It’s no secret that we did a LOT of research about every aspect of our trip before we ever set foot on a plane. It took Kevin eleven months to find the right pair of pants, for crying out loud. Thankfully, however, my research was a little more fun; I recorded every show I could find that had anything at all to do with Africa. I spent my eleven months learning about food, culture, wildlife…..you name it (by the way, if you haven’t seen the Tanzania episode of “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern”, you should. It *really* had a lot of information that came in handy). The day we received our itinerary from Royal African Safaris (ask for Bobby!), I took to the internet and learned about all the places where we’d be staying. We were especially excited about staying at Ol Malo, since we knew we’d get to experience the Samburu culture in an intimate setting. The trip to the market was an unexpected added bonus, and it left us thirsty for more.
When we got back to the lodge, lunch was waiting for us (more accurately, it was a late-afternoon snack since lunchtime had passed long ago, but it was delicious nonetheless). Hussein had gone to visit some nearby manyattas to find out if there was anything going on in the evening, and, as usual, he didn’t disappoint. After we freshened up a bit, we hit the Rover one more time and headed out just before dusk.
This time the drive was only about 15 minutes; our route took us onto the “runway” at the “airport”, which was nothing more than a wide dirt road. We were highly amused to see four giraffe wandering around on the airstrip. That’s certainly not something you see everyday. Soon, we pulled up and parked just outside of the manyatta whose residents would be playing host to us. We stopped just outside of the boma to meet the elder; Hussein passed our thanks along to him, and he welcomed us to his home.
Hussein was an invaluable resource of Samburu cultural knowledge, and he encouraged us to ask any and all questions we had. He patiently explained how the Samburu social structure is based on age-group. When a Samburu warrior achieves the status of elder, he’s allowed to wear a hat. It can be any hat of his choosing, from a WWII helmet to a John Deere ball cap; regardless of the style, it’s a sign of honor. The younger warriors, known as Morans or Il-murran, are typically between the ages of 12 and 25, and they dye their hair red for ceremonial dances.
Having paid our respects to the elder, we made our way past the goat pen, through the entrance of the boma where the warriors were already fully engaged in the traditional “jumping dance” which is part of the courtship ritual. The young men show off their skills to a group of ladies, who then select their partner. The men sing and the women provide the rhythm by moving their necks back and forth so that their massive necklaces create a sort of drum beat.
We were encouraged to get closer and take lots of pictures (in fact, at one point Hussein scolded us for not getting close enough!), so we moved around the area snapping photos and shooting video. The girls were focused on the warriors’ dancing; they were whispering and giggling to each other. While I didn’t understand the words, the language of flirting is universal, and those girls were fluent. It was clear that they were determining who was the best match. The girls ranged in age from 8 or nine to about 16 or 17, but it was the youngest girl who caught my attention.
All the girls were stunningly beautiful, but the littlest one had an almost haunting quality about her. She was actively participating with the others even though she was obviously years younger. She wasn’t the least bit shy, though, and she chose her partner and joined the dance. The girls embodied joy and grace while the men worked hard to impress them. Kevin, who was up for anything, had asked Hussein if he could dance, too, and it was all arranged. One girl graciously forfeited part of her dance with her chosen warrior and led Kevin around the circle. Everything may have rhythm, but not everybody dances *well*. Kevin sure gave it a great try, though, and I was proud of him for embracing the experience.
Hussein then led us into the elder’s house to meet the first wife and learn a little more about the culture. We ducked our heads, made our way in, and settled around the fire. There are no chimneys in these huts, so it was quite smoky. The smoke, however, served the purpose of keeping insects outside, and the warmth from the fire was essential at night; once the sun goes down, it gets quite chilly. Hussein explained quite a bit about the Samburu diet (again, a big “thank you” to “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern”, since we already had some idea what to expect). The staples of the diet are blood and milk, which is why their cows and goats are so important to the culture. Goats have their jugular vein pierced and the blood is collected for consumption in hollowed out gourds (Hussein even explained how the arrow must precisely pierce the vein so the goat would not bleed to death. He even let us touch the tip of the arrow!). The vein is then either sealed with dung or cauterized. The goat recovers and is no worse for wear. The elder’s wife was busy sanitizing a gourd with smoke from the fire. This particular gourd was dyed black which designated it as a vessel for carrying blood (in fact, it was dyed with cow’s blood).
We were seated on a raised platform which was the entrance to the sleeping quarters. As many as 15 people sleep in this one small area. “Mattresses” are made of cowhide, and pillows are made of carved wood and look like little stools (these actually reminded me of the platforms that geisha use so they don’t mess up their hair, and they certainly didn’t look comfortable). The area around the fire served as the kitchen, with the cooking utensils stored in a built-in cubby on the wall. There was one other semi-walled room; this is where the elder shared a bed with his wife when he chose to sleep in this house (he had other wives with other houses, as well).
We were feeling a little light-headed because of the smoke, and we had the answers to all of our questions (they were SOOOO patient with us and thirst for knowledge), so we headed back out to thank the elder one more time and shoot a few more pictures of the warriors and their ladies at sunset. By now, there were a few young children hovering around the edges of the boma. A few of them were practicing their dance moves, and ALL of them were curious about us….especially our cameras. Kevin knelt down and showed them some of his pictures, but I was more interested in getting them on film. They were the happiest kids I’ve ever seen.
Standing in the circle with the warriors and the women, with the sun sinking down on the horizon, listening to songs sung in a language so foreign and yet familiar, I was once again overwhelmed with the realization that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. Music is a universal language, laughter and a smile are currencies anywhere in the world, and everything under the sun really *does* have a rhythm. Everything dances.