The singing wells of Samburu

samburu_moran (2)

The arid region of northern Kenya experiences frequent drought but even in the “good years” the dry season leads people and animals to go to extraordinary lengths in search of water.  The Matthews Range forms a jagged natural amphitheatre, the floor of which is covered with acacia scrub, weathered rock kopjes and sand rivers which seldom flow anymore.  In this harsh landscape, the pastoralist Samburu tribe eke out a living herding their cows and goats from one patch of meagre grazing to another.  They are semi-nomadic and their simple, smoky shelters of curved saplings plastered with mud and cow dung will be reconstructed in a new spot when the forage becomes too scarce. This is one of the few places left in Africa where people still coexist alongside abundant wildlife without the artificial boundaries of national parks and reserves.  This is not to say that there are not frequent incursions by wildlife into human territory or vice versa but somehow they muddle along.  This area is home to elephant, wild dog, leopard and hyena in addition to a variety of other herbivores and small mammals. A bushwalk from Sarara Camp in the Matthews Range took us up an old riverbed in the height of the dry season.  From some distance away, the sounds of livestock could be heard, their bleating and beaten iron bells echoing from the hills.  The herds were milling impatiently with their child-shepherds around a narrow metal trough.  From a broad shaft dug roughly down into the sand, perhaps 25 feet deep, came the sound of men singing.  The voices belonged to a chain of four or five young warani (warriors), red shukas over lean, muscular torsos, elaborately accessorized with strings of multi-coloured beads looping around their necks, across their ochred foreheads and swinging from their ear-lobes.  A series of funky vintage vegetable oil tins filled with water were passed up to the top of the shaft where a particularly statuesque young man tossed it expertly into the trough for the thirsty animals.  All the while, the singing reverberated from deep within the sand river, the harmony of deep voices carrying across the heads of lowing cattle to the grey hills in the distance.

Posted by: Amanda Mitchell

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