Wamba, Kenya Camel

Two women with their camel moving house. Near Wamba, Kenya.
Photo: by Augustine, head of the blacksmith clan.

Near Wamba, Kenya

August, 2020

Photo by Augustine, head of the blacksmith clan

This was sent to me by my blacksmith friend, Augustine. He is his own story. Not today. Tall, handsome, a Paul Robeson baritone; voice so mellifluent that were he not a tribal blacksmith, he could have made a career for himself as a voice over actor. Nineteen children, four wives — marriages that seem to be unusually happy — a remarkable man — but I digress. 

These Samburu women are on the move. This one camel is carrying the important structural framework for their new house salvaged from the previous one. Plus, their possessions. I want you all to think about that. About the lightness of their footprint. Of course, it is only apparently light. The land they are here walking on, bereft of nearly any ground cover, and the camel they are leading, are the product of the twin problems of human abuse of the commons — our abuse of the atmosphere and their abuse of the land. These are the children of Abel, the pastoralist brother of Cain, the first farmer, sons of Adam and Eve in the Hebrew test that is the “Old Testament.” WhenI first came to this region in the early 1990s, there was grass over everywhere, ubiquitous herds of cows, and no camels. 

The Samburu are (soon were) semi-nomadic pastoralists. This means, they do not have fixed villages, but rather from time-to-time, usually spaced some small number of years apart, move solo or in small groups of two to a few families setting up these small houses within a border of cut thorny acacia branches to provide safety for the herds who sleep within the compound our manyatta. Poor forage is the primary reason for moving, but there are others. After a couple years in one place all convenient wood resources may get used up as all nearby shrubs and low hanging tree branches have already been cut for firewood. An important member of the manyatta might have died, and, yes, even amongst the Samburu personal issues may result in one or more members of a Manyatta moving out. 

I have photographed caravans on the move, but from a distance. For me, Augustine’s photograph captures a sense of isolation. A sense of us as little people living within a landscape in a way that we do not. They are not going to move into a ready-made house. These women will re-make their house by cutting more branches to form the house frame and then using makeshift materials to complete the walls and ceiling. When I first started visiting the Samburu region there were lots of cows. The house walls and roof were sealed with cow dung and the roof then covered with sisal mats. Now, there are no more cows so the women will use metal sheeting for the walls and a mix of cardboard, rags, and plastic to the roof.

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