Besides the expansive landscapes and intriguingly unique wildlife, a visit to this sparsely populated northern part of Kenya, much of which is protected as national reserve, wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the local culture and traditions of the Samburu people.
The Samburu still retain many of their traditions as they continue to live largely untouched by the trappings of modern-day life, are still semi-nomadic and very strongly connected to their traditions and culture. They are closely related to the Maasai and speak a version of the Maa language (Maasai and Samburu understand each other perfectly well).
We have the opportunity to visit the Namayana village, a lightly built settlement located on the outskirts of Archers Post a dusty settlement just across the bridge over the Ewaso Ngiro river. After a warm introduction by Samburu leaders, Tepis John Leadismo and his elder brother Ngeliton Benson Lekutukai, we are welcomed by community members through song and dance.
Their colourful dress and elaborate jewellery (especially on the women), and their traditional dance have us enthralled. A young girl is intrigued with my camera and is delighted to see herself on the tiny screen, soon several of the kids want their photos taken too – it’s always so special seeing their delight. We had asked at the beginning of our tour if we could take photos, which always the respectful thing to do, especially when visiting local communities.
A few goats are tethered to a tree, they are skinny, but at least are out of the blazing sun. We are invited into the manyatta, the traditional name for a Samburu settlement, to experience their culture and see how they live.
John explains their nomadic lifestyle, the way they would traditionally change location regularly so as to find fresh grazing grounds for the livestock. But with the extended drought there is little fresh grazing to be found and little water, except for the river a few kilometres away, so they have stayed in that location many more months than they normally would.
As a result of the drought much of their livestock, goats, sheep, cattle, and camels, have died and young herd boys now take them further afield to find grazing, staying out for several days at a time. It’s a hard life, but one advantage of staying in one location is that their kids are able to go to school. John explains that he was schooled to end of high school with assistance from his community, which he completed in 2016 but has been unable to find employment since. It was this that convinced him to enter the tourism space, to open up their community and share their culture and traditions with travellers to the region. A meaningful experience for the traveller and the opportunity to earn revenue for the community.
John invites us into his neighbour’s hut. It is a traditional in structure, with slender tree branches tied together with strips of reed which traditionally would have been covered with animal hides, grass mats and mud, but now any found covering is used, from old sacks, plastic sheeting, wood and even cardboard.
The interior is partitioned with plastic sheeting and cloth and sleeps mother and father and three children. After they have slaughtered an animal for food the skin is cleaned, dried out and then used as a sleeping mat. There is a cooking area, personal goods are strung up, large plastic containers store water and there are two steel crates, which John tells me is to keep the children’s schoolbooks safe. Such is their value of education.
He tells us that they no longer permit female circumcision, something that used to be an honoured tradition. It was a painful and damaging ritual that despite it being outlawed in Kenya since 2001, is sometimes still practised. I am impressed that he is open about this and realise that it is the [power of education.
He tells us that water is scarce in this area. People have to walk to the Ewaso Ngiro river to collect water in barrels – the name Ewaso Ngiro, roughly translated means ‘muddy water’. Additionally, this chore is dangerous due to wild animals, including hyena and crocodiles, as well as the potential threat from thieves.
We head back into the daylight, to the delightful sound of children’s voices. They are singing to us in English – an alphabet song, using the local animal species as examples, ending with UVWXY Zebra. Followed by a counting song… so cute! Their teacher, a young man in traditional Samburu dress encourages them along. One of the older men show us how to make a fire, he does it easily, but I’m sure it’s way harder than it looks.
As we exit the manyatta we are given the opportunity to purchase some of the local crafts made from local wood, horns, bones, and beads. I admire the exquisite, beaded necklaces, but decide an elaborate neckpiece would be somewhat out of place for me, so choose a beaded bangle instead. We are assured that all proceeds are shared between the women, so it makes the choice a little easier on the conscience.
The insistence to make a purchase was a wee bit harassing, but under the dire economic conditions due to drought were somewhat understandable. Traditionally the Samburu economy is based on the barter system, raising and trading livestock rather than currency, but with their herds decimated they have had to rely on money to buy what they would, in the past have bartered for. A sad reality.
All in all, a wonderfully enriching experience… I just wish that we had had the time to spend longer, so as to have been immersed in their lives, not just to have experienced it as a ‘show and tell’.
Words & pics – Tessa Buhrmann