Tuesday, October 24

Letilet’s Tales

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Susie Allan & Letilet Ole Yenko’s coffee table book captivates the vanishing world of the little known Il Torobo or Ndorobo.

Mary Ann Fitzgerald in her book “Nomad” referred to them, as the Samburu with whom she wandered at the time, would have done – as wild men. And looking at one, she writes, she thinks she saw how a cave man would have looked.

These are the Maasai without cattle, the true hunter gatherers with an extraordinary knowledge of their surroundings, medicinal plants and the keeping of wild bees. Whilst the pastoralist Maasai were forbidden to eat wild animals, the Il Torobo hunted them. Letilet skinned the animal with a quartz or obsidian – flint – flake and had used a bolus made from sandstone to crush poisons to tip his arrows. “An innocuous looking tree with shiny leaves, a pretty, sweet-scented white flower and a deep reddish-purple fruit…poison stops the heart and the animal is rendered helpless in a matter of minutes.

Letilet could track a lion’s pug marks for days, able to tell from its grunts at night how far it was and understand its different calls from aggression to looking for a mate. When he’d hunted an animal, like an antelope or killed a domestic one like a sheep, he knew what to eat raw and what to cook and how much blood to drink so he wouldn’t be too thirsty. And then, he knew all the animals, including the snakes that lived around the cave in which he slept.

Repeated storytelling is important for the survival of nomadic people, their fables teach morals and their songs remember strategies of warriors before them. Letilet’s people lived sustainably in harmony with nature for thousands of years and have had none of the glory accorded to the wealthy cattle owners with whom they occasionally mixed trading their snuff horns, wildebeest tail fly whisks, skin scabbards for swords and strong rope tendons.

Susie Allan writes, “hunter gatherers survived the ice ages and have much to teach us”.

What makes the book an exciting read, is its intimacy and sensitivity. It is told from the heart. That the book is written by Letilet, who is not a mere subject to be studied or an exotic species to be admired, elevates it from the simple science of anthropology to the art of understanding a soul.

RG.

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