the Pökoot language, which is broadly similar to the related Marakwet, Nandi, Tuken and other members of the Kalenjin language group.
During the colonial period, the Pokot were called "Suk" by Europeans. To some Pokot, the older designation is a reminder of an era in which Africans lacked the power to name themselves; to others, it represents the clever ruse of a forebear who outwitted powerful strangers by disguising his identity. In the first perspective, "Suk" is an ethnic slur that Europeans borrowed from the Maasai, who denigrated nonpastoral pursuits; the name is said to derive from chok, a short sword or staff used by Pokot cultivators to till the soil.
In the second perspective, a Pokot elder, when questioned by Europeans, referred to himself as "Musuk," a term for the nearby tree stumps; his reply is said to exemplify ingenuity and cunning, two highly valued but morally ambiguous traits.
The Pokot live in an ecologically complex region that extends from the plains of eastern Uganda across the highlands of northwestern Kenya to the plains of Lake Baringo. Most Pokot reside in Kenya's West Pokot District, a pestle-shaped administrative unit of approximately 9,135 square kilometers stretching from l°07I N to 2°40I N and from 34°37I E to 35°49I E. West Pokot is the northernmost district in the Rift Valley Province. Situated alongside the Uganda border, West Pokot abuts the districts of Turkana to the north and the east, Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet to the southeast, and Trans Nzoia to the southwest. Cool, rugged highlands that form part of the western wall of the Rift Valley run through the center of the district, separating the dry, hot plains. The highlands—the Cherangani Hills, the Sekerr Mountains, and the Chemerongit range—rise to over 3,000 meters; the eastern plains have an average elevation of 900 meters, whereas the western plains vary from 1,200 to 1,800 meters. Four perennial rivers, all of which feed Lake Turkana, flow northward through West Pokot: the Suam/Turkwel, the Kerio, the Weiwei, and the Morun. There are two rainy seasons—the long rains, from March to June, and the short rains, from mid-October to mid-November. Rainfall varies from less than 40 centimeters per year in the lowland areas to more than 150 centimeters in the highland areas, with deviations of up to 40 percent from these long-term averages. Mean annual temperatures range from less than 10° C in the highlands to more than 30° C in the lowlands. Vegetation includes moist forest, dry woodland, bush land, and desert scrub. The soils, derived primarily from metamorphic rocks of the Precambrian Basement System, are shallow, rocky, and prone to erosion in some areas; deep, fertile, and well drained in others. The highland areas are covered by forests, but deforestation owing to population pressure outpaces the designation of forest reserves; to increase forest cover, which is critical to water retention, the government operates a number of tree nurseries in West Pokot.
Vital statistics for the Pokot region date from the onset of British rule, but demographic data have not been collected systematically, and administrative boundaries have undergone extensive revision. Estimates for West Pokot, based on colonial tax rolls and national censuses, indicate that the district's total population has grown from less than 20,000 in 1927 to an estimated 233,000 in 1988. Natural increase accounts only partly for this dramatic growth: the number of children born per Pokot woman does not seem to be higher than the Kenyan average, estimated at 6.7 in 1984, and epidemiological surveys suggest that infant mortality may be higher among the Pokot than among other Kenyan groups. Immigration has fueled population growth since independence in 1963, especially in the southern highlands, where the principal administrative and commercial centers are located and where the land supports sedentary cultivation. Population density per square kilometer ranges from 64 persons in the southern highlands to less than 8 persons in the northwestern and eastern lowlands. The age structure of the population forms a classic pyramid shape.
The Pokot are a Kalenjin-speaking people whose language (ng'ala Pokot, "tongue or language of Pokot") incorporates words from the neighboring Karamojong and Turkana. The term "Kalenjin" dates from World War II; it is a self-chosen label that has replaced various colloquial, scholarly, and administrative designations, including "Nandi-speaking peoples," "Nilo-Hamites," "Southern N ilotes," and "Paranilotes." The Kalenjin consist of eight principal groups: the Keiyo, Kipsigis, Marakwet, Nandi, Pokot, Saboat, Terik, and Tugen.
Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that Kalenjin-speaking peoples have occupied Kenya's western highlands for the past 900 years, expanding and contracting their territories and altering their grazing and cultivation patterns in response to environmental and political pressures. Such pressures were especially pronounced during the last two decades of the nineteenth century: drought, rinderpest, and famines destroyed cattle herds and undermined human populations within and beyond the region, causing massive shifts in population. Great Britain began to establish its sphere of influence by defining and, later, enforcing political boundaries that cut through ecological zones and local and long-distance trade networks. During this period, the Pokot moved into areas that were previously occupied by the Karamojong, but they lost grazing grounds to the Turkana, who were pushing down from the north and the west. A decade after the onset of British administrative activity in 1910, the southern grazing grounds of the Pokot were alienated for European farms.
Throughout the colonial period, West Pokot was a "closed" district, a status consistent with its role as a buffer between the northernmost reaches of the "White highlands," the name given to Kenya's European-settled areas, and the shifting frontiers of Turkana. With the exception of a handful of colonial civil servants and Protestant and Catholic missionaries (the London-based Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society, which opened a station in West Pokot in 1931, and the Irish Catholic Kiltegan Fathers, who opened a school for catechumens in 1942), few Europeans ventured into the district. Government- and missionary-sponsored projects for economic and social betterment expanded after World War II, in conjunction with the rise of a grass-roots religious movement called "Dini ya Yomöt" that sought to drive Europeans out of the region. These projects focused on soil conservation, education, and health care; the latter was pioneered largely by the Catholic church, which opened the first hospital in the heart of the district in 1956 under the care of the Holy Rosary Sisters, an order of Irish nuns.
Owing to its social and political-economic isolation during the colonial period, West Pokot was the least-developed district in Rift Valley Province at the time of independence. The onset of modern infrastructure and transport, commercial townships, and land adjudication dates from the 1970s. So, too, does the expansion of primary- and secondary-school education, health-care services, religious denominations, and government involvement in the organization of women's cooperatives.
The Pokot have divided their countryside into named and bounded "neighborhoods" or settlements. As physical units, these neighborhoods vary in size, topography, ecological potential, and population density. As social units, they are organized around local councils, which are composed of household heads who meet periodically to discuss community affairs, resolve disputes, and coordinate productive activities such as the clearing and sowing of fields, the digging of dry-season wells, and the repairing of irrigation furrows. The centrality of these councils to the maintenance of peace and prosperity is marked linguistically: the month of Pokokwö (lit., "of council"), which corresponds to March, heralds the onset of the long rains.
The social, economic, and ritual ties that link people within and between neighborhoods derive from proximity and kinship; highland neighborhoods are more likely than lowland neighborhoods to be populated by a small range of clans. Exchange relationships between settlements in different ecological zones help reduce economic risk, which is especially important in periods of environmental adversity.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Cattle keeping and grain growing (traditionally, sorghum and finger millet; more recently, maize) are at the center of Pokot subsistence and commercial activities, but their relative importance varies regionally. In general, cattle are more essential to subsistence in the lowlands than they are in the highlands. To ensure an adequate food supply, Pokot herding and cultivating practices take advantage of the region's complex ecology: herds are moved seasonally, and crops are planted in different ecological zones in order to stagger harvests and maximize yields; furrow irrigation is practiced in the highlands.
Surplus maize is sold to a government-operated marketing board, along with sunflowers, pyrethrum, coffee, and cotton, the other major field crops that were introduced in the colonial and postcolonial periods. Surplus vegetables and fruits (potatoes, beans, cabbages, onions, kale, bananas, and oranges) are sold locally. Livestock marketing has been less successful than grain marketing.
Industrial Arts. Women weave baskets, work leather, and make milk gourds and unglazed pots for cooking and water storage. Men specialize in woodworking, making beehives, headrests, and the handles for spears, knives, and hoes. Blacksmiths forge metal tools, but the art of smelting seems to have died out in the precolonial era with the growth of the iron trade.
Trade. The most important forms of exchange are the marriage prestation and tilia, a stock partnership based on the exchange of a cow for an ox. The bartering and selling of grain, vegetables, cattle, and forest products (primarily honey) takes place between highland and lowland neighborhoods and in local markets.
Division of Labor. Productive activities are organized by homestead and by neighborhood, with women performing the greatest part of the homestead work, from milking cows to cultivating the fields to cooking. Children assist with herding, cultivation, and miscellaneous tasks.
Land Tenure. Rights to land are obtained through local land committees, inheritance, gift, contract, and purchase. Beginning in 1973, highland regions have been adjudicated as smallholdings and lowland regions as group ranches, in which land and animal management and liability for credit are collective.
Kin Groups and Descent. There are some thirty-six named, exogamous patrilineal clans. Many of these clans are found among other Kalenjin groups; a few originated among the Turkana. Clan histories recount the movements of people from one locale to another, emphasizing the vulnerability of humans and their dependence upon supernatural benefactors to help them overcome hunger, thirst, and, ultimately, death itself; the attributes of these benefactors are praised in poetry and song. Clans are conceptualized as "pathways" and fellow clan members as children of the same "father" or "grandfather." Although members of the same clan are dispersed geographically and are differentiated internally, they are said to hold their herds in common. Unlike some East African cattle-keeping groups, the Pokot retain their clan affiliations throughout their lives; there is no ceremony to sever clanship in the event of marriage. Genealogical reckoning tends to be shallow, reaching back three to four generations (see "Marriage").
Kinship Terminology. Relatives are differentiated according to the logic of clanship, generation, and gender. Relatives are categorized as "father's people" (kapapo ), "mother's people" (kamama ), and "spouse's people" (kapikoi ). Father's people are fellow clan members and hence the source of fathers, brothers, sisters, and "aunts" (father's sisters). Mother's people are differentiated according to their relationship to "uncle" (mother's brother). Terms for spouse's people often are derived from the names of the livestock that have been exchanged to establish affinal ties. In addition, people who share the same name, marry into the same family, establish stock partnerships, or are cut by the same circumcision knife also are considered relatives.
Marriage. Marriage is underwritten by gift giving, with the flow of gifts moving from the groom and his family to the bride and her family, often over a period of years. The amount and the types of gifts are agreed upon before the bride moves to her husband's home. The bride's family often receives a combination of livestock, goods, and cash, and the bride receives milk cows and rights to land.
Divorce owing to incompatibility or to lack of children is not uncommon in the early years of a marriage, but, after the birth of children, divorce is rare. The bond between a husband and wife and their respective families and clans endures for three to four generations, after which time the relationship is said to "disappear," and marriages may again take place between the two groups. A man may have more than one wife, but polygyny is uncommon among men under 40 years of age.
Domestic Unit. A homestead is composed of one or more buildings that provide housing, cooking, and storage for a man and his wife (or wives) and children; co-wives have separate houses. Where cultivable land is inherited (primarily in the highlands), married sons tend to live near their fathers.
Inheritance. A young adult woman is promised stock by her family after her initiation and at the time of her marriage, but generally she asks for and receives only one gift of stock from her family. A woman acquires additional stock, along with rights to land, from her husband and her mother-in-law; she transmits this property to her children and her daughters-in-law. Young men usually receive stock from their fathers and close agnates after initiation, but a man does not obtain full ownership of the stock he inherits until he marries and establishes his own homestead. In the highlands, a man receives full control of a portion of the family's land after he marries.
Socialization. Families are responsible for supporting their children, but socialization per se is a communitywide affair. The role of the community in teaching children ethical rules and responsible behavior is emphasized during initiation, the most important rite of passage for most Pokot. Initiation consists of a series of neighborhood-based ceremonies organized by adult men and women who, by turns, teach, encourage, remonstrate, cook for, and laud the initiates during and after their ordeals (circumcision for boys; clitoridectomy for girls). The work of initiation is organized by gender, with women taking primary responsibility for girlsI initiations, and men for boysI initiations.
Social Organization. Distinctions based on gender and generation are essential to the etiquette of everyday life within homesteads and neighborhoods, the two principal social groupings. When boys are circumcised, they acquire membership in one of eight age sets, the names of which rotate cyclically through time; the opening and closing of each set is determined by elderly men. A second age-based system for men, called sapana, has two divisions. Adopted from the neighboring Karamojong in the second half of the nineteenth century, sapana may take the place of circumcision in the lowlands, but in the highlands the ceremony, if undertaken at all, follows circumcision. Women do not have age-sets.
Political Organization. Neighborhood councils (see "Settlements") were the only formal political arenas prior to colonial rule. The British imposed a system of local headmen, district courts, legislative councils, and a national assembly.
Social Control and Conflict. Disputes may be aired in neighborhood councils and in government courts. Other sanctions include shaming, cursing, and bewitching.
Religious Beliefs. In Pokot cosmology, the universe has two realms, the above and the below. The above, remote and unknowable, is the abode of the most powerful deities—Tororot, Asis (sun), and llat (rain); the below is the abode of humans, animals, and plants. Men and women are considered responsible for the peace and prosperity of the realm that they inhabit, but they must rely upon divine vitality and knowledge to achieve and maintain these conditions. The Pokot communicate with their deities through prayer and sacrifice: Tororot is said to listen to his creatures below, Asis to witness their activities, and llat to serve as a messenger between the two realms. Deities, in turn, communicate with humans, warning and rebuking them about their misconduct. Christianity has reshaped Pokot cosmology, primarily by reducing the number of deities, while augmenting their attributes.
Religious Practitioners. The divine messenger llat has a human counterpart called a werkoyon (prophet), who foresees disaster and recommends expiation, usually animal sacrifice, to alleviate it. A werkoyon may be either male or female; his or her ability to foresee and to advise is considered a divinely given gift, to be used on behalf of all Pokot.
Ceremonies. The main ceremonies mark transitions in the social lives of individuals and communities. Especially notable among these are the cleansing of a couple expecting their first child; the cleansing of newborn infants and their mothers; the cleansing of twins and other children who are born under unusual circumstances; male and female initiation; marriage; sapana, a coming-of-age ceremony for men; and summer-solstice, harvest, and healing ceremonies.
Arts. Singing, storytelling, and decorative arts, especially bodily adornment, are highly valued. Singing accompanies ceremonies, dances, and beer parties; folktales often incorporate songs. Bodily adornment consists of beadwork, hairstyling, scarification, and the removal of the lower central incisors.
Medicine. Most Pokot have some knowledge of herbal remedies and convalescent cookery, and Pokot women specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of disease and in midwifery. Ritual specialists may be called upon to treat the mentally disturbed. The Pokot use their own healing and preventive methods, along with those provided by hospital- and clinic-based practitioners.
Death and Afterlife. A death is signaled by the mourning of close kin, but the Pokot have no funeral ceremony per se, and no singing accompanies the burial of the body or the subsequent distribution of the deceased's effects. Ancestral spirits anticipate reincarnation in their living descendants; an infant is said to resemble physically and temperamentally one of his or her agnatic ancestors, after whom the infant should be named.