There is a Nilotic subtribe of the Maasai living in north-central Kenya.
They call themselves Lokop or Loikop, which some agree translate to ‘owners of the land’, but we know them by the dialect that they speak. The Samburu.
As semi-nomadic pastoralists they have occupied themselves mainly with herding cattle, sheep, goats and camels. Little has changed in the Samburu tribe for centuries and the elders continue to hold all the power within their gerontocratic culture, even in modern times. They have a monopoly over arranging marriages and whether someone can take additional wives. Most dangerous of all, the old men can also curse the young on a whim.
A young Samburu man has a prolonged adolescence, as they will not be considered grown up before they turn 30.
Unfortunately for other cultures who might think that this might be a sensible plan, these young men tend to use this status of social suspension as a license to freely engage in deviant activities, including gang feuding between clans, widespread covert adultery (often with the wives of the older men) and the theft of stock.
In the mid-19th Century, the Samburu controlled an area of land stretching all the way from Lake Turkana to Ethiopia.
Many wars with the Turkana and the Purko forced them to retreat to their current Namunyak community, where around 1,200 registered families now live.
Prior to the arrival of the colonialists the Samburus survived on cow, goat and sheep milk.
They traded with their neighbors and foraged for wild foods. From the eighteenth century on, they started eating significant amounts of small stock and in the twenty first century, cattle and small stock became diet staples. Milk continues to be a daily and very valued part of the contemporary Samburu diet, with fermented milk considered superior.
Cattle meat is eaten mainly on ceremonial occasions, or when the cow happens to die. Small stock meat is eaten more commonly now, but not regularly. Other food is purchased with money acquired through livestock sales. Maize meal is made into porridge and tea (drunk with large quantities of sugar) a very common beverage. The Samburu also drink blood from living animals, preparing it in at least 13 different ways before they enjoy it either as part of a meal or as a complete meal.
To the Samburu, God (Nkai—interestingly a feminine noun) will protect them from all the hazards of their existence.
If an elder curses a junior for some show of disrespect God will decide if the curse is justified and may inflict punishment. The junior can however approach the senior and offer some form of payment or reparation to dissipate the elder’s anger and then God’s protection may be restored. They also believe in Shamans.
Spotting members of the Samburu tribe is not difficult as they have a distinctive sartorial style.
Men can usually be found in a pink or black cloth that is wrapped around their waist like a kilt. Warriors or moran wear their hair in long braids, colored with red ochre, which will be shaved off when they become elders. Women wear two-piece garments in blue or purple. They keep their hair shaved. Everyone is adorned with vibrant, beaded necklaces bracelets and anklets. The jewellery is not simply an embellishment as it also signifies status.
Modern Samburu may add modern clothes to the mix. Kikoi cloth and shorts, as well as floral or pastel cloths are popular additions to the men’s wardrobes. Women have also grown fond of animal and floral patterns in deep colors and taken to wearing tank tops and kikois.
Another important and essential essence of the Samburu culture is dancing, accompanied only by a cappella singing. The men will gather in a circle, jumping high, from standing, whilst they sing.
With cattle being wealth, herds have been increasing in size.
Now a single herd may have as many as 1,500 cattle. And the Samburu’s neighbor’s the Pokot have built their own enormous herds. These big herds have resulted in resource-based conflicts.
Armed groups hindered access to grazing areas and instances of targeted raids and destruction of property were often reported especially at the end of the dry season. As droughts became recurrent since 2010, culminating in the catastrophic 2017 drought and an epic battle for pasture, both sides were forced to invade the nature conservancies of Laikipia County.
Set within the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy Trust it is surrounded by 850,000 acres of wilderness that is owned by the Samburu people.
The place is buzzing with wildlife. Leopard and wild dog on your wish list? How about elephant, buffalo, giraffe, gerenuk, impala and warthogs? And if all that is too tame, it is also not unheard of to see striped hyena, civet and African wild cat, greater kudu, Grevy’s zebra and every so often, the odd aardwolf.
Here, one of the Samburu tribe’s most significant traditions, continues uninterrupted.
A very select group of guests are allowed to walk with the Samburu warriors as they take their cattle to a dry river bed in the early morning hours.
The land is desolate and the tall warriors strip down and start singing and then the digging starts in earnest. As the dry season settles in, the water table falls, and the wells must reach down deeper. More naked men climb into the holes to dig, to sing and eventually to pass buckets of water, man to man through 5 or 8 pairs of hands to the surface. The cattle are calm. They know what is coming. The day will be dedicated to slaking their thirst.
Once the water appears the cattle will recognize the song of their own herder and amble over to drink. As soon as one herd has had their fill the men give each other a sign and the music changes. Now the herd wanders away lazily… their places taken at the wooden trough by a new herd who recognized their own personal call to the stage.
It is a modern ballet, choreographed by Balanchine from beyond the grave.
Uneven arabesques and deep plies with long open lines that suddenly break. Naked muscles displaying extreme athleticism.
As the sun sets, the final act opens on the performance when the leopards, elephant herds and other wildlife come to drink from the wells. Sustained by their Samburu friends.
This is quite a turnaround.
30,000 Elephants and rhinos were poached in this area, between 1977 and 1995.
The high poaching rate resulted in the Grevy zebra, African wild dog and the reticulated giraffe also disappearing. The area happens to be a critical corridor for the Samburu/Laikipia elephant as it links the National Reserves in the south with the Mathews Range and remote conservancies in the North and East.
At the height of this crisis, in 1989 Nike made a television commercial for hiking shoes. At the end, a Samburu tribesman spoke in Maa, over the Nike slogan “Just Do It”. An anthropologist correctly translated his words as “I don’t want these. Give me big shoes.”
Nike’s unfortunate mistake was cause for moral outrage and was widely reported. Unfortunately, the devastation of their home and the serious conservation crises never made the papers.
Overgrazing on an extensive scale was also causing incredible land erosion. It was crucial to convince the Samburu community that the wildlife was not competing for grazing for their cattle but could be a source of income. Local herdsmen were kitted out with radios to report poaching. It was the beginning. Slowly wildlife started to return, and visitors started to come. A sustainable income became a realistic possibility.
Then, in 1995 the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust was established, and peace descended on the area. First, four thousand elephants returned and then, other animals followed.
Today Sarara lodge is the Samburu’s major source of revenue.
Nestled into the Wargress Mountain with views across the great Mathews Range amphitheater, the lodge is 100% owned and managed by the Namunyak community.
So, when you walk with the Samburu and witness the centuries old, unchanged tradition of the Singing wells you are witnessing ancient Africa and glimpsing the future of conservation.
And, maybe most intriguing of all… you are not allowed to take a single photograph of this confluence of magic. You can only stand in the middle of it all and appreciate the wonder that is Africa. Listening to the songs.
Maybe you will recognize some of the Samburu Cattle’s Water Calls scattered throughout this post?
Feature image via Jeff Turner