On an early November morning, while being tossed up and down in a 4x4 vehicle crossing the terrains of the Samburu district in northeast Kenya, Jane, Ruth, Crispin, and I were on our way to count and monitor the distribution of the Grexy’s zebra when we met Kahindi for the 1st and probably the last time.
He was a native from the Samburu tribe in his early forties preparing for his marriage to his second wife in a Manyatta (a community made up of several huts) in Wamba village located in the Samburu district of the northeast part of Kenya.
Our group was surprised by his excellent command of English and his astonishing knowledge about our countries; Egypt, UK, and USA.
Kahindi, as it turned out, was studying developmental psychology in Scotland. His social obligation towards his tribe was the driving force his return to educate his people. He described them as “we are rich poor people”; rich in culture and resources, poor because we are uneducated and hence we can’t utilize them.
In November 2009, as a solo traveller, I volunteered with Earthwatch (www.earthwatch.com) for two weeks working in two different projects aiming to improve the living standards of the Samburu tribe in Kenya. The first project was aiming at mapping the vast area for medicinal plants while the second was sponsored by the African Wild Life Foundation to save the endangered Grevy’s Zebras.
The eight volunteers met in a hotel in Nairobi and a few hours later our small plane was landing on a sand strip in Wamba “airport”. The heads of the project that were bidding a farewell to our predecessor group who looked, reassuringly, fine, met us. After a short ride to the camp, the staff looking after the camp warmly welcomed us with a round of tea. We then spent the following few hours with the working team giving us a presentation about the projects followed by a hands-on training on the different gadgets we were expected to use; range finders, GPSs, etc. The lodge in the camp area was rather comfortable with running water and a wonderful team looking after us and cooking delicious meals for the volunteers. Dinner time was always special with everyone in the lodge gathering for the meal, exchanging stories before retiring to bed early to wake up at sunrise.
Our group-of-four joined professor Paul Okemo and his research team in their project of mapping medicinal plants in extended area around Wamba. Over the years the researchers noticed superior results, compared to conventional medications, when using certain plants to combat infections. Earthwatch funded the project so as to record their distribution in the area and during different seasons. Our work for the first week entailed visiting a different area every day and working on several transects each is around 100 meters long, drawing squares by ropes and pegs around it an area of 500 meters is mapped. With the aid of the knowledgeable elders of the tribe, the plants are identified and recorded by us. Areas of around 4000 to 5000 meters were covered every day.
The general atmosphere of teamwork and appreciation was felt among all of us, tribesmen felt the importance of their vast botanical knowledge and probably for the first time they see that it can be of use to their nation.
We were the 2nd group to volunteer and the project is still on going gathering the necessary knowledge to begin the second phase of extracting the active ingredients to start local manufacturing their own medicine based on the ancient knowledge of the Samburu.
After one week of daily work it was time for a day off were we all went hiking on a near by hill followed by a visit to the village
The teams swapped and we started our second week working with Dr. Paul Muoria, a senior researcher in the African Wilde life Foundation. The Samburu region is among the last strongholds for endangered Grevy's zebras with around 2,000 zebras in the region. The project aims at monitoring the population size, structure and distribution, finding better ways to manage the zebras’ competition with humans and their livestock. We had to record GPS locations, activities, and other details of livestock, people, and wildlife we observe to complete our surveys. Those activities were either done from 4x4 vehicles but the real fun was doing those activities by walking in the fields. Volunteers get dropped off the car every 1Km accompanied by a scout from the locals, guided by compass a distance of 4Km is covered in a straight line. Every time I encounter a group of animals I had to use the range finder and the GPS to locate them, the binoculars to identify them and count them and if possible the camera to photograph them.
Photographing the zebras can be a bit tricky, the right flank was the aim as later every day, in the computer lab, we had to upload the pictures to a special software that can identify the zebra by ‘reading” the stripes on the flank. Each zebra had a unique pattern analogous to our fingerprints.
A note about the Samburu and Wamba
The Samburu people, one of the 42 tribes of Kenya, are the cousins of the Massai and they had probably inhabited the northern part of Kenya in the 15th century. They are essentially nomadic tribes who live in huts and follow the rain with their livestock. At the age of 15 the boys get initiated into manhood by performing mass circumcision; they are called Marons. Those boys take the responsibility of traveling around to distant areas dressed up like warriors raiding other tribes (if possible). They become elders when they are allowed marriage at the age of 30. Older members of the families form a board to settle any disputes. The nomadic life in the village of Wamba is no so pronounced as some families had settled there. We had paid a visit to the local hospital and the local school as well. The hospital is run by Italian missionaries and has been kept quite modern in view of the poor resources of the region.
We were asked to bring some presents to the school children in the form of books, notepads, pens etc. The class has an endless number of students with a very noticeable age discrepancy because it depends on when the parents decide to send their children to be educated. The children were quite happy with our presents and were allowed to ask questions. A bright kid bombarded me with questions about Egypt and I was very happy to have interacted with them.
Our camp guard Eidi invited us to his manyatta and we were welcomed by a special tribal dance. It was quite amazing to see how high and effortlessly they jump during their dancing ceremony.
It is needless to say that Wamba is an underprivileged area in Kenya with lots of resources but the survival of the Samburu is largely threatened by the draught of the past few years. Leaving the rain aside, education may be the most important weapon for their survival. Kahindi seems to have been right.