I’m watching the girls whisper to each other, their hands cupped over their mouths in playful secrecy.
I can’t help but laugh, it’s incredible how some things are so universal. The scene reminds me of my high-school days, my friends and I giggling over my latest crush.
The men a few feet away, form a loose circle in the center of the manyatta (the Samburu term for home or compound). They clap as they sing while the girls watch. One by one, each man steps into the center and jumps skyward eager to outdo their friends. It’s a good-natured spectacle but there is an undercurrent of a testosterone-fueled competition. The higher a man jumps the more virile he is and worthy of attention.
I am with a small group of young Samburu, in Laikipia, northern Kenya. It’s a beautiful yet rugged sand-swept region with jagged escarpments, littered with spiny acacia trees covered in 3-inch thorns. A view completely different than the sweeping plains of the Masai Mara I’ve come to know after three years photographing the migration.
It’s quiet in the manyatta, most of the men are miles away where the drought has 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 are teenagers. The Moran, unmarried males who are the peacekeepers of the tribe, defending the tribe against predators and battles with the neighboring Turkana, they’re in their early twenties. The older women and children of the village are already 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 more wives for themselves. Young boys become men in group circumcision celebrations. Children, watching their elders, learn what it is to be Samburu. But on this night it’s a casual, impromptu affair. It’s a way to let off steam, spend time with friends. The Samburu version of hanging out.
The unofficial leader of the Moran is a handsome man with fine features who is bedecked and bedazzled with handmade beaded jewelry. He is bare-chested save necklaces of varying lengths and patterns that wrap around his neck and then crisscross his torso. His bright red shukkah is tied into a short sarong and a large sheathed machete is draped from his hip. His cropped hair is short and stained with red ochre, a symbol of beauty. He’s wearing a wide, beaded headband topped with a small, incongruous plastic rose. The other moran are dressed with the same pomp and circumstance but each with his own sense of style. All of them carry a rungu (a lightweight club used as a weapon and for protection) tucked tightly under their armpits, leaving their hands free to clap.
The girls are no less splendid. They wear bangles, armbands and layers of circular beaded necklaces over a red multi-strand affair that covers their shoulders like a lampshade. Their ankles are wrapped with 3-inch beaded cuffs. All of them are bald, indicating they’ve been raised traditionally. Their swan necks are red with ochre, and one of the girls is wearing an elaborate face-mask with an ornate headpiece that rises from her head like a feather.
The sun is setting behind a cloud-filled sky when the dance begins. The dance wasn’t going to last long but I love being allowed to watch. My hosts, the team at Ol Malo lodge, learned of the get-together at the last minute and knowing I would enjoy it asked the Samburu if I could attend and take photos.
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’s not an experience I wanted to repeat. I prefer interacting with people who are genuinely going about their day, not ones re-enacting their lives through performance.
In remote areas of Laikipia, the Samburu still live in many ways like their ancestors. They’re not devoid of modern influences. A few have cell phones but they’re used infrequently and only for important communications such as finding grass or water or if there is an emergency. Phones are a welcome convenience since few Samburu own man-made transportation and messages in past were carried great distances on foot.
It’s because of their distance from the rest of the world that the dance I am watching is such a privilege. To know that my experience is authentic and not reproduced for a tourist’s pleasure makes it extra special.
As the men jump, the handsome leader sings a few words and the rest answer him in kind, clapping to a steady beat. The singing is similar to street rap: 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, join the dance, most of the time they watch.
Near the end they break into two lines, the sexes facing each other. Reaching across to clasp hands as if in greeting. They lean back for a beat, their chins tucked towards their chests. Then lurch forward, jutting their heads with the motion. They grunt loudly while stomping their feet to punctuate the movement.
Perfectly timed, the dance comes to an end with the setting sun. I mingle with the young Samburu and my guide Leuya (Lay-you-uh), and thank them for letting me watch. Moments later they disappear into the darkness.
“Is that it?” I said, wondering if that’s all the time they would have together.
“No, I’m sure some of them will meet later tonight when everyone 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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