Changing Their Ways, Cementing Their Doom?

We can't -- with our Jacuzzis and hot showers -- step in and tell these people what to do . . . nor can we begin to understand how they live. It's rough out there . . . really rough up there in the north. Try living the way they do and you'd be dead in four days.

-- Julia Francombe, Ol Malo Trust

To outsiders, encounters with the unfamiliar, strange, and often unfathomable traditions of African people can be immensely unsettling, occasionally challenging personal notions of morality. Much Western understanding of African tribal practices comes in the form of human rights reports. They tell chilling tales of teenagers subjected to circumcision, complain about medieval practices such as forced marriage and polygamy, and scream in horror about many other cruel, inhumane practices that run contrary to "civilized" ideas of existence. But there's another side of the coin, a version of the saga that's almost completely ignored because it doesn't fit in with the thinking favored by Western morality and modes of existence. Much of the north -- particularly in the foothills of Mt. Kenya (around Laikipia and Samburu National Reserve) and as far north as Lake Turkana -- is stomping ground of the Samburu, a Maasai splinter group who, like their cousins, are cattle-owning pastoralists who speak a dialect of Maa. Amongst other tribes of Kenya, the Samburu are known as loibor kineji, People of the White Goats, and they refer to themselves simply as White Goats, a relatively sparse group now numbering around 110,000. While the Samburu have shown some inclination to give up their traditional ways -- besides tending their goats and cattle, exchanging raids against their enemies and neighbors, they take tribal fashion to rather elaborate levels, costuming themselves with gorgeous accessories and incorporating all kinds of beads and baubles and feathers in their finery -- they've adhered to a traditional way of life far more vehemently than their cousins in Maasailand.


Yet there are facets of modernity, encroaching Western civilization, and a changing way of life that, as with the Maasai, threaten the Samburu's very existence. One frightening development is that some Samburu are buying AK-47s from Somalis and Ethiopians in order to protect themselves in raids from other tribes -- or, indeed, to arm themselves when raiding others. As a means of dealing with increasingly harsh, arid, dry, and waterless conditions -- a result of both global warming and encroaching modernity -- many Samburu have exchanged their cattle for camels (which fare better under harsh desertlike conditions) and taken to crop-growing, which might sound like social evolution to some, but it is riddled with inestimable problems.

Many of the solutions offered by institutionalized charities sound promising, and the media is rife with tales of humanitarian aid schemes involving NGO and World Bank bailouts for starving tribes. They build schools where children need education, operate where people are sick, and dig water holes where there is drought. But, according to some, such tried-and-tested Western aid -- generous handouts coupled with heavy-handed social change -- isn't necessarily helpful in the long run. While we may take delight in "helping" to settle these traditionally nomadic people, there may be dire consequences to changing centuries-old norms.

A few Kenyans contest that some blame for the changes in lifestyle should be placed at the feet of humanitarian aid workers. "Oftentimes they fail to recognize the consequences of their interference," says Julia Francombe, who works closely with her Samburu neighbors to help them develop sustainable projects. She argues that the problem lies with how outsiders sometimes go about implementing change. "Traditionally, these people have followed the rains and the water, allowing the natural rhythms and cycle of life to determine how they impact on the land," she says. "When we simply dig water holes, putting water where water shouldn't be, for example, it disrupts the environment, compelling people to settle in one particular area, which leads to overstocking, overgrazing, and ultimately erosion. Quickly, the balance tips, so by interfering with these people's nomadicism, we're not only helping destroy the environment, we're causing a situation by which, in 5 or 10 year's time, they won't be able to survive."


Consider, for example, the scourge of female circumcision, derided by foreigners as well as most modern Kenyans. Where there are reports of teenage girls being prepared for circumcision, the standard reaction may be to have them dragged from their communities and placed in orphanages while their fathers are imprisoned for conspiring to break Kenyan law. Lobbying against clitoridectomy -- also known as female genital mutilation -- is always a headline-grabber. Yet Samburu tradition dictates that all girls between 14 and 16 be circumcised before they are married off to much older men. An uncircumcised woman, however, has almost zero chance of being married to a traditional, rural Samburu man and will spend her life alone and on the fringes of society. As much as the outsider might struggle to deal with the very notion of female circumcision -- an excruciatingly painful, dangerous procedure -- there are problems resulting from outside interference. In one incident, a nurse reported a father's intention to marry off his teenage daughter. The girl was taken into state custody and placed in boarding school, while the father was arrested. After his release, the father was bound to honor his agreement with his future son-in-law, but because his older daughter was no longer available, he was forced to marry off his 10-year-old instead. Without delay, the girl was circumcised and married, and when authorities got wind, the father was imprisoned and the child-bride placed in an orphanage with her sister. Cut off from their community, their family, their customs, and their way of life, both girls are almost certainly destined for a life of prostitution as they try to eek out an existence in towns and settlements that are completely out of sync with the world they were born into. Parents are circumcising younger girls to avoid government intervention or potential defiance from more savvy, older girls.

Adding to the dilemma is Kenya's education system. It not only fails to offer learning in any of the tribal languages, but it teaches nothing connected with tribal culture or traditional way of life. For most, the classroom is an alien world where strange, irrelevant ideas are foisted on a people who are being made strangers in their own land.

If you want to get involved in a nonintrusive way, contact Julia Francombe (, who has established a series of self-empowerment programs for Samburu women and children without treading on cultural toes.


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