We are now in week 14 of the Chapters and have covered most of what you could call ‘the basics’ of the traditional Samburu way of life. We are now looking to introduce you to lesser known, highly sophisticated aspects of their culture. This week we begin with the singing wells.
The link that the morani have with their cattle is a focal point of Samburu culture. Singing itself is one of their most vibrant forms of self expression and deserves a Chapter of its own later, but generally can be described as a singing free form of storytelling.
When morani take their cattle to water it is a powerful experience, they are literally feeding their obsession and maintaining their greatest asset, it’s a sacred moment with their greatest passion.
1. moran and his cattle at kisima
The cattle come in to water at a kisima (well) dug into the ground. A trough carved from wood, or now occasionally metal, is dug in at the edge of the well and water is fed into it by the morani. If the kisima is deep enough it will have a number of morani handing buckets to each other up the different levels to the top. There are areas way out in the desert in the north of Samburuland where you can find kisimas that are the height of five people, and it will take that many morani to water the cattle.
This is a big workout, especially for the moran at the bottom, with continual full body movement for the whole session. The water needs to be kept high and only a few cattle are able to drink at any one time. This is visible in the second half of the video below. The times I was watering the cattle would give me a massive adrenaline rush and leave me totally exhausted, especially if you’re watering a head of a couple hundred cattle. It’s one of those moments when the immense strength of these lithe morani plainly shows through.
2. moran and his cow
Each water point in Samburuland has its own name and characteristics, they are geographical markers and links in their nomadic lifestyle. When moving cattle morani will look at grazing and water first and send messages to each other updating each other on the status of the water in that area before moving.
The song that the morani sing is described as a poem. It doesn’t have a name but it is passed down through the morani, children hear it from birth. It has a hypnotic synchronicity and the cattle know it so well.
The purpose of singing to the cattle is not only expressive, it also has function. Some kisimas will be used by many people with a number of different troughs at its edge. This is a complex problem where cattle cannot be mixed up, though they are branded, but need to be kept apart without any physical way of organising them.
3. morani with calves
In the first half of the video below you can see cattle moving to one of two troughs around a single kisima. They will come to the trough where their owner is watering them because they will know by the sound of his voice, they will recognise his pitch. I have seen kisimas with five different troughs and hundreds of cattle all moving around it, ignoring the trough closest to them to find the one where their moran is singing to them. This is one of the most fascinating examples of the link between the morani and their cattle, and poignant demonstrations of the bond the Samburu have with their ecosystem.
The whole experience is very male-oriented, with morani sitting around talking or washing, all checking out each others cattle and telling stories.
In the video below morani are carrying their trough to a kisima up on the plains of laikipia named ‘SERE E LTUMODET’ (translated as ‘river gotten recently’) to water the cattle. A younger moran from their group has been sent ahead earlier with the cattle and they will arrive at the same time.
Next the cattle are being sung to around a shallow kisima called ‘NOOLOROI’ (translated as the name for a castrated male goat) with multiple troughs around it. Finally a deeper kisima in the valleys of Kipsing two morani are singing to their herd and then taking a break as the final cow finishes.
NEXT WEEK: MOVING HOUSE
All Images and text ©2012 Samburu Trust. All rights reserved.
1-3: S. Kenyon.