1. a young girl on the waso

The Waso is life for the Samburu.

A large river ecosystem that begins its journey with two tributaries from the base of Mt. Kenya and the Nyandarua ranges, it flows through the heart of Samburuland and out into the arid Somali desert to the northeast.

It is only Kenya’s third largest river but provides water to a massive area of land and is known as the lifeblood of the north. In that way it’s very similar to the Samburu, who are small in numbers but cover an incredible amount of land compared to other Kenyan cultures.

In Samburuland water is something invisible that you focus on at all times. For me it was something I had to learn to live without, the Samburu I met thrive with the bare minimum.

Walking with Talis I would need water breaks every couple of hours, collapsing in the shade while he stood laughing at me in the sun, refusing water and snorting tobacco from his palm.

For the Samburu water is a key to life through the health it brings to their sacred cattle. Their livestock will pilgrimage every few days to water holes or other rivers. The Waso is their biggest source of water, and for them it holds an intense cultural and spiritual reverence.

2. bathing on the waso

Characteristically wide and shallow, it carries brown water from the green hills of the south, through the vast agriculture operations that overuse it destructively, and along the plains of Laikipia into Samburuland.

Parts of the Waso will dry quickly after rains and parts will never dry. It is a vast organism that supports one of the most vibrant, and threatened, ecosystems on the planet.

3. baboon on the waso

The Elephant carve a single path through Samburuland that crosses back and forward through the Waso strategically. For them, like the Samburu, most paths will lead back to the river eventually for the water and the wildlife it sustains. Traditionally it has been a dependable resource for them, sadly now the flowing waso is less and less dependable, meaning growing conflict in Samburu wells where they now seek water.

4. kipsing luga, a tributary of the waso, from the air

It was always a fear to me camping too near the Waso, because a storm falling unknown upstream could flash a flood that would take us out immediately.

Electrical storms cruelly far off in the distance at night would tease us in a drought with the thought of longer grass that wouldn’t arrive for months. And the next day the storm would have delivered a torrent of brown water, destroying wells and staining riverbeds dark brown for a few short days.

5. Trust founder Julia Francombe standing on a rock above the waso

The wells would be re-dug and we forgot the brown water as we tapped the crystal clear water filtered for hundreds of kilometres through the sand upstream.

The waso has many lugas (dry riverbeds) that feed it. The Kipsing luga was the closest to my manyatta and I spent a lot of time close to it.

Standing at the point at which the Kipsing luga meets the Waso river in February 2011 on my first day living with the Samburu, Talis says it is the second time in living memory that the Waso has dried there.

Climate change and large-scale misuse of water for agriculture upstream means that for somewhere as dry and so dependent on such small resources as Northern Kenya, it doesn’t take many dry periods on this scale to cause massive irreparable damage to the Samburu ecosystem.

The balance these people hold with their environment has been massively disrupted, with the cyclical nature of the seasons giving way to extreme extended drought and massive flooding caused by erosion. Without serious change we are unsure how the climate, and the community themselves will react to this growing catastrophe.

6. boy on the waso


This article is a Samburu Trust collaboration. Please click here for more information.

This Chapter by Sacha Kenyon, Julia Francombe and Moses Lerusion.

All Images and text ©2012 Samburu Trust. All rights reserved.

Image Credits
1,2,3,4,5,6: S. Kenyon.

  1. Tom Lolosoli

    04/05/2012 - 08:48

    I am seated in Umoja Campsite in Archer’s Post just few single digit meters to Waso River punching on the keys of my laptop commenting on this article and I could hear the flow of Waso Nyiro River and the fresh smell of mud of its brown waters now flooding during this rainy season of April-May.

    I feel so proud to be part of Samburu and reading an article of our lifeline — the Waso Nyiro River, as I assimilate every word and stricken by creativity, realness and captivating story of the article.

  2. Jamie Kenyon

    08/05/2012 - 03:29

    Tom, I sit at my work desk in Sydney and I am jealous of your seat!

    Wonderful to hear of the importance of the Waso and looking forward to reaching the elephant poaching part 2 next week.

    JK x

  3. Zyad

    15/06/2012 - 05:00

    I love the elephants in this show and would like to see more of them. In ptiurcalar, I’d like to find out how they learn from the herd as a whole, and use their environment to develop skills. What has happened to baby Maya that the audience named who is she?Rachel F

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