Tuesday, July 22, 2014


There are many valleys in central Kenya that seem perfect for a village--sky-blue streams flowing lazily beside green fields that appear perfect for cattle, goats, and sheep:
And there are other regions a little less compatible with human and animal needs, but perhaps still workable:
But in a parched, desolate part of the Great Rift Valley is a small village of native Africans of the Samburu tribe, a people related to the better-known Maasai Mara tribe. Our tour company had arranged an optional side trip to a Samburu village for anyone who was interested, and a small group of us rode down rutted dirt roads in our plush, well-padded Land Cruisers to the village's current location. The Samburu are nomadic shepherds, and they relocate every five or six weeks when their cattle, sheep, or goats have cleared the already barren land of anything edible. They seemed to have been in this spot for a while as we could see very little vegetation in close proximity to the village.

The Samburu women were expecting us, waiting patiently in their colorful and wildly patterned clothing, rubber sandals, and layers upon layers of ornate beads:

The word Samburu means "butterfly," perhaps a reference to their delicate, kaleidoscopic adornments:
Chanting in high-pitched unison and bobbing up and down in a rhythmic, lurching dance that caused their necklaces to flap like wings against their chests, they approached as we emerged from our air-conditioned comfort:
Just behind them we could see the homes where they lived, in fact which they had built themselves, a task assigned to women in the Samburu culture, along with taking care of the children, milking the animals, preparing the food--everything but building the protective wall around the village and standing guard at night.

The Samburu men seem to have it pretty easy, not to mention that they practice polygamy.  I like the way Elspeth Huxley put it in The Flame Trees of Thika: "This appears to be a country where women do all the hard work while the men look fierce and decorative, like cock birds." (See more on the book at the end of this previous post.)

The native women placed beaded hoops around our necks and invited us to be part of their dance:

They led us on a bouncing, bobbing walk, encouraging us to flaunt our beads as they were doing, and continued with their shrill, hypnotic singing:

There was a little snickering going on as they watched us, but I'm sure we weren't the first tourists to embarrass themselves:
. . . but we had a great time nevertheless:
When we were done, it was picture time:

Then it was the men's turn:
While the women's specialty is bouncing beads, the men's specialty is jumping. Wow, can they ever jump.
One after another, they took turns springing straight up into the air:
Like the women, they encouraged their visitors to follow their example:
After each jump they would cry out, "Supah!" (Super?)
The Samburu people are very dark skinned and very, very long and lean.
Like the women, the men also got a chance to dance:
. . . and pose for pictures:
Next, we had a demonstration of the old Boy Scout favorite, starting a fire with two sticks:
The man in the foreground is missing a shoe. With the
thorny acacia branch-based construction of the village,
going around barefoot could be very painful.
It didn't take long until we saw a promising wisp of smoke:
. . . followed by a very convincing flame:
Bob was the lucky recipient of the fire sticks, now proudly displayed in his home office:

Our two guides were young people, a woman who had gone away to school and lives away from the village but who comes back to help with the tourist visits (I'm guessing she is one of the few who speaks English), and the son of the chief of the village who is next in line to be chief:
Note the woman's dyed hair and denim skirt. She definitely
didn't look--or act-- like the other women.
The male guide told us proudly that he had just purchased his second wife. The standard price is ten cows, and one must be wealthy to be able to afford that price. The elders choose a man's first wife, and he must accept her regardless of his personal feelings. "There is no way to say no," he told us, "just 'Thanks, Dad!'"

He also told us:

• Wives don't argue with each other. When there are problems, they go to the elders of the village to settle the dispute. (No arguing? Hard to believe. I think the husbands are just oblivious.)

• Grandmothers teach girls about sex and marriage.

• Female circumcision is not practiced. (Official policy.) Female circumcision is practiced. (What is really true.) However, it's only a partial circumcision. (Who knows if that is true.) Females are circumcised shortly before marriage. Men are circumcised at about age 16.

• This particular village has converted to Catholicism. (I'm not sure how polygamy fits in with that.) I was surprised to learn from my research that four-fifths of the population of Kenya is Christian, with over 23% being Catholic.

• Their domed houses, the poor cousins of Siberian yurts, are always round so that evil spirits have nowhere to hide. Even the animals live in domed homes.
Goat pen
Some of the houses are a little bigger than others, and the women use whatever is on hand for waterproofing, including cardboard and plastic, although cow dung is the most traditional material:
We were given a tour of a mid-sized model:
It wasn't Hearst Castle, that's for sure:
Cow dung plaster was visually and olfactorily present, and we saw a few plastic bags hanging from branches, but there was not much else. I guess when you move every 6-8 weeks, you can't haul around a lot of extraneous possessions, or perhaps this was just an undecorated model home.
The women should be proud of their handiwork. They are able to build these houses in a single day after the tribe relocates:

. . . but it takes the men much longer to build the thorny acacia fence surrounding the compound:

Many of the older children go away to boarding school, but then return to the village. The younger children are taught on-site:
Classroom #1:
Classroom #2:
Shaved heads for both sexes is very common, especially among the children:
After the children recited the ABCs for us, we jumped in for a photo:
Many of the children were more interested in looking at us than at the camera.
I'm not sure what this structure is. A picnic pavilion?
We paid a small fee for the tour, and it included freedom to take all the photos we wanted to. It was nice to feel at liberty to do that for once:

Soon it was time to say good-bye:
I wish I knew what would happen to these women in the coming years, especially that beautiful, exuberant little girl in the peach-pink dress. Although all looked peaceful on our visit, ongoing conflicts between tribes and between the Samburu people and local police continue. (See additional stories here and here.) How long can an indigenous people survive in the face of this kind of activity? And how long will they be able to resist the technology spreading over their country? (We did see a few shepherds in their native dress talking on cell phones--very incongruous.)

On a short drive through the Shaba National Reserve on our way back to the lodge, we passed a few more local residents:
Clearly, this herd did not think too kindly of our privacy-invading shutterbug vehicle.
This yellow-eyed, big-headed, skinny-necked bird is a "buff-crested bustard":
Our sighting of this bird led to a hilarious conversation with our driver over the difference
 between the words "bustard" and "bastard." Perhaps we should call this bird the "foul fowl."
A lonely augur buzzard surveys his kingdom, looking for dinner:
We met up with the members of our group who had not been to the Samburu village and posed for our first full-group photo:
Of course, since we were getting out of our vehicles, we had to bring this guy (and his gun) along:
Bob and I had our own moment in the sun, but notice how long our shadows are:
The sun was beginning its languid path to its bed on the western horizon:

. . . wilting, drooping, dwindling:
. . . with one last grand salvo before disappearing into darkness:

The 1959 seriocomic novel Henderson the Rain King, by Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, tells the story of a middle-aged, ennui-laden, American millionaire named Eugene Henderson who travels to Africa in an attempt to quiet his persistent inner voice crying "I want, I want, I want."

In Africa, Henderson spends time with several different native tribes, and through a series of ridiculous misadventures, finds himself named the Rain King.

While not really a serious novel, it is too sad and philosophical to be a pure comedy. It's also not meant to be taken literally, especially the descriptions of the natives and native cultures, and yet there is a definite flavor of native tribalism in the descriptions of the villages, lifestyles, and customs of the characters.

For example, our guide in the Samburu village told us is that dead or nearly dead tribal members are wrapped in cowskin and left outside the village fence for two days. If the hyenas don't eat the body, it is assumed the person was bad. If the hyenas do it the body, however, it is assumed the person was good. Since hyenas eat everything in sight, chances are pretty good, using this system, that every dead person will be deemed "good." It is a story that could have come straight out of Henderson the Rain King.

The Samburu, along with the Maasai, are one of the last East African tribes practicing ancient rituals. Our guide also told us about the coming-of-age ritual for young men, a procedure that would also fit well into Bellow's tale: A live goat's neck is punctured and about one liter of blood is drained. The goat is sent back to the herd to recover, and the goat's blood is drunk warm straight up or mixed with goat's milk. Not exactly a standard cocktail.

Henderson the Rain King is #21 on Modern Library's List of the 100 Best Novels in the English Language and is said to be Bellow's favorite of all his works.


  1. This visit to the Samburu tribe was very worthwhile. It is hard to believe that people can be living that way in these times, yet they are and seem to be relatively happy. It is hard to imagine this way of life surviving more than another 20 or 30 years. One father announced proudly that he had three daughters - they would eventually bring him 30 cows. I'm not sure the system will survive that long, but I guess it has been entrenched for centuries and can probably survive longer than we might suspect.

  2. What elegant people. I love the colorful clothing, and shaving of the head. Interesting culture and beautiful scenery--what more could you want?

  3. We lead such complicated lives, and yet there they are dancing and cheering, obviously happy. Puts things into perspective.

  4. I'm guessing you had to give back the beads (darn). After reading Half the Sky, I am rather pessimistic about the women's chances of surviving healthily to old age. While you did show some old mothers, I, too, wonder about that girl (with the torn dress--interesting to see the contrast of the Western clothing among the "company best" drapes of cloth on the women). An interesting visit to a side of life most of us will never experience. This visit and your thoughts are esp. poignant in the face of Ann Coulter's snide and uncouth recent comment about visiting Africa and contracting ebola. Travel widens our horizons.

  5. Letterpress, Half the Sky is a great reading suggestion for this post. What a book! I will have to add it.