[words by Mark Eveleigh]
“There may be some blood,” the Samburu elder warns me. “But not too much.”
The sight of blood is something I’ve always tried to avoid. More so when it’s my own. And yet for some reason I’ve just volunteered to have my chest repeatedly sliced with a razorblade.
This crazy situation began with a seemingly painless assignment to drive up to Samburu National Reserve in Kenya’s wild Northern Frontier District. A brutally beautiful wilderness of acacia scrub and craggy granite hills, Samburu reserve is as harsh and unforgiving as the grasslands of the Masai Mara are lush and cool. In many ways, Samburu is Africa at its most inspiring. This reserve never gets the crowds of the southern parks and yet is one of the best places in the country to see lions, leopards and wild dogs. Safari connoisseurs prize it for sightings of the ‘Samburu Special Five’: reticulated giraffe, beisa oryx, Grevy’s zebra, Somali ostrich and the elegant gerenuk, the most beautiful of all gazelles.
The Samburu herdsmen and their cattle are as much a part of the landscape as the great herds of zebra and elephants that gather around the waterholes. The Samburu share many of their traditions with the more famous Maasai and, along with their southern cousins, they’re often described as the aristocrats of the East African bush.
The beautiful Saruni Samburu Lodge is the perfect place to experience Samburu culture and I’d come to take part in what they call their “Warrior for a Week” programme. Mzee Letur (also known as Chris) is a senior guide at Saruni and belongs to the new generation who respects the traditions of his people while at the same time finding an honourable way to embrace the new Kenya. His shaved head denotes his status as a junior elder and he chooses to retain his warrior regalia in his work as a guide.
Chris and I have an appointment for breakfast with the warriors at the little Samburu manyatta (village) of Lolkerdeed, and arrive there just as the sun is coming up. The warriors come forward to greet us. Their colourful bangles clatter as they shake our hands and their bright, beaded jewelry bounces in rhythm with their nodding heads.
We walk through a thorn-bush barricade, designed to keep predators away from the precious livestock. A terrible drought decimated the herd a few years ago and the forlorn little group of hump-backed zebu represent all that’s left of the herds. Beside the low doorway of one of the mud-and-dung huts we walk past, a spear is planted upright in the ground. Samburu men may have several wives and, since each wife has her own hut, the embedded spear (perhaps an innuendo) is a sign that the husband is in residence and would prefer not to be interrupted. Two halves of a broken spear lean against another wall.
“A broken spear is the sign of a brave man,” the warriors say. “A spear could never break itself and a coward could never break a spear.”
An elder emerges from one of the huts carrying a gourd, and I realise that my first test of Samburu courage is nearing its moment. A reluctant cow is pulled from the herd and four warriors hold it still while the elder aims a short-bladed arrow at a swollen vein on the beast’s neck. The cow doesn’t seem upset by either the jab or the fine stream of blood that is now jetting from the wound. Each cow can be ‘milked’ like this once a month and can easily fill a three litre gourd without any lasting effects. The Samburu revere their cattle above all else and as I thank the owner for my cup of blood and milk – surprisingly tasty and not unlike salted lassi – he points out that my thanks would more accurately be directed towards “Ngarus” the cow.
It might not be an improvement on my usual caffeine-jolt start to the day, but I hope that the famous “Samburu milkshake” will provide the energy I need to keep up with the warriors on one of their legendary bush runs – the Samburu are famous for their stamina and statuesque physique, and some nutritionists believe that their traditional diet of fresh cow’s blood and milk is chiefly responsible for this. It’s been said that Samburu can run day and night in pursuit of unfortunate cattle raiders and, while I’m not anxious to run that sort of bush-marathon, I am keen to witness their legendary fitness firsthand. We start off at a fast trot within the first mile I can see that the warriors are not hindered at all by their flowing shuka robes and jangling jewelry. Their rough “thousand milers” (fashioned from recycled car tyres) cover the trail far more swiftly than my designer running shoes ever could, and I end my short run with shaky legs and a heightened respect for Samburu stamina.
By the end of my days in Samburu territory I’ve watched leopards hunt and a lioness lead her tiny cubs out of the den for the first time. I’ve even spent an hour in the company of a pack of 13 rare wild dogs. I’ve tracked animals with the warriors, practiced archery and slaughtered and barbecued a goat with them.
Then, for some unaccountable reason, I decide to take the programme to new extremes by undergoing ritual scarification. The razor blade is not even the worst of it: after each short slice, an acacia thorn is jabbed into the fresh wounds on my chest. I’m undergoing an operation that’s roughly equal to 30 stitches – without the benefit of anaesthetic. In the macho world of the Samburu warrior, wincing is not allowed…although I’m sweating more profusely with each stinging bite of the thorn. After 40 minutes of Samburu surgery, the left side of my chest is ribbed with a triple row of miniature railway tracks. We finish the operation and the warriors congratulate me as I dab the blood with a piece of cotton soaked in peroxide. It’s not until later that I realize that the peroxide must have neutralized the mild poison in the acacia thorn, and my hard-won Samburu scars heal and disappear in record time.
It’s perhaps fitting though that our most powerful travel memories should remain in our heads rather than as tangible keepsakes. The scars have long since healed but my memories of Kenya’s wild Samburu territory are sure to stick around for a long time to come.
This feature was first published in Traveller Magazine