I watched the girls whisper to each other, their hands cupped over their mouths in playful secrecy.
I chuckled to myself, thinking how universal the scene was. It reminded me of my high-school days, my friends and I giggling over my latest crush.
The men, a few feet away, formed a loose circle in the center of the manyatta (the Samburu term for home or compound), and clapped as they sang, while the girls watched. One by one, each man stepped into the center of the ring and jumped skyward eager to outdo his friends. It was a good-natured spectacle, but there was an undercurrent of a testosterone-fueled competition. The higher a man jumps the more virile he is and worthy of attention.
I was with a small group of young Samburu, in Laikipia, northern Kenya in September of 2015. The Northern Frontiere, as its called, is a beautiful yet rugged, sand-swept region with jagged escarpments and littered with spiny acacia trees with 3-inch thorns. A view completely different from the sweeping plains of the Masai Mara I’d become used to after three years photographing the migration.
It was quiet in the manyatta, most of the men were miles away where the drought had been kinder, grazing their herds. The Samburu are a pastoral people, their wealth and stature are based on the number of cows they own—they’ll walk for days to find water and grass.
The girls were teenagers, the Moran—unmarried males who are the peacekeepers of the tribe, defend against predators and fight the battles with the neighboring Turkana—were in their early twenties. The older women and children were in their homes settling in for the evening, leaving the rest to their fun.
The dance is an part of a social ritual that goes back hundreds of years. It serves to bind and enrich the community. In larger more formal gatherings, dozens if not hundreds of Samburu of all ages take part, food is prepared and the festivities can go on for hours.
During the dance they pass on tales of heroism and history, they flirt with the opposite sex, fathers find husbands for their daughters or another wife for themselves. Young boys become men in group circumcision celebrations. Children watch their elders and learn what it is to be Samburu. But on this night it was a casual, impromptu affair. It was a way to let off steam, spend time with friends; the Samburu-version of hanging out.
The unofficial leader of the Moran, a handsome man with fine features who was bedecked and bedazzled with a beaded choker, necklaces, armbands and bracelets. He was bare-chested save necklaces of varying lengths and patterns, that wrapped around his neck and then crisscrossed his torso. His bright red shukkah was tied into a short sarong and a large sheathed machete draped from his hip. His cropped hair was short and stained with red ochre, a symbol of beauty. He wore a wide, beaded headband topped with a small, incongruous plastic rose. The other moran dressed with the same pomp and circumstance but each with his own sense of style. All of them carried a rungu—a lightweight club used as a weapon as well as protection—tucked tightly under their arms, leaving their hands free to clap.
The girls were no less splendid. They wore handmade bangles, armbands and layers of circular beaded necklaces on top of a red multi-strand piece of jewelry that fell over their shoulders like a lampshade. Their ankles bore 3-inch beaded cuffs. All of them were bald, indicating they been raised traditionally. Their swan necks were red with ochre, and one of the girls wore an elaborate face-mask with an ornate headpiece that rose from her head like a feather.
The sun was setting behind a cloud-filled sky when the dance began. It wouldn’t last long but I loved being allowed to watch. My hosts, the team at Ol Malo lodge, a fifteen minutes drive through miles of dust and rocky hills, learned of the get-together and knowing I would enjoy it asked the Samburu if I could watch.
It’s what I’d been hoping for.
Earlier in my trip, along the more populated outskirts of the Shaba National Reserve, a 15 minute flight to the south, I visited a manyatta that turned out to be a commercial venture. I recognized the familiar routine: an introduction to the tribe, a tour of the manyattas, a little dancing and singing and then the women sold (often aggressively) their handmade jewelry.
The experience isn’t a bad one—I picked up a few necklaces—it was great the first time I did it with the Maasai two years before, and for the tribes it’s a valuable source of revenue. But it was not something I wanted to repeat. I prefer interacting with people who are genuinely going about their day, not ones depicting their lives through performance.
In remote areas of Laikipia, the Samburu still live in many ways like their ancestors. I can’t say they are devoid of modern influences, a few have cell phones, but they’re used infrequently and only for important communications such finding grass or water or if there is trouble. A welcome convenience since few Samburu own man-made transportation and messages were normally carried great distances on foot. Overall, their access to the 21st century was limited.
It was because of distance from the rest of the world, that the dance I watched was such a privilege. To know that my experience was authentic and not generated for a tourist’s pleasure, made it extra special.
As the men jumped, the handsome leader sang a few words and the rest answered him in kind, clapping to a steady beat. The singing is similar to street rap in that whatever is important or funny or interesting at the moment is what fuels the lyrics. The melody is always the same but the words change depending on what the leader has to say. At times the girls, arm and arm with the moran, joined the dance, most of the time they watched.
Near the end, they broke into two lines, the sexes facing each other. Reaching across to clasp hands as if in greeting, they leaned back for a beat, their chins tucked towards their chest, and then they snapped forward, jutting their heads with the motion and grunting, stompin their feet to punctuate the movement.
Perfectly timed, the dance came to an end with the light. We mingled with the young Samburu for a few moments with my guide, Leuya (Lay-you-uh), to thank them for letting us watch, and then they disappeared into the darkness.
“Is that it?” I said, wondering if that’s all the interaction they would have.
“No, I’m sure some of them will meet later tonight when everyone else is sleeping.” He paused. “You know what I mean?”
“Yes,” I said. Both of us looked at each other with knowing grins plastered to our faces.
It really was like high school.
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