Friday, April 13, 2007

A Samburu Story

I recently returned from Northern Kenya where I was dispatched to cover the plight of the endangered Grevy’s zebra. Over the course of the expedition, I learned that the biggest threats facing the Grevy’s are habitat degradation, poaching, disease, and competition with livestock of indigenous tribespeople. I knew there had to be a human component to the problem. In this case, it’s the Samburu - or so I thought.

To gain access to the zebra’s story, I embedded myself in an Earthwatch Institute expedition. Part of their conservation initiative includes forays into the bush to find and interview Samburu herdsmen, asking them about their knowledge and impact on zebra.

The Samburu are one of the proud and sturdy tribes from this marginal region. Like the Turkana to the north and Maasai to the south, the Samburu have essentially resisted and rejected the modern world. They choose to lead the same pastoralist lifestyle that supported their ancestors through thousands of seasonal cycles of aridity and rains. But it quickly becomes clear to anyone who experiences this harsh landscape that the Samburu way of life, shaped by time and climate, is the only viable option.

In the middle of the expedition’s fourth night, while pouring over the interview transcripts under my mosquito net, I had an epiphany. In the focused blue light of my headlamp, the written words of Mzee Leisan, needed no scientific analysis to understand; “I see the world drying up” he said, “If we get no help, we will all die.”

I suddenly realized, that the forces threatening the zebra are greater than poachers, disease, and Samburu livestock. The forces at work here are environmental on a grander scale. And the zebra that I came here to understand are not the only endangered species. Suddenly the scope of extinction shifted from because of the Samburu, to include the Samburu…and beyond.
It then occurred to me that these interview sessions might be a rare opportunity to collect first-hand stories of global-warming's impact on tribal life. Indeed, this might be the last chance for a remote and isolated people to tell their story to the developed world. After all, who better to ask about climate change than the oldest and wisest of a culture that has lived with this land and wildlife for centuries?

So I developed a series of questions that could be incorporated into the interview sessions. The next day my interpreters and I set out in search of the old and wise.

It was more challenging than I had could have imagined.

Immediately, unforeseen obstacles began to emerge. For one thing, I was looking for men 80 years or older and there just aren’t that many left. This required we travel farther away and deeper into the bush. In addition, the Samburu are particularly suspicious of outsiders (especially white ones), and the more remote the clan, the more wary they are. They’ve also developed a profane loathing for having their pictures taken. So needless to say, white men with cameras face vigorous, often violent, opposition. I was treated to stories of bumbling tourists, stupid enough to snap before asking and subjected to the jury of a spear (if you live, you are forgiven). It took much time of simply “hanging out” with these men to gain the level of trust where my interpreters could even broach the subject. But by the end of a dusty, frustrating, exhausting week punctuated with a couple of sketchy moments, I had managed to conduct six on-camera interviews with the oldest of the old in the Samburu community.

These are men largely unaware of the current debate over global warming. But across the board, they each stated independently and emphatically, that the overall climate has changed. Gone were the days of “white” rains, plentiful pasture, and mingling with wildlife. In their language (Maa translated to English), they explained that the present climate is hotter and dryer than when they were young. They indicated how weather patterns have become extreme. Instead of the natural rainy and dry seasons, they are now experiencing severe floods and droughts, with little or no moderation as in the past.
The ill effect of flood and drought can be seen in the background of every shot. Red sandy soils called ”machanga” lay bare and baking in the hot equatorial sun. Land is washed away as mudflows in catastrophic floods and the cycle leaves no room or time for nutrients to accumulate. Vegetation can no longer replenish the landscape. Horizon after horizon, the grasslands depended on by countless generations of Samburu, fail to appear. The situation is indiscriminate and desperate for all life - zebra and human alike. Scavengers are the only beneficiaries and even their days seem numbered.

Samburu men spend every living moment outside exposed to the elements. They are intimately tuned to the patterns of nature, now etched like credentials into their deeply wrinkled and weathered faces. And since familial storytelling is an integral part of Samburu culture, the stories handed down through the generations are an extension of their ancestor’s tales. An interview with a Samburu Mzee is an indirect conversation with their heritage and a visage of an ancient collective wisdom. I felt compelled to record whatever they had to say, conveying to the world their story not for the first time, but maybe the last.

Listening to the exotic and animated syllables of these extraordinary people, I can’t help but hear an ancient way of life disintegrating. It is a cruel irony indeed that these, the voices of a people that has always lived in harmony with the environment, imprinting the lightest carbon footprint on the earth, are being unknowingly silenced by an ignorant culture of consumption half a world away.

Early coal miners used canaries to warn of deadly gas buildup. But this method relied on two tragic flaws. First, the canary had to die. Second, the miners had to see the dead or dying canary. So maybe the developed world needs to see some of the suffering already in progress. Maybe, by seeing the abject poverty of the environmentally displaced, we can begin to own our own contribution to climate change. Maybe...hopefully.
A big THANKS! to my Earthwatch teammates Bethany, Christy, and Josh for all the photos, footage, fun, and friendship.

Here is a selection of fun photos from this expedition (Quicktime Movie takes a long time to load)

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