Friday, May 04, 2007

Part IV: A Day Between Two Mountains

The following is the fourth of a five-part reminiscence from my time in Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-Sixties. See the first three parts in posts from earlier this week.

Once we hit the open road, the convoy began to stretch out as each driver tested the limits of his vehicle. After a half hour or so we were off the mountain and well into the desert maze of canyons and wadis. No one wanted to linger in the desert.

Soon the truck in front of us had disappeared around several curves in a shallow, bone-dry ravine. Not even its tell-tale dust hung above the road. There was no telling how far ahead or behind our armed protectors were.

I was still looking for my opportunity to mention the Shifta when Ali announced that we were approaching a dangerous place.

“You say what?”
“We were attacked here once. It is a good place for attacking.”
“When was that?”
“Last year. See that hole above your head? That’s from the attack.”

I looked at the jagged, finger-sized hole not six inches from my scalp. There were others as well, behind me in the cab and on the driver’s side.
“What about these?” I asked.
“Those are from other times. In other places. I will show you.”

Ali pressed on, pointing to a plateau above a wide place in the wadi. “That’s the place they hide,” he said without looking. But nothing happened, no shots, no new bullet holes.

We sped on.

“Tell me before the next dangerous place, OK?” I said, not sure that I really wanted to know.
“The next place is soon. See that dent?” he said pointing to one on the door frame. “That was caused by the bullet that killed my friend who was sitting where you are. It hit him in the head. The place is around the next bend.”

Again, Ali rocketed past the place, waving vaguely at the fatal ambush perch.

At one point we came up on a truck from our convoy. It was pulled over to the roadside. Ali slowed some distance away and approached cautiously. Only when he was certain it wasn’t a trap, did he pull along side. The driver was tying down cargo that had worked itself loose.

Never had a road so fully engaged me. The dust, the heat, the rugged, lifeless terrain. Most striking, of course, was the fear locking me to the landscape. Yet for Ali and the others whose trips between Moyale and Nanyuki were notched by bullet holes, fear was a mere occupational hazard, part of a way of life.

The Shifta were, and still are, a stateless people. They didn’t take kindly to Kenya’s independence or claim of ownership or military presence. Just as they never had accepted the Europeans or their absurd colonial boundaries. For centuries these desert warriors had raided the Oromo tribal groups—the Rendille, the Boran and the Gabra I had encountered at the clinic. To the Shifta, war and pillaging are manly virtues. The Oroma are considered weak. At best they are regarded as mystical.

But mysticism matters little to the Shifta warrior culture. In the desert, mysticism is no match for the glory of armed victory. As for the Peace Corps, I could only guess how the Shifta would perceive it. Alien certainly, some human anomaly.

The landscape that I experienced as a fearful passage, the Shifta regarded as a proving ground.

To be continued....

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