Samburu – Beautifully Harsh

The story. It originally appeared on NY Times magazine Jan 26th 2006 edition – The Call by Daniel Bergner.
The story helped me organize my thoughts about my recent trip to Samburu Land, specifically Rumuruti, Maralal and Baragoi. This post will contain afew thoughts about that specific story and my impressions of both the story and of samburu as i saw it.

The piece reminded me of the few days i spent in Maralal and Baragoi. It was pleasant reading of places like South Horr, Mt. Nyiru, and have a real concept of where it is. Before the trip, i thought that i knew the great rift valley, so wrong was I. On the trip I saw the valley from so many views, and was in awe each time i looked at it. If you travel to Baragoi, you will see more facets of the valley like never before.
Within the article, there is mention of the samburu belief system:

The Samburu faith is monotheistic. It holds its own sacred history in which, I was told, humankind had once been linked to Ngai by a ladder made of leather. Ages ago, a Samburu man, enraged by the death of his herd, cut the ladder, and ever since the people have been disconnected from their deity. Yet when the Samburu spoke to me about Ngai, they evoked not a divinity that is abstract and removed but one that is, though invisible, close at hand, especially on the steep mountains that bound the valley, and most especially on a particular set of ridges and rocky peaks known collectively as Mount Nyiru. This, the tribe’s most hallowed mountain, about 9,000 feet high, rises immediately to the west of Kurungu. It looms over the family’s backyard. Ngai is up there, taking care of his people. He had granted the Samburu the knowledge of how to survive on cow’s blood, Andrea and his crew said. And he was forgiving when the people did wrong. He had placed a spring at the spot where the leather ladder had been cut.

My cousin told me that the spring is in a place called Kisima, and it is a must-see. It is about halfway between rumuruti and maralal, and not too far from the main road. We couldn’t stop to go there, but i plan on visiting next time i go back. There are imprints in the rock of where the animals came off the ladder, and it is revered ground among the samburu.

Click here for afew of my pics [sorry i cant post the rest since they are of family].
I had some misgivings about the attribution of pictures in the original piece in the Times magazine (print edition), a picture of the preacher had clear annotation of his name – Richard Losieku. There was another picture of two samburu warriors with this in the margin
“convertible? Samburu Warriors. Their tribe, especially the men are among the last holdouts in Africa”.
Well, how come their names were not included? If one had the time to take the picture, they would also have a moment to write down the warrior’s names?

The author deftly touched on the topic of FGM and i think his facts were on point. Of note

Most Samburu girls have the cutting done just before their weddings, which often come when they are young teenagers. Others have their clitorises excised as part of a Samburu ceremony initiating and circumcising boys and young men as moran older sisters must be cut before their brothers can become warriors.

It is a real part of Samburu life. What i learned in addition to the above and some of the other points in the article is that the only times that a samburu woman shaves all the hair from her head is after she is circumcised, or if someone in the family has died.

In discussing the linkages between US AID policy and evangelicals…

Even beyond conversion, and even beyond abolition, the impact of Western missionaries in Africa has often been immense. When peace was finally brokered between north and south in Sudan in January 2005, much of the credit went to evangelicals like Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, who runs the mission organization Samaritan’s Purse. He and his staff were well acquainted with the country’s devastation, and one of his hospitals had been bombed repeatedly in the south. He put pressure on President Bush to make ending Sudan’s conflagration a diplomatic priority.

I am abit puzzled that much of the credit would go to the evangelicals, i do understand that in context of what he was writing about, that would flow preety nicely, is it too much to ask for acknowledgement that the sudan peace deal was brokered by Africans, specifically Kenyans like Lazaro Sumbeiywo (nominated for a nobel prize as noted by bankelele here )?

Well, moving along – I feel the same way as the author about the samburu independent spirit. I will let him sum it up, as he does that better than i could, especially the part about the drought in various parts of Kenya.

All across Africa, I had heard cries of desperation, cries for Western rescue. But even in a season of drought, with the threat that livestock would start to die, I heard nothing like this from the Samburu.

The people seemed, as much as the people of any culture can, satisfied with their lives. Their satisfaction was expressed not only in the pleas they didn’t make but also in the praise they gave themselves. They talked about communal land, shared among the tribe’s herds, and about communal lives. ‘In your home,’ one man, who had returned to Kurungu for a break from his job as a policeman in Nairobi, explained to me, ‘you say, this is my bed. If a Samburu walks from here all the way through the mountains, any place he sees a hut, the mat inside will be his. To share, to sleep next to the others. There is always a place. We don’t have, this is my bed.’

On the way to Baragoi, we were on a bus called the Ngiro Express, the bus driver stopped afew times to drop off jericans of water for the samburu who would wait for him to come by. He would typically carry water for the radiator, but as he got closer to the town and did not need it, he would give it away, though he did say that he would also sell the water at times. I was expecting to see people in dire straits, the people i saw seemed to be doing fine.

In talking to some of the people we visited, something important that one of them told me is that the samburu are facing challenges like other seminomadic tribes, especially when it comes to education. For example, he said that 30% of samburu children go to school, this figure being so low because of the pastoralist life. There is no incentive for education, but one program that he thought was beneficial and effective, was the feeding program in the schools. This provided a very strong incentive for parents to send their children to school. Poverty levels are still very high, and as in other parts of Kenya, employment is sorely needed.

I think David Bergner tackled the question of religion and conversion in the piece very well, his discussion with Rick about the effect of introducing christianity to the samburu and how it would disrupt/change the culture was very clear (If you havent read the story please do).
On this I wondered, if i lived the samburu way of life, amidst the grandeur of the plains, the expansive sky with trillions of stars clearly visible, how would that affect my beliefs? If i woke up every day with amazing views of Mt. Nyiru, saw white and burnt orange flowers bloom in parched earth, and between rocks, if i saw the spring in kisima with the marks of animals decending from the ladder, who or what would i believe in?

One thing I learned from the trip to Samburu land is that despite the harshest of conditions beauty abounds…and wow – Life

8 thoughts on “Samburu – Beautifully Harsh

  1. Great post..Nice pics.

    The christianty part has me pondering, in some cases however good the intentions it really does disrupt a way of life…..how does one approach some of their sensitive practices? like FGM ? If only achieveing the balance between Mordern way of life and traditon was easy..

    Thank you for reading, its one of the longer posts i have done.
    FGM is a tough issue , i would like to think that Education is key, but some samburus who are educated still practice it, so i dont know.

  2. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » Kenya: thoughts on Samburu Land

  3. wow the whole story was really impressive i do wish that the writter of this gets more time to come and visit samburu land and get to know more about them that she did not manage that time and get to inform more people about this part of kenya-africa.

  4. this was an excellent post.. felt really good to read about home again, and the pics too, and some things that i never knew about Samburu folk either 🙂

  5. I am abit puzzled that much of the credit would go to the evangelicals, i do understand that in context of what he was writing about, that would flow preety nicely, is it too much to ask for acknowledgement that the sudan peace deal was brokered by Africans, specifically Kenyans like Lazaro Sumbeiywo (nominated for a nobel prize as noted by bankelele here )

    Well, I would not be too surprised about this. A large part of this is the rationalization show by many First Worlders who want to think that their work in is solely for the good of Africa and only for altruistic reasons.

    This “give to Africa to save it from itself” attitude permeates the dealings of aid organizations, missionary organizations and even governments.

    A side effect of this attitude is this thinking that goes something along the lines of “if there is something good happening in Africa, look for the First Worlder associated with it because the must be responsible for making it happen”.

    Sad but true.

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