Once the car had branched off the smooth, tarmacked surface of the A2 road on the last leg of our journey to Samburu, I sensed that we were entering a different world. I was not disappointed. Once darkness had enveloped us we were startled by the sudden appearance of a leopard. It strolled with the confidence of a king across the dirt road, causing us to slow down, and then gazed curiously from the safety of the tall grass as we passed. “Did you see that,” we exclaimed. “So powerful! So beautiful!” I marveled at the might of Nature, to have the means to create such a magnificent beast, and I felt vulnerable knowing that creatures more powerful than I were lurking in the night.
The next wave of excitement came when we spotted a huge elephant moving slowly away from us. “It’s like a small hill,” cried George, our driver. George had recently been chased by irate elephants close to this very place. A number of elephants and their young were standing in the middle of the road, looking solid and immovable. George edged the car forwards hoping they would disperse, but that was wishful thinking. To make their annoyance unambiguously clear the elephants charged. George made a rapid U-turn and fled for his life (for an angry elephant a Toyota pickup is something like a matchbox).
So by the time we reached Wamba town we felt like intrepid travelers, enlivened by experience, excited by novelty. But we were ready for more. The next morning, while driving along Wamba high street, we spotted a number of “moran,” the warrior protectors of the Samburu tribe. These young men, aged from 15 to 30, are characterized by their bright clothing, colorful bead necklaces and bangles, hip-hop style head covering, spears and knives. They roam across the Samburu lands, proudly protecting people and animals.
I was especially intrigued by their initiation into the warrior lifestyle. The evening before the initiation the boy sits on a cow skin surrounded by other warriors. Milk is poured around the skin as a blessing, the elders recite special prayers, and warriors sing songs of encouragement the whole night. In the morning the initiate is circumcised. The boy has to look unflinching at the operation, otherwise he will bring shame on the clan and no girl will marry him. The newly initiated moran now enters an apprenticeship period which lasts as long as it takes him to kill enough birds to make a garland of birds around the top of his head.
I was happy to see that the Samburu still value the initiation or coming of age ritual, when many Africans have abandoned it for being uncivilized. No doubt, the killing of birds is unwarranted, but I believe there is value in a young boy going through a special process to enter manhood. This is a time when one can sit with the elders and sages to learn about the history and ethics of one’s community and strengthen one’s character with tests of courage and endurance. I would love to see such practices introduced into modern societies for both young men and women, to help direct attention to character-building and not just career-development.
One day, after climbing a small mountain to inspect a water source (one of the few perennial ones in this drought-prone area), Stephen my guide and our employee, invited me home for a glass of milk (from his own cow and enjoyably sweet and creamy). Sitting in the sparsely furnished living room were two moran (one of them Stephen’s brother), idling away their time. The elders have been encouraging the moran to continue their schooling and to engage in income generating activities to utilize their time more productively. Regarding the latter, some moran started to rob passing vehicles, which was not what the elders had in mind! Other moran have been raiding the cattle herds of neighboring tribes – in part to prove their courage and smartness – but that causes retaliatory strikes from newly-created enemies. The elders are also discouraging the pillage of other tribe’s properties.
Having successfully provided food and medical care to the Samburu during the drought period, AMURT (www.amurt.net) is now entering the development phase, with a focus on women’s empowerment and water harvesting from school roofs. Women are all too often treated as possessions by their men, with an undue share of household chores falling on their shoulders, and a complete lack of inheritance rights. Women’s leaders such as Rebecca, a successful businesswoman, are now working with AMURT to both empower the women through economic development in the form of a consumers’ cooperative, and change the mentality of the men to support the granting of more rights to women. The other issue being addressed is female genital mutilation which is prevalent in the area.
We are hoping, along with the Samburu leaders, to bring a development to the area that enhances the positive qualities of the Samburu, while eliminating the more negative practices. On the positive side, the Samburu are communal in spirit and action, sharing resources, promoting collective ownership of land, opening their humble huts for any weary traveler, and welcoming all boys of the same age as their sons into their homes. But their culture also has many negatives, such as throwing disabled babies into the river (being a pastoralist society, they do not want to be slowed down by people with handicaps), and denying education to girls.
The Catholic Church rescues abandoned disabled infants and takes care of them until they can be integrated into society. One of our employees in Coast Province is a physically disabled Samburu who was rescued by the Catholics. He has helped us successfully launch an income generation program for caregivers of vulnerable children. Imagine the loss to society had he been killed as an infant.
We feel privileged to be working on development with the Samburu, striving together to build a better world where a marriage of the old and the new furthers the wellbeing of more human beings, and where the animals that have roamed freely for centuries can continue to cohabit the world with humans in a way that is mutually beneficial to all.