Identification. During the colonial period, the Pokot were called "Suk" by Europeans. To some Pokot, the older designation is a reminder of an era in which Africans lacked the power to name themselves; to others, it represents the clever ruse of a forebear who outwitted powerful strangers by disguising his identity. In the first perspective, "Suk" is an ethnic slur that Europeans borrowed from the Maasai, who denigrated nonpastoral pursuits; the name is said to derive from chok, a short sword or staff used by Pokot cultivators to till the soil. In the second perspective, a Pokot elder, when questioned by Europeans, referred to himself as "Musuk," a term for the nearby tree stumps; his reply is said to exemplify ingenuity and cunning, two highly valued but morally ambiguous traits.
Location. The Pokot live in an ecologically complex region that extends from the plains of eastern Uganda across the highlands of northwestern Kenya to the plains of Lake Baringo. Most Pokot reside in Kenya's West Pokot District, a pestle-shaped administrative unit of approximately 9,135 square kilometers stretching from l°07I N to 2°40I N and from 34°37I E to 35°49I E. West Pokot is the northernmost district in the Rift Valley Province. Situated alongside the Uganda border, West Pokot abuts the districts of Turkana to the north and the east, Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet to the southeast, and Trans Nzoia to the southwest. Cool, rugged highlands that form part of the western wall of the Rift Valley run through the center of the district, separating the dry, hot plains. The highlands—the Cherangani Hills, the Sekerr Mountains, and the Chemerongit range—rise to over 3,000 meters; the eastern plains have an average elevation of 900 meters, whereas the western plains vary from 1,200 to 1,800 meters. Four perennial rivers, all of which feed Lake Turkana, flow northward through West Pokot: the Suam/Turkwel, the Kerio, the Weiwei, and the Morun. There are two rainy seasons—the long rains, from March to June, and the short rains, from mid-October to mid-November. Rainfall varies from less than 40 centimeters per year in the lowland areas to more than 150 centimeters in the highland areas, with deviations of up to 40 percent from these long-term averages. Mean annual temperatures range from less than 10° C in the highlands to more than 30° C in the lowlands. Vegetation includes moist forest, dry woodland, bush land, and desert scrub. The soils, derived primarily from metamorphic rocks of the Precambrian Basement System, are shallow, rocky, and prone to erosion in some areas; deep, fertile, and well drained in others. The highland areas are covered by forests, but deforestation owing to population pressure outpaces the designation of forest reserves; to increase forest cover, which is critical to water retention, the government operates a number of tree nurseries in West Pokot.
Demography. Vital statistics for the Pokot region date from the onset of British rule, but demographic data have not been collected systematically, and administrative boundaries have undergone extensive revision. Estimates for West Pokot, based on colonial tax rolls and national censuses, indicate that the district's total population has grown from less than 20,000 in 1927 to an estimated 233,000 in 1988. Natural increase accounts only partly for this dramatic growth: the number of children born per Pokot woman does not seem to be higher than the Kenyan average, estimated at 6.7 in 1984, and epidemiological surveys suggest that infant mortality may be higher among the Pokot than among other Kenyan groups. Immigration has fueled population growth since independence in 1963, especially in the southern highlands, where the principal administrative and commercial centers are located and where the land supports sedentary cultivation. Population density per square kilometer ranges from 64 persons in the southern highlands to less than 8 persons in the northwestern and eastern lowlands. The age structure of the population forms a classic pyramid shape.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Pokot are a Kalenjin-speaking people whose language (ng'ala Pokot, "tongue or language of Pokot") incorporates words from the neighboring Karamojong and Turkana. The term "Kalenjin" dates from World War II; it is a self-chosen label that has replaced various colloquial, scholarly, and administrative designations, including "Nandi-speaking peoples," "Nilo-Hamites," "Southern N ilotes," and "Paranilotes." The Kalenjin consist of eight principal groups: the Keiyo, Kipsigis, Marakwet, Nandi, Pokot, Saboat, Terik, and Tugen.