The tinkling of bells wafts up in a hot current, cutting a stream of consciousness through my nap. I have a cold shower, looking out over the chalky, drought stricken earth. There is a plunge pool which felt surprisingly icy earlier but which I will revisit often in this arid north.
Down below, the Ewaso Nyiro is wide, shallow and tree lined, brown nearby by and blue in the S bend away to my right. The Matthews range rises in purple on the other side as the red wings of Samburu swathing float behind the woman following her herd of goats into the row of green along the river’s banks.
Sammy my steward tells me that in the mid nineties this area was covered in a small plant called Sasaab, which is now extinct. The area has always been harshly hot so it is unclear what caused the demise in the little plant’s survival. The people who inhabit these lands which flow to the northern borders of Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia are Samburu, Rendille, Borana, Pokot, Turkana and Gabbra amongst others. As we approach the Sahel, the culture takes on the use of henna, islamic motifs of flower painted pottery and filigree. Makuti or palm thatch is combined with minaret shaped arches, tribal beading and canvas. All pulled together in the decor of this desert oasis. Sasaab – the lodge. It sits in pool terraces, across decks with a gym and a spa, looking out above the river.
In the environs, we sight the peculiarities of the northern species not found elsewhere in East Africa – Gerenooks feeding on two hind legs, reticulated Giraffes above the tree line, the blue legs of the male Somali Ostrich and the quiff maned, narrow striped, Grevy’s Zebra. Rock hyrax run in and out of the lodge and the normally shy miniature antelope – Kirk’s Dik Dik run around the park and the proboscis endowed Guenther’s kind bound around the lodge in families of twos and threes.
Two clappers knock against the hollowed out wooden sound bow that makes the Borana camel bell. The animal is coaxed by the Moran with his red hair beneath a net and the ranger with a rifle and camouflage who tells me in English about his son who is at the top of his class. His pride is unmistakeable and warming. I undulate all the way to the big rock, my legs tucked behind the hump. From up there, we watch sundown around a coolbox. Stories about leopards and lions shared, we head back for dinner, which last night was a barbecue, lit by stars and the reflection of a giant fire against a wall of rock.
Sasaab lodge’s efforts with the local communities means that we can visit and observe them at home, without them having to stop their lives to sell us anything. We are in the West Gate Conservancy where we walk through a gap in the Acacia thorns piled in a circular row to fence the N’kang. Each family has its own entrance through which the women herd their goats at sundown and in these drought conditions, feed them pellets ensuring no animal takes more than the other. Children entertain us with songs and a little girl introduces herself to me in English as I attempt to remember how to pronounce the Maa word Ashay-oleng, thank you. There are young girls bent in intent over their beadwork and elderly men shrouded in blankets, their hats pulled low, sitting on stools or squatting. Watchful, their staffs held at all times. Outside the short buildings, firewood has already been gathered by the women and girls. The walls, made of perpendicular sticks are lined with found materials and the roofs, caked with cow dung. All women’s work.
The village folks’ happiness is humbling for the Americans I meet later, over dinner. And the open faced enthusiasm that I encounter with the other group with whom I have sundowners, reminds me of how simple finding pleasure can be. They are marking an important anniversary in the group and every thing from getting up the steep and slippery Donyo Nanyuki – meaning big brown speckled rock – to butt scooting down it and having to pee behind the vehicle is a source of enjoyment.
Sammy the guide, is greeted warmly by the women and children of Sasaab village. On the drive here, he told me a story passed onto him around a fire in the middle of a hut similar to the one before which I stand. “A grandmother called her two sons to come to her and said ‘I leave you your inheritance: choose between the Masa – beads or the Samburr – leather pouch’. One son took the ornaments and went south to form the Maasai tribe and the one who went north took the bag to form the Samburu people.”
There are no cows in the boma. They have been shepherded to Laikipia for richer grazing. The women and elders do not roam anymore as the children go to a nearby school. One or two of the huts have a leaf shaped spear struck upright by the entrance. This indicates that the man to whom the spear belongs, has chosen to stay the night in there. If the husband is not staying, the Moran are free to use his bedroom. Samburu liberalism floats free and magnanimous within the boundaries that determine survival in this environment: Widows may not remarry but are free to have lovers and even children, who will be looked after by the whole clan.
Whilst I am wondering if culture will outlast the powerful philosophies that come our way which include religion, I am also reminded of Jess Walter’s words from his novel ‘Beautiful Ruins’ “…. Sometimes, what we want to do and what we must do are not the same. …. the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.”