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Return to Kenya

  • Posted On: 10th June 2013
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Returning to Kenya on a cultural safari to meet and photograph some of the country’s peoples, in particular the closely related Samburu and Maasai nomadic tribes is our roving travel, photographic and food fanatic Summer Nicks, whose frustrations in capturing realistic portraits of his human subjects are alleviated by a number of wide-angle mammalian moments.

After two years of serious drought, the long rains had finally come to Kenya. I remember a couple of years ago when things were really bad: I remember driving out to photograph the spectacular African wildlife and having to swerve around desperately thin cattle that were stumbling onto the roads to die. Drought, hunger and sickness begat an anxiety in towns and villages that intensified my already unfamiliar encounters with the people and cultures of Kenya.  But the rain had brought change. It was a surprisingly cool morning as we drove north out of Nairobi, and I noticed that the desperation I had experienced the year before was considerably less intense. People were walking and riding bicycles to and from the many markets and towns along our route. Children ran to the roadside and waved as our Range Rover passed by. I had returned to East Africa this year for a different challenge. While I would photograph wildlife at Samburu and in the Maasai Mara, I was primarily on a cultural safari to meet and photograph some of the 40 Kenyan tribes. Specifically, I wanted to learn about two closely related nomadic tribes, the Samburu and the Maasai, who have been separated over time by hundreds of miles, yet who share remarkably similar cultures and customs. It was a two-week visit during which I would not stray far from the beaten path; nonetheless I hoped to capture a glimpse of their life and a sense of their struggle. As we drove towards our first destination, Intrepids Lodge at Samburu, I was given a quick review of current events by my Kikuyu guide, Peter Muruthi Muigai. Our first stop was in the bustling town of Limuru just north of Nairobi, to photograph its largely Kikuyu population. Kikuyu is the largest ethnic group in Kenya (4.6 million); a historically agricultural community, the Kikuyu group is not directly competitive with pastoral groups like the Samburu and Maasai. We pulled into the town’s narrow streets and headed for the market at its centre. In this environment, a large Range Rover with Mzungu (a Kiswahili term for European/white foreigners that I am told means ‘people who move often and do not settle’) does not go unnoticed. Swarms of people immediately gathered around us. The crowd, mostly men and boys, became aggressive when they noticed my camera, so I walked away from the truck. Kenya has high unemployment; many street kids have been orphaned by  immune deficient diseases and the general harshness of life in East Africa. More than a few of these boys were visibly stoned from sniffing glue, and their curiosity created a palpable excitement. After I got my bearings, I met several boys who spoke English well, so I began to negotiate for some photography. This became my routine in Kenya, as it is difficult to work as a photographer when candid shots in towns and villages are made impossible by the visitor’s presence. Spirited but playful, negotiations can even be quite fun; all photographs – even those of storefronts – require negotiation for a fixed fee. I found a boy to act as my interpreter, with pay. After shooting a friendly tailor in his shop, I spotted a pretty woman in the market who had been watching the scene. I approached her, and with the help of my negotiator inquired of her fee. Most potenial models pitch an arbitrary number. When she said 2,000 shillings (about USD 25), I laughed playfully and offered her 100. We went back and forth, negotiating for almost 20 minutes, until finally we reached an impasse at 200 shillings, including the print. I said I would send a print if she came down to 100 shillings. Clearly preferring cash, she said, “Sawa Sawa,” (“Ok, fine”) at 200, plus the blue bandanna that hung from my belt. (I would lose many bandannas on my journey). As we walked into the market for my hard-fought photo opportunity, a huge crowd of people followed. I took a couple of quick shots and the deal was completed with payments made to my model and negotiator. Then we were back on the road to Samburu.


The Samburu are a pastoral, nomadic people. Their customs, language and traditions are very similar to the better-known Maasai of Central and Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania, an area of over 40,000 square miles known as Maasailand. The story goes that over 1,000 years ago, Maa-speaking peoples (Maa is considered an Eastern branch of the Nilotic languages) migrated south from the Nile Valley of Sudan and settled for a time in the Lake Turkana region of Kenya. Several branches of these original pastoralists split during a time of severe drought and conflict with their Eastern Nilotic relatives, the Turkana. The Samburu settled in the area between Lake Turkana and the Ewaso Ngiro River, while the Maasai migrated south through the Rift Valley, assimilating and fighting with (and sometimes displacing) Bantu- and Kalenjin-speaking peoples along the way. This long and often confrontational migration south is one of the explanations why the Maasai developed their aggressive and warring cultural heritage toward other tribes while the Samburu did not. Though the latter do have a history of raiding other Samburu for cattle and fiercely defending their livestock, they have lived peacefully with their neighbours, and have served on Kenya’s police force and Park Ranger service. The vision of Maasai warriors that has fascinated the Western world in movies such as The Ghost and the Darkness has often featured Samburu extras hired from areas around Wamba and Maralal. The Maasai still don’t play well with others – and they charge exorbitant prices to be photographed. The Samburu community (about 100,000) is arranged in a complex patrilineal clan and sub-clan system with two ancient divisions: the people of the Black Cattle, and the people of the White Cattle. Marriages in rural areas are still arranged affairs, and young women are often married off to older men who provide a dowry. It can take many years to acquire the amount of cattle and goats necessary to take a bride. The social structure, with its strict gender roles, is managed by a group of elders who are defined as married men having graduated from warrior (ilmurran) status signified by a ceremony called Eunoto. They are the standing army of the tribe, highly decorated and proud warriors who protect the community and livestock from intruders. As with Maasai, Samburu children are considered to belong to the entire tribe, and everyone in the community is expected to help raise and discipline them. The casual tourist in Kenya will encounter Samburu at the many lodges and tented camps in the park area. They can see dances and slideshows which provide a superficial introduction to a people whose culture has survived through centuries of change. Several villages are visible along the roads into Samburu, and many others lie just off the beaten track. My first stop was the village of Nuguroro, where the Samburu represent one of the poorest groups in the region and see few tourists. Many of the villages near Samburu and the Maasai Mara have adapted their nomadic tendencies: they stay close to the game parks, and are accustomed to tourists and to medical visits from local Catholic Missions. They move their villages every couple of years and continue to live traditional lives. Such villages receive scheduled tourist visits, arranging dances, tours and markets for an entry fee of about 1,600 shillings per person. A typical village may have as many as 20 or 30 thatched-roof homes made of grass and sticks, surrounded by a thorn boma to keep out lions and hyena. At night, livestock are brought into the village, which makes for a bothersome fly problem. The markets can be quite intimidating, with sellers (usually women) competing aggressively for buyers. Unlike the entry fee, which is paid to the village elders and used by the entire village, market profits are strictly capitalist. Bracelets, spears, gourds, blankets, carvings and sometimes elaborate bead work are displayed in a large circle, each woman calling out and waving her product around. In less ‘professional’ villages, markets can get out of control as scores of women confront confused tourists and vie for the sale. Such visits generally run short, and often end with a mad dash for the bus. Unfortunately, experiences likes these might be the only chance travellers get to meet the Samburu or Maasai outside the controlled environment of comfortable lodges. I had come for a much different experience. I required reality, as far as my presence could ask for normalcy. I hoped that over time I might make a real connection with these people. The market was ready for me, having been set up for my viewing. I began my work slowly and awkwardly. Many women remembered me from my previous visit, and we shared stories and laughs. I was given a name to match the new aesthetic I’d acquired since shaving my head daily. Bwana Kihara, they called me – ‘the man with no hair.’ It was quite a joke, and it broke the ice with a lovely woman I had photographed a couple of years with her young boy. I began to feel more comfortable and photographed several kids as I walked through the village, looking for some ‘reality’ that would lend itself to realistic portrait of this complex community. I noticed a young boy playing with a homemade toy behind one of the simple huts. As I approached him with one of the village elders (his uncle) he backed away from me with a guarded, frightened look familiar to anyone who has seen images of poor children in Africa. The little boy I had seen at a distance just moments ago playing happily was now standing perfectly still, wondering who I was and what I was doing there. He had seen very few Mzungu, his uncle told me, and had never been photographed.

I put down my camera held out my hand, but his fearful redrimmed eyes told me he wanted no part in my cultural safari. I turned to photograph his uncle and motioned for the boy to look through the camera. He was at first reluctant and confused, but then managed to peer through the camera’s viewfinder while I moved the zoom in and out. He started to laugh. It was a quiet little laugh as he leaned against me, the flies landing on our heads and faces. I found the shutter release with his little finger and fired off half dozen shots of his uncle. He let out a full laugh as the motor drive advanced the film after each shot. I had made a new friend. I photographed that small boy with his toy and big smile, as well as several other children who were now looking through my camera and standing for portraits. The innocent eyes of these children, uncorrupted by political indoctrination and not yet embittered by years of hardship, drought and hunger, expressed the spirit of a courageous and generous people. After several hours with the villagers, I was now prepared to look around the market. I had already bought several trinkets (and traded away more bandannas) when I was approached by a beautiful woman from whom I had promised to purchase something. As I looked at her many bracelets, several other women converged on us, and I was quickly ushered to the privacy of the woman’s hut to negotiate. Samburu huts are small, dark and windowless, with a special hearth at the centre for keeping flies away. The woman’s baby was sleeping on a small piece of cowhide next to us as she laid out several beaded items and some little baskets. We weren’t long in the hut when the other women arrived, swarming around me with their wares. I was completely boxed in as they reached over my shoulders and put bracelets on my arms and items around my neck. The owner of the hut barked at them sharply in Maa to leave me alone. Her child slept peacefully through the chatter and commotion. I had spent every last shilling in my pockets when one of the elders worked his way through the crowded hut to lead me out.


Samburu National Park and its environs offer a vision of Africa quite different than that seen in brochures and films. You don’t see the large herds of grazing animals in Samburu like you do at the Maasai Mara. The landscape here shifts constantly. You see rocky volcanic hillsides, winding rivers, large acacia trees, branched Doum palm and endless thickets. Everything is a close-up, and every turn of the truck an unexpected encounter. At first, it seemed strange to have to stand upright through the Range Rover’s roof hatch to look for game in the unpredictable landscape. Small animals, like dikdiks (a small antelope) and gazelles scurried as we approached, but the larger waterbucks, impalas, gerenuks and zebras paid no mind to the parade of tourists stopping to take photographs. Elephant herds grazed, the little ones playing in front of the truck as if we were just another large African animal. You can drive for hours on a safari, and very little seems to happen. Until you spot a cat. The big cats change everything. A herd of gerenuks grazing in front of us froze and stared off into the distance. Their heads moved slowly, following some unseen danger. Muigai had just repositioned the truck when we spotted a leopard in a large thicket. All around us, the animals were on alert. A cat was hunting. We followed the leopard for hours as it slowly and patiently moved towards a group of impala wandering along the river bank. My adrenaline surged as it drew close to an unsuspecting wildebeest. Then we heard the loud warning screech of a baboon. The hunt was over. One day, while driving stealthily along a winding truck path, we spotted three female lions breakfasting on an impala. Seeing lion with a kill is a rare and fascinating site. The meal was almost over when we arrived, the carcass consisting of a rib cage and a head, spine still attached. There was no pride to be seen, just these three hunteresses and their meal. It wasn’t long before they sloped off, passing just feet from our truck. As the three lionesses headed down the truck path, one female called out for the pride. We followed for over an hour as they searched. As the sun rose higher, they found the scent and settled under a large acacia tree. Later that same day, Muigai spotted the leopard napping on a branch in a large tree. Ours was the only truck around, and we had plenty of time to position for a great shot before the crowds of tourists arrived. She was lying peacefully on a huge branch. I waited for the sun to come out and for her to open her eyes. As other trucks began to arrive, she moved and stretched before making a deep grunting sound that Muigai recognised as a call to a cub. I stood for over an hour watching the mother, taking a few pictures as she moved, before we finally heard the cub call back. At the base of a nearby tree, the young cat was feeding on a very small impala kill. There were now a dozen trucks between the mother and cub as it struggled to haul its victim up a small tree. The first attempt was unsuccessful and the tiny impala fell to the ground. The mother watched with us. In a second attempt, the kill was deposited on a low branch and the mother came down from her high resting place to secure a lower observing position. The sun was setting, a sign that our day was almost over; as when the park closes at 6.30pm, all the trucks must leave. The consequences are punitive for the Kenyan guides, who could lose both their jobs and their licenses for being minutes late. So with the late hour, we left the leopards and headed back to camp. The strict closing time also gives animals the nighttime to themselves, and improves the rangers’ chances of catching poachers. Anyone seen in the park after 6.30 could be shot on sight.


 On our drive west across the Rift Valley to visit the tea fields near the Kakamega forest, Muigai pulled of the road in an area called Tangulbei. This was Pokot country. Muigai had come to this area many times and knew that meeting Pokot men with their cattle in the open fields can be very dangerous. The Pokot have been engaged in a longstanding tribal conflict with the Marakwet. The two tribes raid each other for cattle, water, grazing land, and often just for spite. There have been recent stories of large cattle raids and as many as 50 people being killed in the area. The Kenyan government does little about tribal disputes in rural regions. That said, Muigai assured me that the place where we stopped should be safe. Within a minute or two we could hear the beating of drums in the distance. The Pokot knew we had stopped. We had brought a boxed lunch with us for the long ride across the valley and we started to eat while the drums continued to announce our presence. We could see the Pokot on the road, heading towards us. They came from several different directions and after 10 minutes or so there were 50 woman and children around the Range Rover, quietly watching us. A small boy walked cautiously towards us and Muigai called to him. Muigai doesn’t speak Pokot, so he spoke Kiswahili to the boy, who then translated our intentions to the others. We told the young boy that we wished to photograph some of the women who had come to visit us. I selected a couple of them and we proceeded to negotiate a fee in shillings. The Pokot women stood still and expressionless, waiting for me to take their picture. I tried to be playful and move them around into better lighting and different locations, but just as in the villages, my presence changed the environment. Nothing was real anymore. The Pokot posed for the pictures, anxious to get back to what they were doing before we entered their world. I found an older woman with a time-weathered face and a sizable dent in her forehead. She had clearly lived a long hard life in the African bush. I took her hand and walked with her to a spot out of the strong sun. I recognised several of her daughters in the group. The children were laughing as I worked with the older woman. It was a strange and uncomfortable experience for both of us. I asked Muigai to ask our translator to ask her to smile for me. As the language was changed and my message delivered, the crowd of Pokot around us broke out in laughter, and at last I got my shot of the Pokot woman with a full and toothless smile. We paid our translator and our models a few hundred shillings, passed them some fruit and quickly left Pokot country.


A much different experience awaited us in West Kenya. The dry savannah of the east gave way to green forest and tea fields that blanketed the rolling hills. We were passing through in a roundabout way on our journey to the Maasai Mara, but I soon realised that this place was different. There were a lot of school kids in uniforms walking and waving to us along the tree-lined streets. It was clear that few tourists visit this area. The people here are Luyha, the second largest tribe in Kenya, 3.1 million strong. We entered the small town of Khayega and stopped near a woodwork shop where a man with a red cross on his headscarf was making beds. The people I encountered were warm and friendly. I was conditioned to expect intense situations and tough negotiating, but no one came to the truck, or asked us to take their pictures for money. I was soon met by a group of curious young boys, but when I turned to point my camera at them they ran behind the truck, laughing and peeking around the unfamiliar Range Rover. I approached a woman with a beautiful wrap covering her head and shoulders and asked if she would allow me to photograph her. The request was met by laughter from the women nearby, and a shy turn by my reluctant model. I persisted playfully, and she agreed. When I raised my camera, several people in the background scurried away and hid behind the safety of a doorway. I let down my camera and said, “Smile for me.” She responded with a wonderful grin, and I could see her tongue though the hole created by her missing front teeth.

 Driving south through the Rift Valley from Nakuru to the Maasai Mara, you begin to see the villages and cattle herds of the Maasai. Remote villages are still very guarded and encounters can be dangerous. Photographing Maasai is often difficult; they have been known to stone tourist trucks whose passengers snap photographs through the windows. One infamous local story, which has become part of Maasai tourist folklore, tells of a German photographer who was speared to death when a negotiation went bad. True stories and myths alike abound in Maasailand, but the most important is the creation story that tells how the Maasai god, Enkai, gave all the cattle in the world to the Maasai as a special gift. It is with this story that the Maasi justify raids on neighbouring tribes, considering the bounty they acquire nothing more than rightful, god-given property. There are clear differences between Samburu and Maasai homes, most of which has to do with building materials and construction methods. The Samburu of Northeast Kenya live in a consistently warm environment with very little rain, and periodic drought, while the Maasai in the Mara region must deal with cool nights and extended periods of heavy rain. When the rains arrive, grazing land is plentiful for the Maasai. Village women build for their families elaborate structures with multiple rooms; a thick insulating layer of dung and mud protects against the cold and rain. As we drove through Maasailand and headed for the Mara, Muigai pointed out whole villages that seemed to blend into the dense brush and thicket.

Driving into the Maasai Mara game reserve, you experience the classic vision of Africa: long views of large herds grazing on open lands, spotty acacia trees breaking the endless horizon. The National Park is a protected area just a few miles away, but with the long rains, herd animals often migrate into the reserve and graze on the short grass among the Maasai. We arrived just ahead of a spectacular storm. The Maasai men were driving cattle back to their villages while woman repaired their rain-damaged huts with fresh dung. Wildebeest, zebra and gazelle ran alongside the truck. The sound of rolling thunder grew louder as we approached the Mara River Camp. I came here to learn about the Maasai, but my mornings were spent in search of the large herds and big cats that make the Mara an important destination for the world’s top wildlife photographers. In my many game drives in the Mara I have seen both subtle and spectacular interactions between different species of wildlife. Such idyllic scenes of Africa are impossible to capture on film. I have watched for hours as a pair of mating lions exhibited great tenderness, then sudden aggression, during the course of their seven-day encounter. Last year, I witnessed an episode of ‘the circle of life’: 30 feet away from a pride of lions and their wildebeest kill, I heard the chewing and smelt the carcass as the lions fought amongst themselves for the nourishment necessary for their survival. The large male left first and the young cubs crawled inside what remained of the dead animal. He was soon followed by a procession of lions stopping at 100-yard intervals until the next came to take its place. At the distant call of the male, the last of the lions moved over the horizon, and beyond my line of vision. Jackals and vultures swarmed around the remains until hyenas came to finish the last of the bones. And then, suddenly, it was all over. The Maasai are permitted to graze their livestock and erect villages in the Mara Game Reserve outside of the National Park. They have grown accustomed to the tourist trade. In recent years the government has encouraged them to build semi-permanent villages so schools can be established. The costs to construct buildings, provide books, purchase school supplies and pay teachers’ fees aren’t supplied by the government, but gathered largely through the sale of trinkets in the village markets. In turn, the children are taught English to improve communication between visitors and villagers, and, of course, to sell more products. This ‘civilising’ of the Maasai has led to a growing perception that, with the encroachment of the modern world, they have become westernised and allowed their culture to fade. Each surviving clan is considered to be the last of the Maasai, and books and broadcasts recount the ancient warriors they once were. I am not so sure. Long before conveniently drawn borders divided nations and designated land to national parks, the Maasai were aleady adapting to change. They have for centuries defied authority; today they are happy to accommodate Mzungu visitors for a few minutes, for business transactions. Then they return to the cloistered existence of their customs and traditions. Of course, they are less nomadic than before, and The little boy I had seen at a distance just moments ago playing happily was now standing perfectly still, wondering who I was and what I was doing there. as a result their children are receiving formal education. But we still don’t know what it means to be Maasai. We only see what the Maasai allow us to see: a simple snapshot of their world, not the reality and complexity formed through the ages. Muigai had arranged a visit to a nearby Maasai Village that began with the customary welcome dance by the young men of the village. Upon arrival, visitors are allowed to take as many photographs as they like, but the children are shielded from interacting with strangers. As the men performed, my attention was drawn to a group of young boys gathered around a tree, watching their older brothers and fathers with a sense of awe as they performed the traditional Maasai jumping dance, called ipid. These ‘mini’ Maasai were stamping their feet and jumping up and down with the rhythm of the dance. After a while, I managed to photograph several of the children and I worked on some portraits of a woman who called herself Esther. I traded my watch with one of her sons for an authentic Maasai spear and spoke with several of the elders about their customs and traditions. I shopped in their market and kneeled down in a pile of cow dung to the delight of all. I was having fun, but I still felt like a tourist. It was a much different experience to those I had had in the remoter villages. The confused children at Samburu, the beautiful toothless Pokot woman and the gentle Luyha of West Kenya – these people had allowed me to catch a glimpse of their life and a sense of their struggle. The Maasai were prepared for my visit. They were not going to open their world to me at this time, or in this place. They gave me only their performance. That afternoon, however, we witnessed what was for me a revelation. There is very little on the plains of Africa which will intimidate a healthy lion, but the one we had been dutifully following suddenly reversed and bolted for the cover of a distant thicket. A short time later, we spotted two small red dots on the horizon: two Maasai men walking across the open plains of the Mara. The top predator on the plains of East Africa is not the lion; it is the Maasai. Or was the Maasai. For hundreds of years, they hunted the lion as a right of passage, and as a way of protecting their cattle. It has been decades since the Maasai stopped routinely killing lions, but the conditioning survives: the sight and scent of the Maasai will make a lion run for cover. In a land where most humans would be a quick and easy meal for a lion, the Maasai walk without fear or hesitation.

After dark, the tables are turned: the Maasai surrender to the African night and retreat to the safety of their villages, behind their impenetrable thorn boma and me, well, it’s all a piece of cake really, I live in Pakistan!

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