On Christmas morning you awaken to the cries of hawks and the songs of children, and lie there thinking about how Africa can seem a sieve of afflictions through which only the hardy may pass. The largest, fastest, wildest, strangest beasts are here. Every poisonous bug, screaming bird and thorned shrub has arrived at this moment through the most severe competition. They have a history of overpowering more gentle environments. You think of lungfish, of killer bees, of AIDS. Of men. Of the great Repo Men, the Nandi, turned from their raiding and become runners.
In the rest of the world, sport serves as an initiation, as a true test. In East Africa, initiation is the initiation. Sport is a pale shadow of the competitive life that has gone on forever across this high, fierce, first continent. Is it any wonder that frail European varieties feel threatened?
There is pavement as far as the market town of Iten. Kibor asks twice if, "just for security reasons," you have enough petrol, and grows a little vague about precisely how far it is to Grandmother's house. Moist red paths have been worn on both sides of the road. Upon them walk brightly dressed holiday crowds, iridescent as birds. The people move with a cool economy. They keep a reserve.
But gaze across the land and you catch a different kind of movement. Sheep and goats at first, and then small children in dirty sweaters, running over the hillocks and the fields of dry maize. When you stop to photograph a few children who are tending sheep, they run away. They don't stop or hide. They keep going toward the horizon.
"They are fearing," says Kibor. "They know their faces will be taken to a different country." The remedy is the miracle of Polaroid. Children watch the resolving images with rapt wonder. Their own faces appearing from the clouds. When they get the idea, they pose with an elaborate solemnity.
You are in the Cherangani Hills now, real Marakwet country, so steep that extensive cattle herding is impractical. The Pokot, Kalenjin people who live down in the Rift and despise the cultivation of crops, call the Marakwet Cheblong, or the Poor, for their scarcity of cattle.
The road grows steadily worse. Kibor says matatus, the crazily crowded, unsafe commercial buses, do make their way up here. One carried him out. Noon comes and goes. At a lunch stop you realize that nowhere in all these hills have you been out of the sound of human voices. They lift, soft and high, from every slope, testimony to the density of humanity here, and its youth. Sometimes kids chase the car, running with a smile and a will, staying there in the dust for long minutes until they make you nervous. After such a childhood, formal athletic training must be just polish, a final pat on the butt.
The subsistence farms give way to a forest preserve of trees hung with vines. Striking black-and-white colobus monkeys hurl themselves through the branches with great, heedless crashes.
Across the Aroror River, huts appear again, like mushrooms after a rain. Kibor begins to lean out the window and yell at people. "My classmates," he says. Sambirir School is a brutal climb up a hill from the village of Chesoi. "There is no field at school for practice," says Kibor, pointing out a cluster of huts down in the valley where he lives with cousins while at secondary school. "I run up the hill on a path. It's not far."
Grandmother's house is still quite far away, however, and seems to be receding. The road is now either a sandy track or a faint depression in the animal-cropped grass. Bamboo, laid down for traction in muddy streambeds, cracks and splinters under the tires. At 10 miles an hour, you are slammed around the inside of the four-wheel-drive Isuzu Trooper as if on a small boat in a sickening six-foot chop.