Dertu Redux 2: Mobile Classrooms, Bore Holes, "Shifting" Lands, Biz Dev, Somali Shoat, Sleeping Camel Milk by Moonlight and More Dust

Somewhere along the way to Dertu we crossed the equator into the northern hemisphere.

Mobile Singing Classroom

Just outside of Dertu, in a small "pastoral drop-out" settlement we came across a "mobile classroom". A true mobile classroom consists of a teacher that follows a nomadic group around to teach the children. This classroom was semi-permanent. We caught them in the middle of an English lesson. The manner of teaching was really interesting, a lot like the Rosetta Stone method in that there was a lot of repetition. But it was all very sing-songy and catchy. Just watch these and you'll see what I mean, you'll find yourself singing along. Note the Odinga shirt the teacher is wearing.

Mobile Classroom Part 1


Mobile Classroom Part 2

Life at the Bore Hole

We got into Dertu and were treated to a delicious lunch of goat meat and rice, washed down with coca cola. When they drink coke here, they don't pop the cap off, but will often poke a small hole into the bottle cap so you can slowly suck the fizz out. Then we went to check out the bore hole, where it all goes down. I was in heaven, surrounded by all the things I love: goats, camels, donkeys and cows. Okay, so I'm not crazy about sheep, there was plenty of those too.

pastoral with his flock

pastoral at the bore hole


bellying up to the bar



camels rule



sad donkeys



pastorals in training

pastorals in training


they should really be wearing shoes

pastoral children


self-portrait with alpha camel (toting wood bell)

self potrait with camel


pathetic sheep running

arcing sheep


Fatuma's veil



Life at the Dertu Bore Hole

The "Shifting" Land Dispute

Afterwards, we were invited to sit in on a community meeting. All the village elders were there (sitting on the ground in pic below) as well as the district officer (seated at right in chair) and the assistant village chief (in the pink shirt waving his magic wand). The village chief, who we hung out with last year wasn't there.


the acting village chief with his wand and seated village elders

village meeting

You'd think the last thing pastorals surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of land would be disputing was land, but this was the hot topic on the agenda. Evidently the government had set aside a parcel of land around the clinic for future development, but some families had settled on this plot. It was a fairly productive meeting, everybody got a chance to chime in with their two cents. Though one of the orange-bearded elders walked out in protest. There are no land deeds in Dertu or even an actual physical land survey. When they talked about the land, they described it verbally, using the anthill pictured below as a reference point.

termite hill

It was a tough call, I could see both sides of the debate. Much as I typically side with the little anti-government guys, there's so much land and their structures not really permanent, so why not move elsewhere? Especially if that was initially what was agreed upon. In the end, the district officer got the last word and the squatters needed to "shift" elsewhere. They use that word a lot when talking about pastorals. They don't move or relocate, they just "shift". Once the verdict was handed down, they went into the center of the village to communicate this to everybody (or at least the men).

"love all but kiss one" (HIV/AIDS awareness propaganda?)

love all but kiss one

Biz Dev and Somali Women Power

We traveled to Dertu with CJ, who is the new business development person with the Millennium Villages. Important as health, nutrition, education, etc. are, when it comes down to it, the thing that will inevitably lift people out of poverty is finding ways to make money. Money really does make the world go around. Some of the things being considered were ways to harness methane or "biogas" from all the camel, goat and cow manure. Why not, right? Otherwise, it just goes to shit. Another was to collect gum arabic. The problem is that the pastorals are fairly set in their ways, and getting them to do anything but herd their flocks is a challenge. Women are also traditionally repressed in Somali culture. There were a few women in the community meeting, but they are usually not given much of a voice. When a woman's child-rearing days are over, they are essentially discarded in favor of younger wives. And when I say wives, I mean wives. Some woman open up miraa shops (see below), but for the most part not a lot of opportunities are available to them. One very recent development in Dertu was the installation of a cell network by Ericsson/Zain. Last year you couldn't use cell phones out there, now you could. They had these solar-powered charging stations to charge your cell phone:

cell phone charging station attendant

cell phone charger

Miraa (a.k.a. Khat)

It's hard to not notice the widespread use of a drug called miraa (or khat) in the northeast region of Kenya. In Garissa there was a whole street of miraa shops. In Dertu we stumbled into a few miraa dens, full of glossy-eyed men with transistor radios. I tried a few sprigs of it in one of the miraa huts, but it didn't do anything for me. So we got some more and I diligently chewed a bunch, but still nothing really happened. Maybe I felt a bit stimulated, it was hard to tell as being in Dertu was stimulating enough.

The Beautiful People

One other notable thing about Dertu and Somali Kenyans, is that they are very beautiful people, men and women. They all have flawless skin and teeth, the latter from the diligent use of a stick they use to keep their teeth clean. Since white or gray is considered evil, all the older men dye their beards, eyebrows and hair orange (with henna). And they are also for the most part quite tall and skinny.

fatuma (with henna'd hands) and one of the village elders

fatuma and elder


Jess dwarfed by elder

jess and tall elder

Sleeping Camel's Milk and Shoat by Moonlight

The biggest treat was going to the borehole at night. Even if I had a camera that could take photos by moonlight, it wouldn't do justice to the experience of wandering amongst herds of camels in the dark. The smells and the sounds were extra-sensory (or 5censory). They typically milk the camels at night, when it's cool and the camels are not on the move. But we couldn't find anyone milking their camels. Some of the baby camels were nursing. And we saw one camel whose teats were tied together with twine because it had been milked dry.

Eating Dust

There's lot of dust in Dertu Especially driving there. It gets into your ears and nose. This time around we spent the night in Dertu. The woman had one room and the men another. I slept outside with M until it started to drizzle and the wind picked up the dust. We woke up with the sun and made a fire for coffee, then hit the road back to Garissa for a night and then back to Nairobi (thanks to K, who also got us to and from Dertu last year safe and sound). We got two punctures, busted two shocks, saw a lot of goats and camels, and ate a lot of dust on the way.


If you want to support the work being done by the Millennium Village project in Dertu, join their facebook cause or give to Millennium Promise.


Here's Jess's take on Dertu, and some more photos she took.




(c) 2008 Derek White