Recently, Actionaid, facilitated a visit to a village in West Pokot County where journalists were to meet with rock-slide victims.
I was part of the team that took this trip and from Kapenguria, it took us three hours to get to Chepkotit, a land of steep hills and deep valleys.
The air is moist and cold. Rain, we are told, falls almost daily. And the vegetation cover is lush with tall trees reminiscent of an equatorial forest.
The journey up these hills is a real test of one’s fitness levels. There is mud to contend with and although it is only 4pm, the thick fog makes the evening feel like dusk and visibility is extremely poor. The air is thin - we noticed breathing became difficult almost immediately.
“This is the highest point in West Pokot,” Thomas Teremo, an elder tells me.
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As we, the visitors, struggle to acclimatise to these low temperatures, huffing and puffing our way up the steep inclines, the residents are upbeat. Going about their daily activities without much difficulty. ‘How?’ you may ask.
Well, part of the reason is milk. Yes, milk; the white liquid that comes off a swollen cow udder. Residents of Chepkotit can do without so many things but milk is not one of them.
“We value milk,” Thomas’ wife, Eliza Chemeling, says. “We use it primarily as food and to mark important ceremonies like during Sabana, our circumcision ceremony.”
Among these residents, milk holds a near mysterious status and is viewed as a solution to all their troubles, including being the secret ingredient to successfully navigating the hilly landscape.
And indeed the hills in Chepkotit are a sight to behold. They are nearly perpendicular and navigating them exerts a serious strain on one’s body - as I found out the hard way. Climbing up from Teremo’s former home got so difficult that I had to resort to five stop-overs and completed the climb in one hour and 18 minutes.
Yet residents cover the same route in a manner of minutes - moving to the base of the hill to milk cows and take the milk back up where homes are is something they do every day.
This arrangement is because the threat of rock and landslides has made humans move to higher points leaving their animals to graze at the bases where vegetation is lush.
“How do you do this every day?” I asked, out of breath and struggling to control my heartbeat.
“The obvious answer is that we eat natural foods, not the kind people in cities fill their tummies with,” Teremo says. “But the milk is a big part of that diet.”
According to Eliza, the milk in Chepkotit is prepared traditionally, for it to provide maximum benefits.
“We pour this milk in a gourd treated with a type of ash. Through four consecutive days we take it through different treatments and once it is drank, it provides an instant energy boost,” she says.
I decide to put this theory to the test and take a sip of this legendary milk. Within minutes, my laborious breathing is stabilised and I feel energised. I am however, not sure if it is the milk or the fact that I was seated and resting. Everyone however, seems to believe it is the magic of milk – prepared the Chepkotit way.