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Clinging to the Edge of Kenya’s Northern Frontier

Our Jeep zig-zags to avoid camels roaming among the low cacti and thorny bushes on Kenya's parched and desolate northern frontier. This is my first Jeep ride to reach bush peoples living in this region of East Africa. I am riding with my driver, translator and a pastor we met near the local village of Samburu who says he knows the way to a remote Turkana clan living deep in the bush.  

I arrived over a week ago in the rural village of Samburu, the namesake of the dominant tribe that has resided in the region for over six hundred years. I walked from Samburu through a rock strewn landscape with thorny bushes that scratched my legs to reach the Samburu clans. Dehydrated in the parched wilderness, I stopped regularly to drink the bottled water I brought with me. At the end of the day, my body ached, my legs suffered lacerations and my clothes and body were the same shade of dusty brown as the landscape. I was harassed by a strong urge for a shower and soft bed, but those needs went unfulfilled.

Out here I have been constantly craving nourishment as meat is nearly inedible. Chewing is akin to biting on leather. Electricity is limited, there is no internet and there aren’t any banks or ATMs. I am literally cut off from time and place as I know it. I feel I have left one world and entered another. I feel isolated but excited.

Before deciding to venture out into the wilderness in search of a Turkana bush community, I met with my translator, Shadrack, a Samburu tribesman warrior (muran) and representative for Zohar African Safaris (the tour company I work for). He has worked as a liaison between small bush clans and travelers making sure everyone is benefiting from a community-based tourism arrangement. Being raised in the village of Maralal in the Samburu region and armed with a college education, Shadrack is familiar with the local cultures and the Maa language dialects spoken by the bush peoples in the region. This includes the Samburu,Turkana and Maasai tribes. He also speaks fluent Swahili and English. Though no longer living the traditional Samburu way of life (he’s also a pharmaceutical representative in Nairobi), he has deep concerns about the cultural preservation and physical survival of the northern tribes and was very interested in accompanying me on this trip.

Now, after a briefing of what to expect on today's advenure, we are on the road and all I see are panoramic views of a vast inhospitable desert landscape. The intense sub-Saharan sun creates a monochromatic pallor of brown haze with patches of small green shrubs and a sprinkling of brightly colored kaftans (loose, long, belted tunics) worn by herdsman grazing cattle. Pinkish mountains in the distance frame the desert wilderness that extends to the Ethiopian border.

The intention for this visit is to understand the needs of the traditional peoples living outside the reaches of modern society. I also want to know if they are open to visits by curious outsiders interested in learning about indigenous bush cultures. There isn’t a visible path as we ride through the arid bush. The pastor emphatically points and tells the driver "turn right at that acacia tree.” A few minutes later he directs the driver to "keep to the left of that rock over there!" This goes on for quite a while. Meanwhile, I cough uncontrollably from the dust cloud we've created around the Jeep. Gasping for air I ask, "how much further?"

Finally arriving at the kraal, a village of huts (bomas) surrounded by protective thorny branches to keep out cattle thieves and hyenas, a Turkana elder comes out to greet us and recognizes the pastor. With him is another elder who I am told is the manager of the cattle grazing (this man has great prestige within the clan). To traditional bush peoples, the kraal is a sacred space where the community dwells. Everything in it belongs to the communal collective. Outside the kraal is grazing land.

After discussing the general purpose of my visit, which includes understanding the challenges the Turkana face living in this hostile desert wilderness, they negotiate a fee for me to have the privilege of entering the kraal. This is not so different from the stories I have read about 19th century African explorers who traded beads to enter tribal lands.

Meanwhile, a group of Turkana women wearing elaborate wraps embroidered in rectangular shapes and bursting with a cacophony of color swarm around me in curiosity. I know we both look odd to one another. They are bald, except for a braided patch of hair growing from the middle of their heads to the back of their necks with beads attached to the ends. Some are wearing their braids as bangs dangling on their foreheads. Surrounding their necks are yellow and red strands of beads that rest on their shoulders and are piled up to their chins, giving the impression of elongated necks. Their necklaces move in various directions every time they take a step.

Having paid my "entrance fee," I’m escorted by my entourage through a break in the thorny perimeter of the village. There’s a cluster of about twenty circular thatched huts with conical roofs surrounding a plain dirt area that appears to be where community gatherings take place. As I make my way to the center, I notice a cage hanging from a tree with a baby goat inside.

Children run up to me and stop and stare in complete silence. They have apparently never seen a white person with blue eyes, brown hair and thin lips before. Their mouths and eyes are wide open in awe and wonderment. I slowly stretch out my arm with an open hand for them to touch. They turn in fright and run away screaming in terror.

Suddenly, streaming in from the bomas in every direction the rest of the community comes out to greet me; mostly women, as the men and boys are out grazing cattle.The women are smiling and laughing as they immediately begin a lively chant, clapping their hands and gyrating their hips to the rhythm. Unlike Muslim countries and some bush cultures (Hadzabe, Sonjo) where women are shy and modest around men, these women are uninhibited.

From my previous visits to remote bush peoples living in East Africa, I am familiar with the welcoming chants and dances indicating that I have been accepted into the community. This is great because I love to dance and it gives me an opportunity to entertain them. The energy flows back and forth between us. My movements are not in sync with their beat, which makes them laugh even harder.

A young woman grabs my hand choosing me as her dance partner. The rest of the women form a circle around us. They continue singing, clapping and laughing as they make the rhythm faster and faster until I am physically worn out, winded and wilting in the searing equatorial sun. Needing to catch my breath, I flop on the dry loose soil that reminds me of beige talcum powder and I am enveloped in smokey dust. I cough. This causes the Turkana women to laugh even more. They immediately surround me and the male elders come over to join our dense circle on the ground.

I sense a mutual bond with my numerous dance-mates already, though not a word has been exchanged between us. Perhaps it was the candid foolishness we shared dancing together without embarrassment. I had heard the Turkana were an aggressive and dangerous people who steal cattle. Yet, here I sit feeling relaxed and at ease among these people whose ancient way of life and appearance could not be more different from my own. I feel I have been welcomed like a long lost relative.

When visiting remote tribal-based communities, I have found that if I am open and honest and do not act fearful in any way, they will reciprocally trust me. I already know visitors will feel warmly welcomed here and enjoy a safe cultural immersion experience. I have developed relationships with bush communities like this in Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda where I bring visitors.

The pastor and Shadrack sit on either side of me and help translate. The pastor begins what sounds like a solemn prayer and the chattering crowd immediately becomes silent. The pastor seems to know these people quite well and it’s apparent he is respected as their teacher and spiritual leader. When finished, the lively chatter resumes. My translator explains that my presence among the clan has been blessed and everyone has been told I am visiting because I’m interested in getting to know them and their culture.

Suddenly, an older woman sitting in the back speaks up, “Your being with us today is like a gift from God.” I ask the woman why my visit is like a “gift" and she tells me, "We are honored you cared enough to meet us." I thank her and tell her it is my honor to have been welcomed so warmly by the Turkana.

The elder I met when I arrived, who coordinates the cattle grazing and is a respected authority within the clan, has been listening quietly but intensely to this conversation. He speaks up in a loud voice, "We have suffered many hardships. We needed to migrate south about thirty years ago leaving our historic lands near Lake Turkana in search of water and cattle-grazing land, which is fundamental to the Turkana way of life. We also fled Somali militias who were abusing us on the Ethiopian border. We settled in the land of the Samburu who view us as outsiders encroaching on their grazing lands, which is considered stealing to other cattle herders. Tensions between us have gotten so bad is has led to cattle raids at night. Firearms have been used and some of our herdsman have been killed. Due to drought, which has led to overgrazing, we must wander far from our village to locate water for our herds."

I ask the headman," Without natural water sources to support your community as you once did, what kinds of support would be helpful to you now?"

"Our basic needs outside of water are having money to pay for the education of our children,” he says. “They may need this education during periods when we have no water and they can be employed doing other jobs to make money. We also need health care nearby. There are no permanent doctors in Samburu, just some occasional aid workers. We also need a way to transport our cattle to market to sell."

Some of the young herdsman are starting to return to their bomas and one of them tells me he needs money to buy school books. “Can you help me buy books?" he asks. Instead of answering this question right away, I ask him why he attends school. He repeats what the elder told me, "I would like to find work when there is no water to herd cattle so I can buy things to support my family."

The elder asks me point blank "How can you help us?" I am careful not to give false hope or make promises I can't keep. I also do not want to share my thoughts about long term solutions that could significantly impact their survival but would offend their traditionalist sensibilities. This includes suggesting they make a more permanent transition to a non-land based economy, practice birth control and give up their polygamous way of life so there are less children to support. I wait to suggest these ideas to the headman in private.

As the sun begins to set, I realize we will never find our way out of here once it gets dark. I begin to get up but one of the men catches my attention. “A mzungu (outsider) visited us a long time ago,” he tells me. “He stood the entire time. We like you much more because you sit on the ground like us and look at us eye to eye when you speak.”

After breaking from our communal discussion, I wander over with Shadrack to the elder who asked me how I could help. "Would the community be open to host visits by other mzungu’s, like me, who will pay for the privilege of your clan’s hospitality?" I ask.

"Yes!" he says without hesitation and invites the pastor over to join us.The pastor and Shadrack agree to work together as liaisons between the Turkana and Zohar African Safaris. Shadrack has already worked with several different clans in Kenya and though he doesn’t have formal training as a professional tour guide, he is adept at lifting the cultural veil surrounding remote peoples that travelers would otherwise be unable to see and experience. He ensures that cultural visits to the Turkana will be respectful and genuine and that the community will be fairly compensated for opening its home to visitors.

I tell the elder I would appreciate it if he could coordinate visits with other nearby Turkana clans as well. This would allow us to rotate visitors to various clans so no one community gets "over touristed." He does not fully understand my concern, but the pastor does and agrees to discuss this with the elder. I also request they not change any customs or traditions they would normally take part in during their daily life when visitors arrive as I  want to avoid "rehearsed performances." This is agreed upon as well. This minimizes the negative impact of the tourist “footprint” diluting the culture and keeping immersive visits fresh, spontaneous and “real,” which has worked well with other groups.

While driving back during sunset, my eyes slowly readjust to seeing vivid colors again after squinting to avoid the sun’s glare all day. I leave with my familiar mixed feelings of sadness and joy after spending time with a bush community. I feel sadness for the probable extinction of a precious way of life and a rich traditional ancient culture with a deep sense of community that may not exist in another hundred years. I feel a certain powerlessness to help them, yet I feel great joy having met them. I hope visitors will feel the mutual camaraderie I felt and will contribute to helping the Turkana find a way to reach their goals. To buoy my spirits I try to keep in mind the adage from the Jewish sages, “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved a world” (Perkei Avot). Perhaps by those of us meeting peoples like the Turkana, we can share our stories about a precious island of humanity that lives just outside our world and perhaps this alone can start to make a difference.

By Dr. Ken Firestone

Ken has a doctorate in a sub-specialty of cultural anthropology and is a professional educator and a psychotherapist. Ken also facilitates groups in informal educational settings and applies his background to business, leadership, community development, and international humanitarian relief efforts. He is currently applying his background and interests to the creation of interactive cultural immersion experiences for travelers in remote areas of the East African bush. He integrates informal experiential learning with economic development in East Africa through Zohar African Safaris Ltd, a company her helped establish.

Zohar African Safaris

Zohar African Safaris Ltd., based in Arusha, Tanzania, is a niche safari tour operator offering custom-designed, small group, holistic, immersion experiences in the East African bush. Zohar blends game viewing, interactive cultural experience and recreational activities that keep its clients continuously engaged throughout their African safari.

October 15, 2014

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