Monday, July 30, 2018

Samburu, a Cultural Paradox

Annamaria on Monday

The Samburu tribe have lived in the Rift Valley of Kenya since the 15th century.  It was around the time they arrived there that they split off from the Masaai--though the groups remain culturally quite similar and still share a language.  The Maasai went south.  The Samburu settled in the area north of Mount Kenya.  They are semi-nomadic, and pastoralist, raising cows, sheep, goats, and camels.  Their diet consists almost entirely of milk, cows' blood, and maize cooked into cornmeal mush.

They are monotheist and have clung to their old ways and beliefs, largely it seems because the culture allows very little leeway for change.  The tribe is a gerontocracy--ruled by elder men, who not only make the decisions, but who also have the power to communicate with their god, Nkai.  If elders feel disrespected, they can call upon Nkai to curse the offender.  The strength of the elders' hold on the people accounts for the changeless nature of the Samburu way of life.

Their pastoralist way of life and its enduring nature makes them a people causing very little harm to the earth that they occupy.  They live in harmony with their natural surroundings.  This is a very good and beautiful thing.  

I first learned of the Samburu a little over two years ago, when I met a Michael Lenaimado in, of all places, the Boathouse Cafe in Central Park.  Michael is Samburu, and as a boy of twelve he asked a visitor to Kenya, my life-long friend Fran Drew, to be his pen-pal.   Fran introduced me to Michael on his first visit to the US.  Since then, on my trip to Kenya earlier this year, I have had the privilege of learning more about his work and of meeting his wife.

Michael is a leader of the anti-poaching efforts in his tribal lands.  Eighty rangers, who protect elephants and rhinos, report to him.  He has also developed a way of engaging the tribal people in the anti-poaching effort.  He had come to the US to talk about this work--at a conservation conference in Denver.  Michael has organized Samburu villages to host conservation-minded visitors.  The villagers provide the hospitality.  The guests come with a sense of wonder about the animals and their habitat.   The tribe members earn money and learn how much people from around the world admire the environment in which they live.  The experience teaches the tribal people the value of what they have.  This is in direct opposition to what had been happening--that the poor tribal people took money (usually a pittance to the poachers, but a fortune to the local people) to turn a blind eye to the slaughter of the animals.

Also this past January, Michael brought his wife Sarah Lesiamito to visit with lucky me.  When Michael told her that my latest book--the Blasphemers--deals with female circumcision, she wanted to come to tell me about her efforts in that regard.

Every bit as much as Michael is a warrior against poaching and for conservation, Sarah is a warrior against the subjugation of girls and for their rights.  She traveled seven hours to come to talk about what she is doing and wants to do.  She is working to convince girls not to submit to circumcision and their mothers not to subject their daughters to it.  She is also taking in and sheltering young girls who have run away from the brutality of arranged marriages.  

The problem is a difficult one--especially in the face of the intractability of the old customs.  Regular readers of MIE may have seen my posts about the treatment of pastoralist girls.  Generally speaking, they are circumcised, and then  their fathers sell them into early marriage: the girls are usually between twelve and fourteen, the men who take them are three or four times their age, the price is usually in cows or goats.  Among the Samburu, there is the added practice known as "beading."  Beads and beadwork are an important part of the Samburu culture.  A gift of beads is a great honor.  Here is the Samburu bead regalia that Sarah presented to me when we met.  I was bowled over by it:

BUT... Beading, when warriors give the beads to young Samburu girls, has another, horrifying meaning.

In the pastoralist culture, men do not marry until they are past the warrior age: usually into their thirties.  While they are warriors, Samburu men make arrangements with the mothers and brothers of young girls.  They present the girls with beads, and--with their families' permission and support--begin sexual relations with the chosen girl.  One source I read said the child might be as young as five.  (This is as far into this tradition as I can bring myself to describe.  If you have the courage for it and want the facts, you can go here.)

Sarah is a Samburu woman with an education.  She is a teacher who holds an undergraduate degree in teaching and two Masters Degrees--one in Special Education and one in Leadership.  She told me she wanted to learn leadership because she wants to be able to teach girls to be leaders.

Last month, to aid her efforts, I had the enormous privilege of introducing her and Michael to Sister Mary Vertucci and the staff of the Emusoi Center in Arusha, Tanzania.  Mary and the women who work with her have been warriors for the rights of pastoralist girls for over twenty years.  Hopefully, their methods and encouragement will spur Sarah's efforts.

Sarah and Michael and Sister Mary and the staff of Emusoi.  
Sarah and some of the Emusoi girls.  

But let me take you back to New York City before I end this story.  Two weeks ago, I had a Samburu-related surprise, that turned into a shock.  In Bergdorf Goodman, the super-swanky department store on Fifth Avenue.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this on the elevator:

It says "featuring handcrafted beadwork by Samburu
women of Northern Kenya."

Since I needed to go through the handbag department on my way out , I decided to see what they were selling with Samburu beads.  Brace yourself.


Need a closer look at the price tag?  Yes!  It says $1680.  

The profits from these adorable little handbags are being shared with the Elephant Crisis Fund.  If you know anything about my attitudes, you know that I want to save the elephants. I do.  But I want to know, do the people who are using those beads to decorate luxury goods know anything about the plight of the girls in those pictures on their display?  Do they think those girls are at all as important as the elephants?  Or their profits?

My heart hurts. 


  1. Fascinating story, Annamaria. And showing yet again that coincidences happen, and much more frequently than any mystery book reader would accept in a story!

    1. Thank you, Michael. I wondered how many visitors riding that elevator that day had ever heard of the the Samburu. I imagine for most high-end shoppers, it was just some exotic, mellifluous African-sounding name. So elegant. So pretty. But so are those girls. And they live in torture. I could not bring myself to describe here what can happen to them once they are "beaded."

  2. MIE should be renamed TMH (Touching My Heart).

    Re: the $1680 handbags, the cynical part of me has to wonder 1) How much of that $1680 is considered "profit" (there's all that overhead, don't you know), 2) What percentage of the "profit" is shared with the Elephant Crisis Fund, and 3) How much is paid to the native crafters who create these beautiful works.

    The optimist in me hopes for good answers to the above, but the cynic fears the worst.

    1. EvKa, we should start our only society--Cynical Optimists of America! But I fear that the women who do the beading get very little. Or maybe the money goes to the tribal elders and the women, as individuals, get nothing. I already said my heart hurts. For lack of optimism, I fear.

  3. Powerful story. Sis. Have you thought about sending a copy of your article to the powers that be at BG (Neiman Marcus I believe), and possibly to the media. How far you wish to take it, I suspect, depends upon whether the income or potential pressure is more valuable to your friends.

    1. Thank you, my brother. I intend to inform the people in the chain between the Samburu women and those profiting from their work. I am starting at the top of Bergdorf's and of the design firm that makes the handbags. Hopefully, they will learn to support pastoralist girls, instead of exploiting them. Some days, keeping hope alive is extremely difficult.

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  5. Replies
    1. Yes, Stan. When Sister Mary and I talked about the endurance of tribal customs, she said," We want to help people preserve their way of life. We encourage our girls to go back to their villages when they finish their education, to help their people, but some customs favor only some members of the tribe and harm the others. Those are the customs that need to change." In this instance, it's the girls who are harmed. Terribly. They have no rights within the tribe.

  6. Alas, the reality is that it's almost impossible to preserve 'customs' while also changing in order to move out of ignorance and poverty. The latter always (ALMOST entirely) destroys or significantly transforms what came before. Alas. But sometimes, the price is worth the loss, the benefits outweighing the loss.

    1. Yes EvKa, that is part of the paradox, but I cannot imagine that if the Samburu elders stopped encouraging, and instead banned child rape that the next thing that would happen is the building of high-rise condominiums in the Kenyan wilderness. They can still herd cattle, sheep, and goats, while having only consensual sex with adult women, no?

    2. Absolutely, AmA. The direction I was coming from was that the elders are very unlikely to DO that, without a vast increase in education of the populace, and that education almost always goes hand-in-hand with changes in economics which get rid of (most) poverty, and those economic and educational changes in turn trigger the destruction (transformation) of much of what came before, culturally.

    3. You are so right, EvKa, and it is why it's such a thorny issue for me. The life style looks so natural and peaceful to us who dwell in civilization. But those elders have NO reason to change. They rule for their own comfort. They get to be wealthy and powerful on their terms. With their wealth (ownership of animals), they get to control who can marry whom, and as they age they "buy" twelve, thirteen, fourteen year olds for themselves, while their culture keeps the younger men satisfied by giving them little girls to molest. Elder men in that culture have been living that way for centuries. Why would they want to give up a good thing? Much as I believe in people keeping hold of their identities (I hang on to mine), I am so troubled to know how those girls suffer.

      As you point out, education, in this context, is the weapon that will work, eventually. Some of the beauty, perhaps all the beauty of their way of life may be sacrificed. But preserving their culture in its present form is too costly. The people who pay for it, with their pain, are exclusively the females and most notably the little girls.
      The world must not stand for that!!

  7. Thinking with my women's equality mindset, I think it's women like Sarah Lesiamito who are going to change things.

    Educating women and girls matters and can make changes.

    Women are the ones making changes in the "genital mutilation" customs, Indigenous women who live in the regions and are familiar with the customs and how to make change. Educating and winning over other women is the way to do it.

    And there really isn't a way to get involved with that.

    What you can do about the profits made from crafts made by the girls and women which are enriching some company executives and owners is a worthy cause. You can educate consumers about that, maybe push the companies to pay the artisans more.

    I'd call it cultural appropriation for profit, as in the fashion world when Indigenous designs are copied and then clothes sell for thousands of dollars each.

    There should be an expose in some newspapers or ezines. Or perhaps by some women's organizations. It's a good contribution which you can make.

    1. Ideally, you are perfectly right, Kathy, but I am afraid that Sarah cannot do what she needs to do without outside support. She has only a rural teachers salary. Women are not allowed to own animals--pretty much the only source of food. Uncircumcised girls cannot find husbands and therefore have no place in that society. Supportive husbands like Michael are almost unheard of. The girls Sarah supports (both the school girls who want to finish their education and the ones who have runaway from brutal treatment--not only by husbands but by their husband's older wives) need to be fed and clothed.

      When I asked Sarah what she most need to continue her work, the answer she gave me shocked me. An woke me up to the stark realities. She said, "Sanitary napkins." Once the girls come to her for help, the most important thing is for them is to finish their education, and the girls very much want to. But without proper products, they are ashamed to go to school when they are menstruating. When they miss school, often one whole week a month, they fall behind.
      It gets this basic. Without someone to help her keep them fed, clothed, and otherwise supplied, those girls cannot resist their cultural imperatives.
      This is why I support Emusoi so enthusiastically. Mothers bring their daughters to Emusoi to save them from the painful only future their culture offers them. Sister Mary and her staff give pastoralist girls all that they need in physical and moral support to finish their education.
      And Emusoi cannot do that without the support of outsiders.

      So there is a way to get involved. Not to force issues. Not to argue them on a local basis. But to help the women who are doing it by themselves to survive and succeed.

  8. I hear you. Helping women is crucial.

    But one thing is that these countries are so poor. It's awful.

    I have a friend who grew up in Burundi. When he was a child, he broke his leg playing baseball. He had to wait a week for his brother to return home to carry him to see a doctor. His village had no means of transportation.

    A lot of things have to change. Enormous funds need to be raised.

    I think you can be effective about the appropriation of the culture to sell jewelry and handbags. That is horrendous. That money could be used to help the peopl of that region, instead of enriching the already rich designers and department store owners.

  9. And I love elephants, too. But I don't think people who make these goods should be impoverished when an item is selling in Bergdorf Goodman's for nearly $1700.

    I encourage you to expose this however you can. It's shameful.

  10. I just saw some Samburu jewelry at Etsy for not exorbitant prices. I wonder who is getting those funds.