By (Fr). David Conway


The Congregation, the Holy Ghost Fathers, also known as Spiritans, first came to Kenya in 1889 from Zanzibar to Mombasa. The missionaries quickly moved upcountry and were involved in education from very early on in the Diocese of Mombasa, Nairobi and Machakos. At the hands of the Spiritans many schools grew up both Primary & Secondary. Notable among them was Kabaa High School, Mang’u, St Mary’s Nairobi and Fr. Brendan Heeran High School in Tala and Tulimani. These schools are very well known in Kenya, they, today are “centres of excellence”. Spiritan schools have educated leaders for this country, both Church and State. Notably, former President Mwai Kabaki schooled in Mang’u and our current President Uhuru Kenyatta in St. Mary’ s Nairobi. The first Cardinal Arch Bishop of Nairobi (The Late Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga) studied in Mang’u High School.

The Holy Ghost Fathers took a decision to hand over well-established missions & centers of excellence to the local diocesan clergy. They left mission territories and opted for mission situations among the poor. Missions of Primary Evangelization were opened in Tana Bura, Garissa Diocese, Wenje in Garissa Diocese, Mukuru Slums and East Pokot.

Location of Barpello Pastoralist Community & Barpello High School:

Barpello is situated in the sub-county of East Pokot, Baringo County, North of the equator and Lake Baringo. The nearest business town is Nakuru, which is just south of the equator. Nakuru is 200 Kms & a five-hour journey from Barpello.

Mission to the Pokot:

Born in 1966: I (Fr. David Conway) went to Tangulbei as a student from Ireland 1995 to 1997. I was mainly involved in the sectors of agriculture, health, mobile clinics, food security and education as well as pastoral activities.

In 1997, I returned to Ireland and after my ordination I came back to East Pokot, this time to Barpello in 1999 where I am to date. The implementation of humanitarian and long-term development projects is slow due to the illiteracy levels among the semi nomadic Pokot. It brings challenges to us as Spiritan missionaries working with an illiterate community. The pioneer Spiritan missionaries who came to East Pokot in 1980 followed in the footsteps of Fr. Peter Meineberg, (OSB) who was in Kositei Catholic Mission since 1977. The Spiritan Mission to the Pokot of East Pokot set about addressing basic need humanitarian development, education projects in building several primary schools, food and water security and East Pokot Medical programme now serving Barpello and Kositei. Between both places there are two static dispensaries and laboratories, each mission has up to 30 mobile clinics within a 60 Km radius of each two missions Kositei and Barpello. I myself was administrator of EPMP from 2000 to 2006. This apostolate as a Holy Ghost Missionary brought me to the remotest communities in the Kerio Valley. Through the hands of many donors and people of good will, together with the Holy Ghost Mission, development projects aimed at the alleviation of poverty were initiated.

After my Ordination in Dublin 1999 I requested my Provincial Superior and General Superior to allow me to go back to Pokot where I had two years as a Student. My request was accepted and I returned to Pokot in October 1999. Our Congregation had a missionary history in Kenya, the congregations’ works among the marginalized and oppressed attached me to delve deeper into working with the deprived. I returned to Kenya and worked with a veteran missionary who had spent 60 years in East Africa, (Fr. Gerry Foley). Eight years later I was privileged to initiate Barpello High School. Barpello High School is the fruits of a 37 year of Holy Ghost Missionary activity in East Pokot.

The Pokot People:

Like most ethnic groups of Nilotic origins, the Pokot lack a systematic verbalized cosmology. God is the creator of the earth and sky. The ancestors intercede between God and people. The Pokot have a traditional diet of milk, blood and rarely meat. During drought and famine, only one meal a day is taken. The Pokot people have remained, to a large extent, untouched by any of Kenya’s modernization, industrialization and indeed by Kenya’s Christian Churches.

The Pokot are semi nomadic, their language is Pokot. The Pokot community is a strongly traditional society in scattered homesteads which form neighborhoods, which are autonomous political units. Decisions for the communities rest with men whose traditional gathering place “Kokwa” a centrally located spot elected by the community. Communal consensus is the norm for any important matters. The Pokot have a very interesting lifestyle that is typically polygamist.

For this reason in a Pokot compound one finds small huts scattered all over, a Boma for the cattle, another for the sheep, goats and in some few compounds a chicken cage. Very few families can afford to buy camels that do very well in this mission. As a nomadic group, the value attached to the animals is great. For the Pokot, domestic animals, which they call ‘Kyak’, are indispensable and a family without them is considered unfortunate. The more cows goats, camels and donkeys a family has, the wealthier they are considered in the society. It is from these animals that 99% of the family’s income is generated. From these animals they get food such as milk, meat and even blood. Pokot land is mainly for grazing, bee keeping, hunting and gathering fruits. East Pokot district experiences severe drought leading to high percentage death rate of livestock. For many years, the Pokot have been living in great turmoil with serious cattle raids among the West Pokot, Turkana and Marakwet tribes. These raids hinder development, and they have brought negative effects in family relationships.

The moral values traditional beliefs and social practices are strong. Women and children have a lower social status in the society. There is a high mortality rate of children due to malnutrition; poor hygiene and lack of proper basic needs like houses and clothes. The Pokot women do most of the work to keep the family unit alive. They have the duty of raising the children, collecting firewood, looking for the food, fetching water and even the building of the round-mud -huts, which act as the family houses.

Prolonged Drought & Famine:

The plight of the pastoralist, semi-nomadic Pokot who live in this hostile area continues to be ravaged by drought and famine. I write outlining the current situation of drought & famine in the sub-county of East Pokot, (Tiyati Constituency). This situation, not only applies to Barpello, but also in the missions of Kositei, Tangulbei and Rotu, also far and wide in this semi-arid region in Kenya.

The situation of drought and famine has deteriorated in spite of donors and people of good will, who have responded generously to appeals for assistance in this Humanitarian Crisis. East Pokot is regularly prone to drought and famine, most people are illiterate, this adds to the difficulties when it comes to development and addressing basic needs. The infrastructure is very poor, the climate is harsh and the mortality rate is high. Water borne diseases are common. The Pokot people are experiencing one of the worst droughts in the living memory.  A few short showers with no real significance have come and dried up immediately, partly due to the ground temperature. It has not rained with any significance since October 2016. According to the National Drought Management Authority, (NDMA) People are experiencing real hardship and severe hunger, many have had to resort the eating their animals that have died in this drought. As documented in NDMA report (Early Drought Warning Bulletin) the larger East Pokot is in drought conditions since June 2016.

 The near depleted Pokot economy due to the current situation of drought, famine and insecurity may take years to recover.  The pastoralist Pokot have a huge reduction in their animal numbers. The animals are the back bone of the Pokot economy. The elderly and the young children are the most vulnerable; they have been left behind as the youth have gone with the animals to search for pasture. This leaves the elderly and the children in a very vulnerable situation with diminished resources.

One of the many effects of this severe drought that is been experienced at the moment is a problem of huge shortage in water. Rivers are seasonal, river beds are dry. Animals were able to drink from these beds in times of rain. East Pokot has experienced months with few erratic showers. Water dams and pans are drying at a rapid rate partly due to a very high evaporation rate. The community and their animals are sharing the same water sources. This can lead to disease and outbreaks of Cholera among other water born disease epidemics. People have stopped eating dead meat as it is causing diarrhea and other stomach problems. This dead meat requires to be boiled for hours, instead people are eating half boiled meat due to lack of water to cook for the required period.

Due to lack of rain leading to insufficient water charge of would-be water resources, people are suffering with no water only dirty contaminated water. At the Kolloa, Nginyang and Tangulbei markets Pokot Farmers are now selling their emaciated livestock at throwaway prices to down country traders. With very high daily temperatures (C+ 45) and no rains since October 2016 there is a huge problem with severe drought resulting in scarcity of food and water for people and their animals. Barpello Catholic Mission are involved in assisting to draw water using the tractor and 6000 liter Water Bowzer to bring water to some primary/nursery schools. The mission was informed that primary schools are in the process of closing due to scarcity of water, or no water. Unlike past years of drought the scarcity of water has become a major issue. One of the biggest problems is the high rate of illiteracy in East Pokot. Because of this illiteracy major problems are experienced in implementing & administrating livelihood and basic needs humanitarian projects.

Gender disparity in educational matters is in favor of men. For example, 90% of men have no formal education in East Pokot compared to 96% of women. Going to secondary school are approximately 2% of women and 7% of men.

Marginalized Community.

East Pokot has been marginalized by successive Governments, East Pokot has been left behind when the rest of Kenya was being developed. The infrastructure of roads and communication is very poor and deteriorating. Barpello still has no public transport mainly due to poor road infrastructure. Communication is poor, with net work for mobile phones nonexistent in many parts. East Pokot is classed as a hardship area with many challenges affecting its people. The Holy Ghost Missionaries and Incarnate Word Sisters have worked among the semi-nomadic Pokot for the last 37 years. The mother mission was to be Catholic Mission Kositei, the mission in Barpello and Kolloa Division opened in 1981. The alleviation of poverty and the provision of basic need development is still a priority of the mission to the Pokot. The missionaries continue to do their best and by God’s Grace will continue to ensure that negative issues affecting the community are lessened. Negative issues include, poverty, high illiteracy, insecurity and retrogressive cultural practices that hinder the people from developing. The church believes that education and evangelization is a long term tool to positive development. According to the Uwezo Report findings (2013) East Pokot has the lowest literacy and numeracy rates in East Africa.

There is need to assist the children of East Pokot so that they can be able to move to the next level of education. From this, livelihoods will be improved through education and young people from East Pokot will be exposed to quality education. It is also expected that they will also be agents of evangelization and peaceful co existence to their neighbors.

Barpello High School:

Barpello High School (BHS) opened its door to 48 form one students on January 27th 2007. Today BHS has 651 students most who have come from the most humble back grounds. The history of the Pokot of East Pokot education was something which was unknown. The Pokot people with their children had basically a hand to mouth existence. The Pokot existed on blood mixed with milk and wild fruits as their staple diet. It is only in later years that maize and beans entered into and became part of their diet. The main concentration of our missions was in Education and still remains in Education especially among the poor of East Pokot. There is still much development to be addressed in East Pokot and this needs educated people. The Spiritan Mission has opened up East Pokot to the wider Kenya. This has been strongly influenced by the quality of education provided to learners in Barpello High School.

The Back Bone of the Pokot Economy?

We have repeated on numerous occasions that the Back Bone of the Pokot pastoralist economy lies in their animals from which derives their livelihood & possibly their wealth. This back bone has been shattered on many occasions. This is not the first time that animals have suffered and even died. This “economy” may take years to recover. For Barpello High School the real Back Bone of the Pokot economy is in the Educated son, daughter, brother, sister and learned parents and elders. Education, once taught cannot be taken away.  Education will survive drought, famine and sickness. Education can be a mitigating factor to calamities of a negative nature. Education is not a burden to carry but rather an eye-opener to justice and to the injustices of poverty.

Inter-ethnic School

The Pokot have among many people a reputation of being a warring people, a people of cattle rustling with violent encounters with other tribes. Since its beginning Barpello High School has a vision to bring peoples together, especially warring, neighboring communities. Today Barpello High School is an inter-ethnic school. In Barpello High School there are: Pokots, Tugen, Meru, Marakwets, Turkana, Njemps, Nandi, Kikuyu, Kamba, Teso, Luo, Luyha, Taita, Samburu and Somali-Kenyan. n BHS we try to bring children from many parts of Kenya together, to study together, to play together, to eat together to share their lives and histories, to bring the giftedness of all together and to value and respect each other. n BHS today children to not know tribes or ethnic groups, they know each other as Kenyans without boarders & divisions. Barpello High School is a safe place to be. BHS is situated in a rural community away from the cities of violence and drugs. On Parent days and other social occasions parents come to Barpello High School from many different communities and many parts of Kenya with the common denominator being their Sons and Daughters.

Primary Schools & Water.

Scarcity of water in this severe drought has seen Primary Schools closing prematurely. Learning has to a great extent been paralyzed.

In a great effort Barpello Catholic Mission in cooperation with Barpello High School are trying to do some water tracking to primary and secondary schools to keep these institutes of learning open and deliver a quality education. In effect we are using our mission water bowser (6000 liter) and tractor to take water from a borehole and bringing it to affected schools. Women, young and old are presently walking up to 30 Kms just to collect a 20 liter jerry can on their backs and return on the same journey, to repeat the journey the next day. It is known that some babies up to a week old have never been washed because of the scarcity of the commodity called water.

In East Pokot the prolonged drought and famine has had and continues to have, a major negative effects, there are reports of deaths due to hunger in the midst of conflicts and treats of security operations. In some cases the drought has been over shadowed by the present situation of insecurity. Traveling outside of East Pokot has been made difficult and at time dangerous. Never-the-less, we have to move on for the sake of our communities who are experiencing severe famine. We have to learn from this situation at hand so as to mitigate future disasters. The livelihood of the Pokot of East Pokot is at great risk following increased deaths of their livestock.

Desilting Dams/Water pans:

We are in the process of desilting water pans/dams. (Long-term food security and sustainability Project). Capacity for holding water will be increased. This present drought saw dams & water pans dry up much more quickly than before. This was due to a low capacity in holding water. Because of the silt, water was lost over the spillway. This project is a project in mitigation and preparedness. We are beginning to de-silting dams so as to be prepared for future droughts. As the moment the dams have a lot of silt this reduces the holding capacity of water. By de-silting these dams the holding capacity of water can be increased by up to 50%. This major desilting will be aided by a bull dozer. maller, community water-pans can be desilted on a food for work basis. (Using donor food). We really need to undertake this work with a Bull Dozer and spend about ten hours in each of the four dams, (40 hours). The de-silting is urgent.

Economy of the Pokot of East Pokot:

The whole economy of East Pokot has suffered a great blow! An economy that may take years to recover. Education is no longer a priority, how can we even expect to cover next term fees? Not to talk about 2018? It is a great worry for the education system to be put in great jeopardy.

Having a child educated is the real Back Bone of the economy. It is the educated “Sons and Daughters of the soil” who will fight off the next famine, issues of health will be addressed and families will be lifted out of poverty. How will many parents pay school fees? Many people have lost their livelihoods in this Drought and Famine complicated by insecurity. Many families have lost animals either by drought or due to insecurity. Animals were killed by security personnel in an effort to deplete the economy of East Pokot.


In the midst of Drought, Famine and insecurity Barpello High School remained open for learning. Teachers and Students knew that they were in a safe, secure environment. School Daily Routine and Time Table were not altered. We had no midterm break, this did not become an issue. However, Education is nearly at a standstill with nearly all primary schools closed. Will they re-open for second term? The Government Schools Feeding Programme is on hold as no driver wants to come to East Pokot because of the fear if insecurity. This adds greatly to a large drop out of students as they have to go elsewhere to find a meal (1) for that particular day.

Due to insecurity Teachers from outside of East Pokot have abandoned their East Pokot School in favor of schools in more tranquil settings. This leaves the primary schools virtually un manageable as there are very few qualified Pokot teachers, the rest are volunteers. Many animals have died, cows nearly depleted, goats at a fragile stage. Camels still survive but are stressed as the foliage (Fodder) is scarce. One of their main foods, the cactus is now yellow and dry.

One of the greatest recourses of this area is honey and honey production. To date there are no blossoms on the trees and bees in their millions have died or migrated in search of water. There are ever-growing numbers of those, (under 5’s) suffering from malnutrition. Due to issues of insecurity, Lorries of relief food were not able to access East Pokot. This adds to the severity of the on-going famine. We worry for next year and the rebuilding of a fragile, depleted economy. Will parents be able to support their child in High School? will they have fees? Education could suffer and bring us back. People of Good Will and many different donors and friends have given generously. However, funds are spent and the situation of drought and famine deteriorates daily.

Other parts of the country have received rain but no rains here, just high temperatures and dust.

(a)  Environment:

People have resorted to cutting down trees, there is what looks like a green leaf at the top of a tree, the tree is cut down so that a hungry goat eats that leaf. Honey production is also at risk as bees in their millions have died due to lack of water. Roots of Grass have been burned which will make recovery after rains slower than usual. Trees, even those well rooted are suffering.

(b)  Health:

People and their animals are drinking from the same resource. This brings about Water Borne Diseases. People have resorted to eating carcasses of dead animals. In many communities cases of severe stomach upset and diarrhea have been reported.

(c)  Climate:

The climate of East Pokot is typical of arid and semi-arid conditions; the land is of volcanic origin. The annual rainfall is unreliable, poorly distributed and erratic. The daily temperature range between 44 C+ and 48C+, the evaporation rate is high.

(d)  Fragile Ecology:

The fragility of the ecology due to low and erratic rainfall makes crop production impossible and requires the pastoralist to develop well-balanced resources. The semi-nomadic life style of the pastoralist Pokot is a way of adapting to a harsh and hostile environment prone to drought and famine. In order to survive, the Pokot developed selective grazing and browsing patterns and flexible herd management practices that include diversification of domestic herds, herd splitting and a clear division of labor by age and sex.

(e)  Female Genital Mutilation:

During Times of Hardship, FGM usually is on the increase due to a families desire for money to help them to get over this time of crises.

FGM, is still practiced in East Pokot. Girls are taken from their community and even from primary schools from the age of 12 to 15 to undergo circumcision. This practice is reoccurring on a larger scale during hardships and famine. There is a desire for more of a wealth to survive, this wealth comes in dowry when a girl is ready for marriage. Readiness for marriage is after traditional female circumcision, FGM. Girls are still being initiated (FGM) at an early stage of 12 to 15 years. Majorities of circumcised girls are married off with 12 to 24 months after initiation. FGM ushers girls into adult hood and is believed that this practice prepares them for marriage In the ideal situation the mean age at circumcision i.e. 15 years corresponds to the age at which the girls would be in form two in the 8-4-4 system of education. Initiation at this age psychologically orientates the thinking of girls into marriage, motherhood and all the roles that accompany such status in society. At child birth life threatening dangers are experienced by mothers who are giving birth. The lives of the mother and or her are at risk, one or both may die.


The devolved Government from the National Government to the County system headed by a governor, (in our case Baringo County), the impact of this devolved government has not been felt in the sub-county of East Pokot. The new County System of Governance and benefits derived from this new entity are not fairly distributed this can be due to the marginalization of the Pokot and poor infrastructure.

Teacher Training College:

In partnership with various donors the pioneer missionaries established pro-poor projects in this vast mission area. Projects of Education, Water, Health, and Agriculture were initiated at the hands of the Holy Ghost Missionaries, but providing for the people of East Pokot remains until today an overwhelming challenge. Developments and planned developments initiated, were also hampered by issues of insecurity. There was/is constant conflicts between warring communities which include the Pokot and their bordering neighbors.

To foster sustainable peace and development in East Pokot, the Church, in this vast area of East Pokot believes that education is the most effective disarmament tool. There is a great need in East Pokot, ensuring that any funds invested have the maximum impact. The Church believes that any long lasting change must come through education. In the sub-county the teachers-students ratio in most primary schools across East Pokot suggest lack of quality learning in school classes. Primary schools throughout the world are places where children get a foundation. A foundation that can build a future for the learner. A child’s wholesome development is greatly influenced by the education and life experience that they obtain in their early years. Having journeyed through the past months with a people subjected to unrest and violence. Primary school teachers from far and wide have left East Pokot, opting for a more peaceful home environment outside of Tiyati Constituency. Most non-Pokot teachers have not returned to their respective schools to date. Education is at a standstill. When teachers from other places left their place of employment in East Pokot, they left primary schools in the hands of the few educated Pokot teachers and volunteers.


In many of our numerous primary schools, education is at a standstill. The few local teachers cannot reach all classes, therefore children go without. It will be very difficult for primary school teachers to return into this hostile environment.

There is a noticeable decline in education of primary school students; this may result in poor grades and the inability to secure places in secondary school. This situation can only be resolved by having a Pokot Teacher Training College, TTC. The Pokot must be given the challenge of providing their own teachers who understand the livelihoods of the people and the poverty that they are subjected too. Having our own trained teachers will ensure a place in secondary schools for students who will excel and go to university. Students going for Teaching Practice will do this exercise in their own schools.

The ongoing famine has effected education greatly. Children have left schools in great numbers in search of food to sustain them for that particular day. In the first week of Primary School term the teachers will not come from their homes as they believe that children will not come to school and on the other hand children will be slow to enroll as they believe that teachers will be late. Training its own Pokot primary school teachers will ensure that quality education will be given to our children as they progress to be the back bone of the Pokot Economy.

Those who are educated to teach will be able to have a great moral influence on the learner. Cross Cutting issues such as AIDS/FGM/HIV will be addressed ion this society.

In the same spirit of Barpello High School the new TTC should be a place with an environment which is conducive to study. A place of peace where students feel at home with a feeling of security. East Pokot proposed TTC will be an inter-ethnic school where all Kenyans from far and wide feel welcome. A school of learning adds value in having numerous communities represented and who are willing to show a deep concern for one another in the promotion of peace.

Acknowledgement / Experience:

In my 20th year in Pokot I have no regrets as to my first decision in my application to The Superior General to appoint me to East Pokot. I have experienced an evangelization of myself from those who materially had nothing and are classified as poor. I have been given a unique opportunity to journey with the semi-nomadic Pokot to help them to lift themselves out of poverty. As well as experiencing the life of the Pokot I also came in contact with many donors and peoples of good will. Donors have helped us this far and my hope and prayer is that you continue to help.

For the sake of the children of East Pokot and to give them a bright future the foundation of learning and maturity that they receive is of the utmost importance. The foundation that is laid will provide results in the reduction of poverty, and bring this once barren land to be an oasis of fertility producing 100 fold. To have a TTC in East Pokot will bring the Pokot to aim for the stars!

Our Mission is summed up as Jesus opened the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and found where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me, to bring the good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord”.

(Luke 4: 18 – 19).

The mandate of Jesus becomes the mandate of every Christian, especially the mandate of those who are charged with the spreading to Good News of the Kingdom of God.

The Pokot People, even after 37 years still need help.

April 12, 2017

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