Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On the way to Lake Turkana

It’s hard to know where to start. So much has happened in the last 2 weeks.

The extreme budget safari begins
I just returned from a wild and wonderful trip to the remote and arid area surrounding Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya. I went with two new friends from the orphanage, Amy and Sean. We had heard the area was unique in geography, was extraordinary in its diversity of traditional pastoral tribes and that we would be encountering some extremely rugged terrain and spotty transportation and wow it really turned out to be an adventure. 

It started with a variety of crowded matatu’s and got really interesting once we arrived in Nyaruru.
Sean is a talented photographer who wanted to capture some shots to document the Turkana and Samburu tribes. The initial idea was to go with an organized safari group in Ethiopia but it turned out to be too expensive so I tagged along and we created our own “extreme budget safari” of sorts using every type of public transportation and hiring our own local guides.
The trip got interesting in Nyaruru where we hopped on a bus called Maralal Safari – generally just a bus going to Maralal where we heard was the gateway to the surrounding tribes.  We were told it left at 7 am. We asked what time “Africa time” and were told 9 am. We arrived and they said actually 11:30 am. We came back and sat in the outrageously crowded bus until it finally left at 1:30 pm. I thought we weren’t going to hit dirt roads until after Maralal but I was wrong they started just outside of Nyaruru and went on for more than 8 hours. About half way through we started to pick up some tribal groups and the diversity on the bus was extraordinary. The combination of elaborate tribal dress, combined with students dressed in urban clothes and us. Outside we started to see wildlife in the increasingly more arid landscape filled with acacia tress and lots of scrubs. Over the course of the 2 weeks we saw 3 small wild herds of zebra, a giraffe, 3 ostrich, a tons of camels (though they are all domesticated).Seeing these animals in the wild, not even on a real safari in a park was amazing – the just roam the country side outside the bus, or as we are hiking. 

Folks from the Samburu tribe who got off the bus
could learn about the culture. We told them we wanted to go to a non touristy place and he decided to take us to his own village and took us to meet all of his family. We prepared for a 4 hour trek, which turned out to to be 8 hours. The open desert and the huge Kenyan sky was fabulous and really the first time I had been away from bigger cities.
At about the 7 hour mark we had sat down under the tree and a local Samburu tribes man came out to greet us. We were near his property and had just walked by. Initially he was very friendly. He left and then came back as we were walking away and became very irate, yelling at our guides and starting to hit them with sticks. Then he told us in English to “Get Out!” We said no problem and started to walk away. He pointed in one direction for us to go, and took our guides another. We walked alittle way and realized we might have a big problem because we had no idea how to go back or where exactly we were going. We had walked a long way and were completely exhausted. 

View from our camp
We hung back a bit out of the confrontation, but still watched while our guides continued to get harassed by a Samburu warrior. More of his friends or family came over to partake in yelling at our guides. One picked up a rock and each had a machete and club which they carry on them everyday. They walked farther away and one of our guides got hit hard by the warrior on the back of the head which made him fall to his knees. Fortunately our guides stayed calm and didn’t fight back and another local guy came over diffused the situation. What it came down to was the warrior was drunk and wanted money for having us walk over his property. Our guides gave them the equivalent of $5 and we were able to continue to walk on, but for a moment things looked like they might be ugly.  We got out of there and continued to walk to the guide’s family’s village compound and were relieved to have the warmest reception ever. We met his blind grandma and some of the elders and much of his extended family just in time for sunset. I showed them photos of my family and friends and photos of various places in the U.S. I’ve found this helpful many times now to build a rapport since I’ve been in Kenya. The kids and family seemed a little scared of us and there was little language communication, though our guides were able to interpret. It also tends to warm them up to the idea of taking some photos because sometimes kids in really remote areas are scared of the camera. I think they think it’s like a gun or something. When they can see themselves in the digital photos they laugh and make fun of each other. 

One of the guide’s wife offered us a local sugar cane wine next to a cooking fire inside a dark mud/cow dung hut with only 2 book sized windows.
We set up tents at another house outside of our guides brother in law’s fenced in hut where we were told the lions “normally” don’t come in. 

Samburu Culture and Traditions
Samburu warrior
While dinner was cooked so far the best meal I’ve had in Kenya and chatted with our guides about Samburu traditions and culture.  Samburu women accumulate the beads (they wear around their necks) from men who court them over the course of their lifetime and ultimately their husband. Women almost never buy beads from themselves. Women with a lot of beads often have quite well to do husbands. There are several age specific rituals in Samburu culture, for boys they enter a “warrior” stage when they are about 16-21 where they learn to hunt and can not be seen eating because they must be thought to almost never eat because it makes them look strong. They eat together in a remote area of the forest so no one sees them eat. If they do eat in a restaurant they go in the back door and eat in the kitchen! They are circumcised at age 18 and must not wince or they fear being ostracized by the community for the rest of their lives.  Some do actually go for days with out eating. Because the land is so arid and almost nothing grows both Samburu and Turkana tribes drink mostly blood and milk from their cattle and occasionally eat meat.   They often eat nothing else for long stretches of time especially when out tending cattle or goats for long stretches of time. They tie a rope around the cow’s neck and poke a hole in their neck to let about a liter of blood to drink. They will not drink from that cow for another 2 weeks.
While Sean set up his informal photo studio and Amy adjusted the light I was able to talk with the various family members and rest of the village and a ton.

Turkana Refugees
A Turkana elder
We stayed to nights in the Samburu village and then went to a Turkana tribe closer to Maralal.
This village was an entirely different experience – pretty much chaos arranging for Sean’s photos of village elders and some of my own.  It was a learning experience for all of us and the initial situation felt bad, they demanded money and it just feels wrong just coming in taking photos and leaving.  We learned to invite a few women away from the camp to take photos at the guest house we were staying at the next day so we could talk more individually to people and Sean could complete is set of photos of women, warriors and elders. We learned that Turkana tribe were actually refugees of mostly women who were forcibly moved from Baragoi a town about 10 hours north where Turkana’s and Samburu’s were fighting over cattle.
An tradition of the Turkana tribe that can lend to violence is that young Turkana boys are told to go out and find themselves cattle and goats as part of becoming a man – essentially stealing then where they can. Samburu’s are given animals when they are born and breed as well as buy them. In this arid landscape where cattle means life it has become a major source of conflict all over the northern region where the tribes fight to remain control of their herds. The fighting got so extreme in Baragoi that the government moved the tribe to Maralal to try to end the conflict. It seems to have worked, though the Turkana group of mostly women now in Maralal for 3 weeks has no means of survival. As Sean was taking photos of the extraordinarily beautiful women I learned that many of them hadn’t eaten in days.  I bought the 8 women a supply of food for 2 dinners that cost me around $5 and was told that the government gives them less than that every two months.  Many of the men have died in the conflict, some still live in Baragoi in hiding or trying to get their cattle back.  I continued to ask questions and was left very attached to the women. 

Sean, Amy and I are thinking about ways to help these women make a livelihood. I am looking in to the feasibility of helping the women open a small tea cafĂ© or a small store where they can sell some food staples which could be supported by Sean and Amy’s organization.  After I look into a few more things from contacts I made in Maralal and the surrounding community I may go back up there and with the help of my guides have some talks with the community women and see what might be possible. 
Ah there is so much more to say – that was really only the first three days of the trip. I hardly covered any of the random great conversations we had with tribal people who were just as intrigued with us as we were with them like the first place winner of the International Camel Derby or the other friendly folks that constantly were striking up a conversations with us on the street or from the table next to ours over tea.
After almost a month and a half in Kenya I’m unexpectedly even been reexamining my faith after so many Kenyan’s have asked me ‘Are you Christian?’ I haven’t quite had an answer to just a direct question at the beginning of a conversation before I even know their name. Most development projects seem to be run by faith based organizations and it’s given me a lot to think about as I navigate conversations and learn about the culture here.  Religion plays a huge role in the lives of African’s especially Kenyans and I guess it’s forced me to rethink about where I stand on that issue after a lot of years of pushing religion aside in my head. More on this later. 

I guess I’ll save the rest for the next blog as we get closer to approaching Lake Turkana. The transportation gets much nuttier with over night trucks, breakdowns, rides with geode miners and such thick dust we have to stop the car and blaze our own trail in part of the desert on the return trip.

I’m writing from Nairobi in a cozy hostel where we gave ourselves two days of comfort and even a movie  to recover from the body shaking transportation and digest our northern Kenya experience. I’ll be heading back to the orphanage in a few hours. 

Life is good. I am happier than I have been in a long time, learning so much almost every minute of the day and fully engaged in where I am right now. 

Send me an email I’d love to hear from you. Miss you friends and family! Hugs!