The Nomads of Kenya

The Christmas meeting affords the opportunity for our hardworking programme officers to seek out a special topic for our entertainment, often far removed from the usual Lichfield based themes. This year, they came up with a Christmas cracker of a speaker and topic. David Jones FRPS, has been visiting northern Kenya for over 40 years, fascinated by the culture of the pastoral tribes in this arid area. Many of us have often watched travelogue programmes on the television and so are generally familiar with the Maasi and Kikuyu tribes, but David's excellent photography, back by a most knowledgeable, in depth talk, brought the culture alive for us.

Living in the sparsely populated area of northern Kenya, far removed from roads and the modern comforts of life, we learned how the graceful peoples of these and other tribes coexisted with the harsh environment. As pastoralists, they are constantly on the move, ensuring that their cattle, sheep and goats can seek out the best grazing on the extensive plains. Not surprisingly, their herds are their source of wealth and the care lavished on them reflects their importance. In addition, the same animals are their source of food. Masi do eat some meat, but a greater part of their diet consists of milk, which they drink in copious quantities. Eight pints of milk daily is the average intake, laced weekly by animal blood. But what about water, we asked? When the spasmodic rivers dry up, these tribes have the uncanny skill of locating water underground. The longer the drought, the deeper they dig!

Their dress, ceremonies, rituals and culture were thoroughly explored by David, who reminded us that these were a proud, self sufficient people, often well educated, but capable of thriving in a tough environment. The seeds of their culture can be traced back to the Nubian dynasties of Egypt. With a series of photo comparisons, David showed us that little had changed in their dress for 4000 years. It was all the more concerning, therefore, to discover that their culture was under stress from well intentioned aid agencies which, by providing water wells, had restrained their nomadic life. Without the ability to wander with their herds, the land around water wells has been overgrazed and the desiccated topsoil blown away. With this loss of food for the cattle and goats, the pastoral culture has, in some areas, collapsed, abandoning these proud people to welfare support with all that implies in self respect. Many drift into marginal work in Nairobi, living in shanty towns. So much for well intentioned projects, the implications of which have not been fully considered.

Despite this discordant note, the audience was left with an impression of a proud, intelligent and sophisticated people. After David's talk, we could understand why northern Kenya had drawn him and his family back time and time again over 40 years.

Roger Hockney
December 2011