‘The herdsman’s relationship to his domestic animals is . . characterized by neither preying nor becoming a parasite on them . . in bad times, the successful pastoralist loses weight with his herds rather than maintaining it at their expense’ – Mike Rainy
On my first day living with the Samburu, Julia told me that during drought some morani (warriors) would take all the family’s cattle and climb a mountain where there is better pasture for grazing.
1. moran on Lekurugi
They’ll go alone and if the drought becomes extreme the cows will get thinner and thinner and start dying off, and the moran will get thinner with them because he will be living off only their milk.
The cattle are sacred to the Samburu, and the core of their obsession is this incredible bond their warriors have with every cow. It would be entirely possible in bad droughts for emaciated morani to come down the mountain after two years with only a few struggling cows left.
2. moran with his cow
Over the next few months I really wanted to go up Lekurugi, a mountain known as a navigational marker in the area because of the one lone Acacia tree on the summit.
At that stage I was so eager to see this incredible internal strength that the Samburu have, and seeing proof of it for myself. I wanted to see what lengths they go to for their cattle, and their resilience in the harshest droughts.
3. morani at an empty manyatta on lekurugi
A couple of months into my time with the Samburu we had been checking on a young elephant whose mother had been poached. We were in the area and had a chance to climb Lekurugi.
We took our chance and spent most of the day climbing, it’s not a tall mountain but it’s steep and sweaty and we had no food after the previous week in the bush.
Getting a good way up we heard a group of young morani shouting. Talis was laughing because they were shouting profanities across the mountain at each other knowing comfortably that the rules of their elders were at the base of the mountain below them.
4. moran with mt. kenya in the background
We spent the evening with them below the summit and drank milk. To me it looked like a difficult and lonely job but I was wrong. The honour in protecting your cattle against a drought is equal to the honour of defending your cattle in battle.
Talis was fondly recalling his times securing cattle on mountains, and these warriors relished every minute with their beloved cows.
In the morning we climbed the summit to the most incredible view of Samburuland*. We checked the lone Acacia, as we knew someone who had once had their manyatta there, before moving onto other manyattas on the mountain.
5. children on the mountain
Around midday we found a manyatta that was deserted except for an 8 year old girl. Talis told me that while the warriors bring the cattle up the mountain it was also common for a family’s stronger children to go up the mountain with them with other livestock.
While everyone in the area would group together at night for company and security, they would largely spend long days grazing alone.
6. boy with a goat kid
I spent the afternoon with this girl and her friend, a 9 year old boy. They both had their family’s animals there and would graze them together during the day, they had been up there for more than a month.
They were intensely protective of their animals, mature and strong but still children. The boy showed me his toy herd of cattle which were made up of rocks of a similar size and colour, and I remember thinking it was the same as the toy cars I used to play with.
7. boy with his cattle herd
At dusk some other young people showed up and then the morani came back with the cattle. We milked the cattle and goats and put them all away safely. After the initial shock of remoteness i suddenly felt i had joined a large community.
We had a fun evening around the fire drinking milk and tea that we had brought up for them, and then everyone fell asleep on goat skins.
8. boy with his cattle herd
The next morning the morani took us to a cave on the side of the mountain that an old witch doctor had lived in.
His livestock were up there nestled beneath overhanging cliffs, and occasionally he would climb down to buy or sell a cow and literally pull it back up the side of the mountain with one of his gigantic, muscled arms.
His strength was said to be immense and he was never married, so was considered very strange. His story was a common song sung throughout Samburuland**.
9. the cave home of the witch doctor
Coming down Lekurugi we decided to take a more direct route to get back to Talis’ manyatta before night.
Shortly into our descent I felt a softness below my feet. My tire sandals had punished me over the last week and I looked down to see the soles of each foot peel away in two clean foot-shaped blisters and bleed profusely.
10. moran on Lekurugi
I pretty quickly had a sense of humour failure and after an hour or two even Talis stopped laughing at me for being so weak and started looking for good sticks I could use as crutches.
His natural ability in the bush meant that after a week of walking he hadn’t consumed much more than a litre or two of milk a day, and most days no food at all. Later in the year I would witness him go a couple of days without sleep on adrenaline alone.
Six hours later I was at home in the manyatta with heat stroke, unable to walk.
11. children on the mountain
So after searching for this resilience in these warriors I more or less found it in the whole community. The strength these kids display is incomparable to anything in developed societies, it is an ancient way of living and necessary for survival in this extreme environment.
*Samburuland is a term used by the Trust to describe a group of areas known individually as Pinguine, Kirimun, Ol Donyiro, Tali, Kipsing and Nkare Ndare. These areas do not lie completely within Samburu tribal lands/ Samburu National Reserve. For more information please visit ‘Where do we operate?‘
**the full story surrounding the cave witch doctor on Lekurugi will be in another post to come.
NEXT WEEK: NOSOKONI’S ELEPHANT ATTACK
All Images and text ©2012 Samburu Trust. All rights reserved.
1-11: S. Kenyon.
Infographic: M. Coyle.