Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmas Day

Our Christmas day outing is very mellow. We walk to a distant outcropping and do some climbing with ropes and harnesses. Those who aren’t climbing scramble up the rock to the very top and are rewarded with a gobsmacking view. My sense of pride withers a bit when I find elephant droppings at the top. The pale blue sky is dotted with clouds that creep along, casting vast expanses into shade. The wind whistles, swallows skim the treetops, the red landscape rolls out around us. The hush is only broken by the occasional sound of a donkey braying or a goat bleating in the nearby village.

Back at camp, our gift exchange is followed by a feast that I would have been proud to serve. I’m lying around in my tent afterward and hear something brewing outside. A song starts to build in the distance and I head over to have a look. The Samburu men, about 15 of them, are standing shoulder to shoulder and singing. They take a step with the left leg and then bring both feet down together to pound the ground as percussion as they sing a call and answer song. It’s more rhythm than music and when I ask what the words mean, Rana tells me they’re more sounds than actual lyrics.

As they sing, they shuffle around in a tight group facing the same way. Then they pair off, holding hands and move around in a circle. They eventually stop, facing the centre and three or four men wrap their arms around each other and move toward the centre, jumping as high as they can while thrusting out their heads. They move on to jumping duels, taking turns leaping skyward in the middle of the circle. They are smiling and giggling, very obviously having a laugh. They stand in two long lines facing each other, grasping the hand of the man opposite, they shimmy down to a low crouch to the beat of the music. They are very good about getting the kids to join in.

Kerry says that she never knows when the men are going to break into song, that the spirit just seems to move them and they spontaneously launch into it. I love the way she talks about, and to, the Samburu — with profound respect. You never get the impression that she is ordering them around. When the guides are undertaking something, be it unloading the camels or setting up camp there is banter, as though in constant discussion, about the best way to do things. It’s all very peaceful murmuring. The Swahili they speak with Kerry is sing-song while the Samburu they speak to one another seems more about getting the message across and an economy of noise and movement. There doesn’t seem to be much of a hierarchy among the Samburu beyond the respect shown to the elders and the way they communicate with Kerry seems to indicate a similar and honest mutual respect.

I have noticed that while some of the guides are covered in beads — bracelets, necklaces, anklets, calf decorations, earrings — others wear only the remnants — ear lobes stretched five times their normal size without the bone or wood that once filled the hole. Why is that? I ask Kerry. The men are most adorned as young warriors, she tells me, but as they move up through the ranks of junior elders and then elders, they gradually shed the adornment until they wear nothing at all. It is helpful because, aside from the jewelry and the occasional white hair, the Samburu seem somewhat ageless to me. We are shocked to find that the playful Tatián, who I would have pegged as a teen is, in fact, 31. We whiteys, on the other hand, seem to have them assuming that we are all middle-aged, including our teenagers.

Kerry has bought two goats for the men for their Christmas feast. They’ve already had one this morning and she asks if we’d like to go see the second goat killed. Then she asks if we’d like to drink some blood. Yes. And most definitely no.

We stroll over to where the men sleep and they pull the goat out of the bushes and lie it gently down on its side. One man holds the back legs, another holds the front and a third holds the muzzle and essentially suffocates the beast. It is over quite quickly. When the kicking stops, they cut a slit from chin to breastbone and peel back the hide to create a pocket between the skin and the flesh. Only then do they cut the goat’s throat, letting the bubbling blood fill the pocket that is just big enough to accommodate the volume. The men take turns dipping their heads down into the pouch and drink deeply. Only Rufus, Kerry’s son and Rafe, the second youngest of our group are brave enough to have a go.

Boxing day we are again woken at 6:30. One of the men walks along the line of tents and pours warm water in the basin outside, calling out a gentle good morning. The trees that line the river are alive with birdsong. We watch the men break camp as we have breakfast. They move toward the tents in twos and threes and have it all broken down with practiced efficiency. A camel is led over to each tent and made to kneel by banging the ground near their front leg with a big stick. The first thing to go are our sleeping mattresses which double as cushions for the camel’s back, then a metal frame is cinched around their waist and last our tents and bags are tied on to the frame.

We walk up another limestone mountain, taking in the spectacular view. Again amazed to find that, as we scale, we are following in elephant footsteps. It seems this hike is a favourite with our leathery friends. We make it to the top with some pushing and pulling and watch Kerry's husband, James, slip over the edge of the cliff in what, to me, seems a hastily planned rappel.

We pass around the binoculars and struggle to translate directions from Samburu to Swahili to English before everyone manages to locate the herd of elephants Kesheeneh has spotted meandering toward a distant watering hole. In the end the herd makes it very easy for us all, standing at the water’s edge, their massive black shapes silhouetted against the pool turned silver by the setting sun.

Alice spends the walk down the mountain getting the guileless Tatián to mimic a series of totally impractical English vocabulary, much to the amusement of the other guides. She is feeling optimistic about her efforts until one of our group tells her that Tatián’s English hasn’t improved by a word since they were with him three years ago.

The next morning we all gather on a big rock. As the Samburu come to join us, they shout at each other and back to the camp kitchen “garou pitcha, garou pitcha”. I am thinking it means something like farewell and then realize that they’re saying “group picture”. We squeeze in together on the rock, goofing around one last time and then say a very fond and sad farewell to our kind and gentle hosts.

1 comment:

Jenny Wren said...

Hi Sassy, I have been waiting to see your blog, as always you write beautifully, it is as if we were with you. I am surprised that you have a connection to the internet in the middle of the African Bush. I am reminded of the year I spent in Arusha, Tanganyika, as it was then, in the 50's one of the most colourful times in my life. I swore I would go back, and never did. It is all very much more developed than it was then. Give my love to everyone. Wishing you the best for the New Year. Can't wait to hear all about it first hand when you are home. Lots of love J xxoo