Premium

Discovering a happy 'Kingdom' in Mt Elgon

A view of the Mt Elgon Forest. [Caroline Chebet, Stanadard]

Ever visited a new place and instantly felt like you are reliving a moment in a movie? That your mind is pulling a déjà vu but is not?

Having been binge-watching a series of enchanted forest kingdoms and some of the world’s biological hotspots like those of the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, widely known as the Happy Kingdom, I joined a team to visit the Ogiek, who live in the moorlands of Mt Elgon forest.

The Ogiek of Mt Elgon is a hunter-gatherer community that turned pastoralists and historically resided in the forest as an indigenous minority community.

The Ogiek currently live in the moorlands of Mt Elgon, swathes that represent some of the least human‐influenced ecosystems despite the human occupation.

Our journey to Labot, a village in the snowy mountains of Chepkitale in Mt Elgon took close to seven hours from Eldoret town through Kitale and up the montane forest to the village overlooking the peak of Mt Elgon.

Mt Elgon is a region of montane forests and valleys, and the climate varies with elevation. The mountains are extremely cold. But the constant change in weather and fluctuating network connection prepare one along the way.

A drive through the dense paths of the forests creates a feeling of detachment from the bustles of city life, creating natural therapies.

Along this forest, landscapes are a variety of vegetation dotted by patches of grasslands that make up the historical grazing grounds of the forest-dwelling community.

“Within forests are clear patches like these that trees do not grow. They are natural grasslands and host a large number of animals and birds. These patches are also grazing grounds,” Cosmas Murunga, an Ogiek elder says.

While it is breathtakingly beautiful to make stop-overs along the way, it is the changing temperatures that make a constant reminder of how far the journey has been.

The sleepy village within the moorlands lies at 3,400 metres above sea level. Here, the temperatures can drop to as low as 4 degrees Celsius.

“It is normally cold here. On some days, the streams look smoky in the morning but to the residents, we are used to it because our bodies have adapted. To a newcomer, they might find it cold,” Laban Kiprotich said.

But it is not the biting cold that can make a visitor feel like they are in a whole enchanted territory, it is the warmth that the community creates. It is the happiness that reigns in the Happy Kingdom that has its own rules.

Here, visitors are welcomed with traditional songs and dances of happy people draped in thick clothes, Marvin hats, and scarves. People who seem so satisfied within their ancestral lands.

If you are an Internet maniac, then you have to forget it and enjoy the moment. Here, there is no mobile network except for some spots the residents have identified where one can go and make a call. There is no Internet too.

“We are happy the way we are - in our homelands. We are happy keeping our livestock and harvesting honey, the gift nature has generously given us through the years,” Murunga says.

And while one might think that living in the middle of a forest gives this community all rights to fell a tree, then you are mistaken. Here, it is taboo to cut down a tree.

It is taboo to burn charcoal or trade any product from a tree. It is even taboo to venture into commercial farming.

It is the stringent community bylaws that bind everyone here. The laws the community have stuck with through the years to derive happiness in their forest kingdom look nothing short of enchanted territories like those in the movies.

“Here, everyone has a right to know who you are as a visitor. We are a close-knit community that strictly abides by the laws. We look after these forests and report any suspicious activity around. This has always been the norm that was passed down from our great grandparents,” Peter Kitelo, the director of the Chepkitale Indigenous People Development Programme says.

Within the village, are guest houses that offer perfect rural life in the mountains and a getaway from the busy schedules.

The small grass thatched house sandwiched by indigenous trees offers the homey feeling of a perfect escape. Although the cold in the evenings might be unnerving, a night in these houses is surprisingly warm.

To keep warm in the mountain villages, the by-laws only allow for the collection of fallen twigs and dead wood to be collected for firewood to warm the houses and even for building.

Their stories are narrated by the elderly, giving accounts of their childhoods, of elephants that are synonymous with the forest, and how they tactfully escape attacks from wild animals, which the community too, never harm.

Scenes captured from areas sorrounding Mt Elgon arae. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

“You see, every clan has a wild animal as a symbol or a totem attached, a reason why we are keen on protecting these animals. We coexist with them,” Esther Chemos says.

Co-existing with wildlife is evident here as most homesteads have raised livestock sheds for goats and sheep to avoid being preyed on by wild animals.

Within this happy Kingdom, the residents only practise pastoralism and harvest honey from the hundreds of beehives in these forests.

Here, the cows are milked only in the mornings but calves are left to cuddle in the evenings given the amount of milk and location of the markets that are located far away.

If you thought unique gems only existed in enchanted Kingdoms in movies, you are mistaken.

In these forest lies unique gems like caves beneath waterfalls, elephant pools, and salt licks in massive caves that exist within Mt Elgon forests.

To fully get the feel of these enchanted territories, one has to wake up for the sunrise - a perfect sunrise in the mountains.

The chilly mornings can be unnerving but waking up to watch the sunrise is priceless.

Watching the morning sun breaking through to peek from the foggy horizon to illuminate the vast swathe of a sleepy yet charming forest is epic.

Just as the sunsets, one can get panoramic views of sunsets against synonymous and massive podocarpus trees and Elgon teak (olive) trees.