Artist Isaiah Chepyator, organiser of the festival, helps young people from his home area to develop their talents. The Rift Valley region of Kenya is a melting pot of cultures.
Baringo County has 556,000 inhabitants, of whom 403,000 are Tugen, 133,000 are Pokots and the smallest community are the Njemps, with a population of 20,000. There are also pockets of other tribes.
I am headed to Baringo County for the first ever Koroto Cultural Festival. The Koroto festival is celebrating Tugen culture, and as we arrive there’s an air of festivity.
As we reach higher ground, the deep blue of Lake Baringo shimmers in the distance with its islands afloat, and the iconic cliffs of Baringo appear in earthly copper tones.
Koroto is a tiny Tugen village deep in Baringo County. Going by the history of the place, there’s some indication that it was a major stopover on the 18th century Arab trade route into the interior.
Gigantic tamarind trees dot the countryside. “The tamarind trees are a legacy of that time,” says William Kimosop, Baringo’s tourism warden.
The tree, originally from India, was named by Arab traders and seafarers who on seeing it for the first time named it tamrhindi – tamr for date palm and hindi for India. It is the perfect food to carry on long journeys as the hardy pod can keep for months.
“Joseph Thomson then followed the same route from Laikipia across Baringo, with his Indian guide Martin, farther inland,” Kimosop states, taking us back to 1883 when the intrepid Thomson became the first white man to walk through Maasai country, opening up routes so far kept secret by the traders.
At the base of a hill, a sign welcomes visitors to the Koroto Cultural Festival with a pair of Lamu eyes hung at the entrance. In Lamu and on the Kenya Coast in general, the Lamu eye is traditionally nailed to the front of a dhow to keep the evil eye away.
The first stall inside the festival compound had carvings from the Lamu archipelago on Kenya’s east Coast, about 1,000 kilometres away.
And so the Lamu connection unfolds. The cultural festival is the brain-child of Isaiah Chepyator, the sole financer of the festival — to the tune of Ksh1.5 million($17,500).
Born near Koroto, Chepyator left his village as a young man to seek his fortune. He ended up in Lamu in 1993.
“I had a friend there and he told me there were jobs,” reminisces the soft-spoken artist of international acclaim, who sells his art to clients in Europe and the US.
Born to poor parents and the eldest in the family, Chepyator never went to high school.
His first job in Lamu town, which he held for 11 years, was as a guard at an art gallery. While there, he picked up carving.
His signature carvings of sea creatures, made from driftwood, are famous, as is his art recycled from plastic. While at the art gallery, he met Hafsa Ahmed, who was newly employed at the gallery as an accountant.
“I saw Isaiah’s carving and it was great. I asked him to teach me to carve too,” says Hafsa, who has driven from Malindi using her GPS system to reach Koroto village — her first time this far beyond Nairobi.
In exchange for the lessons, she offered Chepyator a room in her house in Lamu’s Old Town to serve as his art gallery. After six weeks working as an accountant, she resigned to become the first Swahili woman wood carver in Lamu.
She arrived in Koroto with a car-load of her carvings of wooden trays, plates, candle holders and jewellery boxes. By the end of her trip, she had sold all her carvings to Island Camp Resort on Lake Baringo.
“I was always artistic,” says Chepyator. “When l returned home, l realised that many youngsters were artistic too. So l started a village gallery where they could use their skills to promote our art and culture, which is fast disappearing.”
In June, Chepyator’s work will be showcased in the US. “The National Museum of USA found my work in Lamu, and has already shipped 70 pieces there,” he says without a trace of vanity.
The father of three says, “l want everybody to be comfortable. In my heart there is no poor person.”
“This is a very emotional festival,” says Kimosop, himself a Tugen. “We had a very strong culture. We had dances and cultural celebrations, then everything faded away with the arrival of Christianity, and later people moving away to towns. But now there’s a renewed interest in culture.”
Walking around the grounds with songs and dances going on, we enter a traditional Tugen homestead. A tall spear stands rooted by the door for protection. Inside the main hut it is cool. An earthen pot sits on the fire, balanced on three stones, with local vegetables cooking.
Later, while Baringo North Member of Parliament William Cheptumo joins a group of dancers belting out a song in praise of the bull, l chat with Joshua Tarus, a local farmer who is displaying traditional Tugen wares.
“This is an original kipande (identification card) holder l got from one mzee,” he says. It is fashioned from tin that every local had to wear during colonial times.
“This cultural festival is really good,” he says, “because we’re showing our children the past.”
“We’re really happy with Isaiah’s initiative,” says Andrew Kwonyike, the Baringo County minister in charge of transport and infrastructure. “There’s a lot to see here,” he continues.
“We have caves that were used as hideouts during the wars, like Osonge cave that has a hole 100 metres deep, with stalagmites and stalactites in it, and Rilwa, which is a sheer cliff face.”
Meanwhile, pupils from Koroto Primary School enact the passing from one age-set to another — the older boys luring the younger to a show of strength in dance. The older men bring out a spiral horn of a greater kudu used as a musical blow pipe.
Cornelius Sergon, a local comedian who features in the TV comedy show Churchill Live, changes face every few minutes as he imitates Deputy President William Ruto, retired president Mwai Kibaki and former president Daniel Moi, who is a Tugen.
“This will remain a cultural centre to serve as a bridge between the past and present. We want to educate our children in the cultural values and the beauty of our people as we move towards modernity,” says Cheptumo.