Authors: Corinne Hofmann
he next morning I wake up early and crawl out of the tent, still fairly tired, to see the red ball of the sun slowly peeking up from behind the mountains. There's not a sound to be heard in our little camp. I wash myself with moist freshen-up tissues and settle down to enjoy the sunrise. Before long my two companions are up too and we're just having our breakfast cup of tea when Lketinga arrives. Unlike yesterday he's wearing European-style clothes, long trousers, a T-shirt and slip-on shoes. He shakes hands with us all, asks us how we slept and then walks over to my tent. As if it's the most natural thing in the world for him to do, he unzips the front of my tent and takes a good look around to check out how things look after the night. Before, when I was his wife, such signs of jealousy really annoyed me, now I can hardly keep myself from laughing out loud in astonishment.
After he's seated himself down next to us we discuss what to do with the day. He tells us James has to go down to his school on the motorbike because there's an inspection visit from Nairobi today. His older brother is still here but is intending to head home shortly before it gets too hot. I want to make sure he gets his presents before he leaves. Later in the morning we can go down to the river and then take a look around the village.
Lketinga is happy with that plan so eventually we get up and stroll down to Mama's
where Papa Saguna is sitting outside in the shade. He says âhello' and then announces in Maa that he wants to set off straight away so he can send Saguna to see us tomorrow. I run over to James's house to where my bag with the presents is and fetch out a checked Samburu blanket and an orange fleece top. Papa Saguna seems
absolutely and genuinely delighted at these simple gifts. He thanks me with the words: â
Ke subat, ke supati pi
â wonderful, simply wonderful'. We're bound to see him again before we leave as there's going to be a party in our honour. We can make arrangements through his daughter Saguna. After saying our goodbyes he sets off out of the corral, his green hat on his head and his new blanket wrapped around his hips.
Just like in the old days I use the traditional word, â
' to ask Mama's permission to enter her
. If she agrees, she replies, â
.' Mama asks me in and for the first time in fourteen years I crouch down to enter a
again. I tiptoe past the hearth to sit down on the cowhide behind it. I'm too worked up to pay attention to what I'm doing and suddenly I notice I'm bleeding from a scratch on my upper arm where I've scraped it against one of the dozens of willow branches sticking out of the walls.
Mama has got
on the boil on the fire. She's holding James's little baby in her arms, nursing him gently and singing softly to him. All I can see of the baby is a little pair of naked legs sticking out of a dress; her head is covered with a big hat to conceal her face. I recall the old tradition that for the first few weeks nobody outside immediate family members is supposed to look on the face of a newborn child. The Samburu believe in a form of witchcraft and fear someone might put an evil spell on a newborn that could cause bad luck or even death. When I came home from the hospital with our daughter Napirai I was so proud I wanted to show her off to everybody but Mama insisted I kept the child indoors or whenever I took her out at least covered with face with a cloth. It nearly broke my heart.
Mama gets one of the young girls in the corral to take the baby to its mother. Despite the smoky atmosphere I immediately feel at home again in the
and gladly accept a cup of
. Lketinga sits down beside me while Albert and Klaus, after saying hello, sit down outside. Mama sits opposite on her own cowhide. This is her own special corner and no one else is allowed to be there except for very small children. Behind her one part of the wall has a sheet of corrugated iron against it covered with a blanket with a gathered-up sooty mosquito net over it. Next to her is her private lockable metal chest, the key to which hangs permanently around her neck. This is where she keeps all the most important things from her long life. It also contains a pair of mugs for tea and various cardboard
boxes. Next to the hearth are a teapot and a sooty black pan. Between the hearth and her naked foot lies the severed, blood-encrusted head of the goat slaughtered yesterday. At some stage in the day she'll put that on to boil for stock. A very young kid is tethered to a small divider, dozing quietly. Next to me there is another metal chest on which I recognize several bit and bobs belonging to Lketinga, which leads me to believe that at the moment he must be living here while his new wife is building a
somewhere. Samburu custom does not allow him to bring a third wife into the
built by the second. I had been hoping to spend a night in Mama's
but under these circumstances I reckon it wouldn't be a good idea. After all, I don't want to cause any unnecessary complications.
While I sip at my hot tea I do my best to follow the conversation between Lketinga and his mother, which is getting more and more animated. I ask what the matter is and he tells me there's no more cornmeal and so she can't cook
for the children, and also that some of the other women have been getting at her because we haven't distributed any presents in the form of food. He's been explaining to her that James carried everything into his house yesterday and we'll open the presents when he comes back this evening. That seems to calm her down and she's happy again. Seeing as it's a long time to wait until evening when you're hungry we go and fetch one of the sacks of cornmeal. Mama says thank you as usual but with a rather grumpy expression that is only explained when a load of other women start queuing up at the door of her hut. We go out to make room for them, and in any case we want to go down to the river.
want to try to find the place where our old
stood. We plough our way through the thorny savannah vegetation to the opposite side of the village. As ever Klaus has his video camera, and Albert a stills camera. When we reach the higher ground I can find only a few thorny stumps marking the site of the old corral. But there’s nothing else to be seen except the familiar sandy, red-brown earth. Only the thorn tree under which Mama and the children used to sit still stands there forlorn.
Lketinga and I tell our two companions about our life here as we walk down the same track that I used for years to get to the river to fetch drinking water or to wash myself and my clothes. In the old days I used to keep meeting other women along the way but nowadays, with the standpipe in the village, nobody comes this way anymore.
As a matter of course Lketinga takes my rucksack and slings it across his shoulders. We lead the way and he asks me: ‘You remember this way?’ I tell him I remember it as if it were yesterday and we walk on together in silence. Every now and then my skirt catches on a thorn. I make a point of only wearing skirts here in Barsaloi as trousers on women are considered ‘improper’.
We’ve almost reached the river when Lketinga begins to ask me about the book and the film. Somewhat reproachfully he says: ‘Why is there somebody playing me, and why isn’t it me? What’s the point of that? Do you know this man? What has he got to do with us?’ Lost in my memories of the old days, I’m completely flustered by this at first. I try to explain to him carefully that the people in the film have nothing to do with us. ‘Even I’m not playing myself. It’s another woman you don’t even know. Mama
isn’t Mama and James isn’t James. That’s the way things are in films. A lot of people in Europe have enjoyed our story and want to see what it’s like here. The film will show them without them having to come here.’
He listens carefully, thinks for a minute and then says: ‘But people keep coming here and telling me you were unfaithful to me, that you have your own airplane in Switzerland, lots of houses and big cars.’ At first these absurd stories leave me speechless, but then I come around and ask him who these people were who’ve been telling such lies. ‘I don’t know who they are,’ he says, ‘but they come from all over the place, from Switzerland too, and maybe they know you. I don’t know if it’s all true or not. Sometimes warriors who’ve been down on the coast come back home and tell tall tales too.’
I feel quite upset and sad but try to keep calm as I tell him as forcefully as I can: ‘I don’t know who these people are! But you’ve known me for eighteen years. I used to live in Barsaloi and did everything I could to survive and have a happy life here with you. I would have died if I’d stayed any longer. And ever since I left I’ve sent money to your family despite the fact I left this country with nothing. Do you think that’s normal? Do you think if I were some sort of bad person I’d have bothered with you and your family for all these years? In my country it’s not normal for a wife to support her husband if she leaves him. I even sent money to you when I didn’t have a job and after the success of my book, a lot more. The publishing house and the film producers have helped you too. Do you think if you were in my place you’d have done all that for me?’
He looks at me and in a quieter voice says, ‘No, I don’t think so, but I don’t know. And I don’t know why people keep telling me stories like that. Some journalists came and wanted me to tell them nasty stories about you. I told them that you’re still my wife even if you live in Switzerland, that you help us and I don’t see why I should tell nasty stories. I said you still belonged to our family and you’re still the mother of my child. I simply refused to talk to them anymore.’
I tell him that’s the best thing to do and try to explain that a lot of it’s to do with envy. I remind him about the way people ganged up against us in Mombasa, about the way so-called friends spun rumours because I was young and pretty and, in African terms, rich.
‘And today you get all the help you need, you have a big herd of animals, James has his own house and the film people will see to it that
you have a wooden house too. If you look after the money, you need never go hungry. And all of that simply because you once had the courage to marry a white woman. I think that’s the way people look at it, that possibly it makes people envious and a lot of outsiders want to spoil the good relationship we have, by making up nasty things. It’s true that I have a car in Switzerland – I had a car even here in Africa. I don’t own a house, like you say people told you, I pay rent every month for one. And the story about an airplane is just laughable.’
Despite how unhappy all this mischief-making by other people has made me, I can hardly suppress a smile at the thought of jetting around the place in my own airplane. Lketinga on the other hand looks a bit embarrassed now and in his gruff voice says: ‘It’s okay, now I believe you, really. Now you explain it all to me, I believe you. But sometimes I just don’t know what’s true anymore. Even James tells me all sorts of things and I just have to believe him, even if sometimes I have my doubts. I think that because he went to school he wants to make a career for himself, to become like a government minister. But I’m a Samburu, a proper Samburu, I have my animals and my family. This is okay for me.’
I take my ex-husband’s hand and look him in the eyes, telling him: ‘I wouldn’t have come back here if I had ever done anything wrong on purpose. When I left, all I was thinking about was saving my life. And I think you can trust your brother. Who else can you trust, if not your own family?’ When I’ve finished I have to turn my head away to conceal my emotions, especially as Albert and Klaus have almost caught up with us.
In the meantime we’ve reached the dried-up river bed and I’m thankful that there’s a lot going on. Immediately in front of us there’s a low singing sound coming from a waterhole around which a few camels are standing. Two arms appear out of the waterhole throwing buckets of water in a regular rhythm into a hollow lined with plastic sheeting. As soon as it lands the precious liquid is slurped up by the camels. As we come closer the animals turn away and gradually move off. The warrior to whom the arms belong looks up, stops singing and climbs out of the ditch. He looks suspiciously at us, replies to Lketinga’s greeting and trots off after his camels. This is the time of day when from all around girls, boys or warriors bring their herds down to the river. Before long the whole river bed is swarming with goats and a few sheep of different colours. Some two hundred yards away we spot the traces of a small stream. All
around the line it makes are large patches of dark sand indicating that water is still flowing just beneath the surface. Our ‘washing place’, where Lketinga and I used to wash each other, was a bit farther downstream from here but there’s no water flowing there now.
We wander over to the herds of goats. The girls in their traditional costumes use their little sticks to try to keep their herds together. A few warriors strut among the herds. I notice that instead of the usual spears some men are carrying rifles. Lketinga explains why: ‘Ever since the bloody conflict with the Turkana many people now have guns.’ This new way of carrying arms makes the atmosphere almost threatening. I notice too that none of the girls are wearing the leather loincloth decorated with glass beads and that instead they all have a European-style, usually chequered skirt. On the other hand they still go bare-breasted wearing only their traditional necklaces.
There are goats bleating and lowing all over the place. Lketinga exchanges a couple of words here and there with the goatherds, and we stroll up to an unusual enormous tree that hangs over the river bed offering an inviting place to sit and rest. Lketinga and I sit on a giant tree root and from this slightly raised vantage point watch all the good-natured commotion. Klaus is thrilled to get such wonderful footage of the local colour.
Lketinga points to one young girl just coming down to the river with her herd. He recognized her from afar as Natasha. The name immediately rings a bell with me. Sixteen years ago I gave that name to the daughter of one of Lketinga’s half-brothers. We were visiting him in Sitedi, and I was handed the naked newborn to hold. When I asked what her name was the mother laughed and said to me: ‘You give her a
name.’ Off the top of my head I came up with Natasha. I’m pleased to see she’s kept it.
And now here she is standing in front of us. I want to say hello to her so Lketinga comes with me. Of course she doesn’t know me, except that I’m the one who gave the girl her name. She is very shy and won’t say a word. I’m cross with myself for having nothing to give her, not even a few sweets.
When I mention to Lketinga that I wish I had something to give her, he suggests a few Kenyan shillings and then she can run into the village quickly and buy herself a nice new kanga. Somewhat doubtfully I ask who’ll look after her goats for her. Lketinga has a few words with one of the warriors who has also brought his animals down to drink, and he
agrees to watch Natasha’s herd for her. She takes the money and runs off with great strides towards Barsaloi.
While she’s away I keep my eyes on her herd too. I hope none of the animals go astray or it would turn out to have been a bad deal for the girl. Just like in the old days I find myself wondering how they can tell their goats apart. Most of them are white and to my unpractised eye all look much the same.
Back in the shadow of the tree I enjoy the panorama of the river bed. A little further on two warriors are sitting naked in the sand washing their gracious dark bodies while their red kangas hang drying in the hot sun on a piece of rock. No one pays them any attention. It is a peaceful, almost biblical scene.
A little later Lketinga says: ‘Natasha is coming back.’ And indeed here she is, jumping and bounding along the road with a bright yellow shawl across her shoulders. It’s wonderful to see the joy she gets from letting it flap behind her. She says ‘thank you’ shyly and even gives me some change, which I find really touching. This present cost me so little, almost nothing really, and yet this girl can hardly believe her luck at getting a new piece of clothing. I find her happiness contagious as I watch her bounding back down to her herd like that.
For a moment my thoughts turn to Napirai, who is about the same age. It’s a lot more complicated finding something for her to wear. The whole experience of bumping into Natasha has cheered me up and lifted my mood after the difficult conversation with Lketinga earlier. Even so, there’s still a perceptible coolness between us.
As the heat continues to rise, the river bed gradually clears as people drift away. Then all of a sudden an old woman appears in front of me holding out her shin, the skin of which is dried and flaky so that it looks almost grey. She lets me know that she needs ointment, but I have to tell her I can’t help. But at least Klaus has his sunscreen with him and that satisfies her and she vanishes as suddenly as she appeared. It’s time for us to head back too. Everywhere you look there are goats lying in the shade of the trees. It’s incredibly hot now and the ground is too hot to touch without shoes.