My first expedition to tribal northern Kenya

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Jul 27, 2021   

Travelling beyond safaris in times of Covid19

by Eva Colomer

Yes, it is possible. Though not easy, I know. With Last Places you can discover a different approach to traditional (animal) safaris in Kenya. We go further, deeper. This time it was not going to be an exception. Our objective: to reach the furthest north of Kenya and meet several tribes on our way. Animals are not in our plan.

We start from Lake Baringo area, where we are welcomed by the Pokot people, not so well-known by Westerners. Good local guides who can facilitate the encounter are crucial if one wants to understand another culture. You cannot treat people like animals in a zoo. Come, take pictures and disappear. With Last Places, we try to have a moment for introductions, we sit down, we observe each other in the most respectful way possible. Once everybody is being introduced, questions asked and answered, we can interact with each other. And yes, photos taken.

After the Pokot, we head to Dol Dol, home of the Yaaku, whom we share a bonfire with because the night is cold. We put up our tents near a mayatta and serve ourselves dinner cooked by our chef. Tomorrow, an excursion into Mukogodo forest in search of these last people who used to dwell in the shelter of caves when they went hunting is waiting for us. We find them after an hour trek among the vegetation growing where the big rocks allow it. They used to dress in animal skins. Their language, Yaakunte, is in danger of extinction as only about seven elders speak it.

The Samburu, in Archers Post, is our next tribe to explore. Colourfully attired with beaded necklaces and brightly coloured shukas, they invite us inside their huts. These are semi-spherical domed houses built with branches, poles and plastics.  The Samburu share some traditions and lifestyle with the Maasai. For both tribes, cattle are the centre of their economy and determine the wealth of a person. They are semi-nomadic shepherds of a Nilotic origin, that is why their houses are easily dismantled to be rebuilt elsewhere, where the grass is green for their animals.

Later up, to Kargi with the Rendille. We marvel at how the landscape changes and so people and their culture are shaped accordingly. Now, it is a land for camels. Cows would just not survive in this harsh terrain. There is simply no grass for them.

We camp among their semi-spherical huts made with poles, colourful cloths and basically any material available. It is very windy, but this does not stop us from meeting these friendly people whose economy is based on camels. The beasts, providing not only food but also a means of transportation, are gathered at night in a circle made of thorns. The baby camels do not go out and so they cry in the evening as their mothers approach. At night, too, the kids are so curious that they cannot restrain from peeping inside the tents from the open windows. The night is completely dark, only shadows and giggles tell you that this is an inhabited place.

We are not afraid of lack of comfort if this means we can share a starry night by our hosts. Scorching hot days, windy evenings, dust everywhere, winding unpaved roads. This is the toll one must pay to encounter the last tribes. And so, we plunge even further north until we reach Loyangalani by the shore of mighty Lake Turkana, the Jade Sea. What a special place this is! All around is rocks and the landscape only breaks its monotony with stunted trees. Yet, the lake offers a peaceful sight among such harshness. And what a relief for our eyes filled with so much dust from the long journey!

Three tribes are of our main interest near the lake, those are the Turkana, the Dassanetch and the El Molo; but Loyangalani is a melting pot: the Samburu, the Turkana, the Gabbra, the Rendille, the Dassanetch, the El Molo…They all gather in the area, though arid and hostile, extremely windy and dry. How can people live here? one wonders. This is also the cradle of humanity, as it is seen in the TBI (Turkana Basin Institute), funded by Richard Leakey to research and protect our heritage.

The Turkana is perhaps the most iconic group. Their good looks attract visitors easily. Tall, frowning look, deep eyes. Their jewellery and hairdo are very distinctive. This is a tribe used to enduring droughts and famines. Yet, they continue in this land. Where else? This has been their home for generations. But it is true that climate change is forcing them to adapt. They now consume fish from the lake, still abundant, instead of their favourite foods based on their cattle. Fish, you know, was considered taboo long ago. But the lake is also shrinking. Upper north, already in Ethiopia, a swamp stops the water from the Omo River flowing freely into the lake. A new thread to the whole area.

The El Molo also dwell in a little area on the shore of Lake Turkana. They are a very small tribe, almost extinct according to latest studies. Also, their language is a matter of worry among them, as only a handful of people still speak it. The majority have subdued to more dominant neighbouring tribes and have adopted their languages. The El Molo live on fish, which they capture in simple canoes made of several logs attached together. In the past, they also hunted crocodile and turtles. Not anymore nowadays, as these species have become protected.

We reach Ileret after a very long dusty day. The final frontier. Nothing special is waiting for us there, except if you think of the Catholic Mission that gives us shelter, and most valuable, a shower. But this place is the starting point to explore the area in search of the Dassanetch, the people of the delta. We are so lucky and find a village, specially put up for the occasion: they are celebrating the Dimmi circumcision ceremony.

Men, painted in yellow ochre all over, face included, are dressed in a leopard skin and topped with an ostrich feather headdress. On their ankles, they wear a sort of sleigh bells which produce a metallic sound as they stomp their feet. Women, some showing their breasts, dance franticly at the rhythm of handmade rattles. Women’s hair is braided with red mud and dangles graciously as they hop. The braids, attached together, also fall on their forehead in a squared shape. They wear a single feather on the crown, too.

The Dassanetch are scattered along the Ethiopian border, just 15 kms away from where they dance, in Ethiopia itself. Cultures do not understand borders drawn with a ruler and pen some thousand kilometres away.

North Horr is our next destination, already going south and crossing Chalbi Desert. Here is home of the Gabbra people, an Oromo-speaking camel pastoralist ethnic group whose ornamentation and physical culture is similar to many other Cushitic-speaking camel herders. Their robes are so colourful and different from what we have seen so far, that even the photos we take look artificially modified. Their domed huts are scattered on an unfriendly terrain dotted with palm trees and acacia. A blind elder welcomes us in the shade of his house. He wears a very special round white hat, more like a crown, that surrounds his head. A little boy is his guide. The women, first a bit shy and cautious with the sudden group of mzungus who visit them, perform a dance and the wind blows their bright clothes. The instrument to accompany their voices is a camel hide lying on the ground, which they stomp with their feet, and so we have a bit of percussion.

In Marsabit area we find the Borana, related to the Rendille and the Gabbra, as they all share a common Cushitic origin. We are welcomed with a potion made with fried coffee beans which resembles, among other features, that of their neighbours the Oromo in Ethiopia. The thing is that the Borana were originally from Ethiopia, and migrated south into Kenya. Today they are devoted to agriculture and cattle (cows and goats). Men wear turbans on their heads, another feature which reminds us of the Oromo. From this turban a sort of pointed ornament sticks out.

Finally, after a quick glance of Mount Kenya among the clouds, we reach Nairobi. Crazy place. Can this be the same country? This chaotic growing metropolis in Kenya is the new hub in the whole Eastern Africa and due to its strategic position, the city is experiencing unprecedented economic growth. It welcomes us with pollution, honking and lots, lots of cars. Simultaneously, the city is experiencing a demographic boom, attracting more and more people from the rural areas in search of a job opportunity.

We still have some time for a quick visit to a Maasai community in the outskirts of the city. Zebras, antelopes and ostriches dot the meadows we cross to reach this last ethnic group in our tribal safari. Far away, but not so far, one can see the skyline of the devouring city. Amazing. How long will this wildlife resist the pressure of humans? This Maasai community is a good example of adaptation. They keep the old traditions and welcome modernity alike.

This is how we survive.

Text and photos by Eva Colomer: