In January Paula called me and said she had been invited to a traditional Samburu wedding and could I go with her. Paula’s adventures are always, always exciting and irresistible. The problem was that we were due to leave Kenya two days before the wedding. I’d just finished photographing an amazing 4 day traditional Indian wedding in Nairobi and was keen to get back and edit the set. I couldn’t resist the offer and we changed our flights! Best. Decision. Ever!
The wedding was in a small village called Sere-Olipi in Samburu, Northern Kenya. At best it was a 6 hour drive and we would be camping in her friend @Festu’s garden for the two nights we’d be away. We packed the car the day before and it looked like we were going for a week…
Paula’s adventures are always exciting and this was no different. The father of the bride, George is a teacher, elder in the community and a keen writer on the history and traditions of the Samburu culture. This wasn’t just going to be a traditional wedding, this was to be an in depth history and cultural experience too.
The hour drive out of Nairobi heading north takes you out along the hugely impressive looking Thika super highway with 3-4 lanes each way. It’s almost always full of cars at various states of motion; from 110km/h to stationary matatu’s dropping or collecting passengers. And there are police checks almost every 5-10km. At various traffic pinch points cars, minibuses and buses overlap and undercut at every opportunity. On and off the road. So you really have to have your wits about and drive with an eye constantly checking the mirrors. It’s exhausting.
The temperature was in the high 20’s Centigrade as we left Nairobi but as we ascended towards Nanyuki the temperature dropped, the skies darkened dramatically and Mount Kenya was completely covered in could and it started to rain. We stopped briefly for some veg supplies at the roadside kiosks before heading on to Kisima Farm Shop for much needed coffee, chicken and chips.
It was late evening and getting dark, so we ate as we drove, stopping again briefly at the fantastic Elephant corridor crossing to see 5 elephants crossing under the road! The road drops down steeply all the way to to the manic town of Isiolo.
It was dark and raining as we picked our way through the myriad of lit and unlit bodaboda’s (motorcycle taxi’s) in Isiolo town. In the pitch black of night it was difficult to distinguish the one eyed bikes from the one eyed cars and approaching. A couple of kilometres out of town we were stopped at a police check by armed police. They had set the usual road spikes across the road and a large armed police officer came and gave us a once over. He was pleasant enough and sent us on our way after a minute.
The road north to Marsabit and beyond is pretty incredible and a far cry from the murram, rock strewn corrugated road I’d bumped along in 1994. Back then and for a long while after, you could only travel the road with an armed escort in your car. The banditry threat was real. We hardly passed any traffic as we made our way to Archers Post where we stopped at another police check. This time armed army officers were manning their road spikes that they’d set fully across the road. So you had to stop completely. Again a surprisingly friendly officer had a quick check and after a quick chat declared he love me sent us on our way on the “carpet highway” to Sere- Olipi. We both questioned ourselves whether we’d actually heard the same thing! Yes, he actually did say he loved me. Bizarre.
As we approached Sere-Olipi we saw a large group of children walking up the road. It was almost 9pm. We stopped to ask them what they were up to. They were high school students in the final examination year and had just finished their evening prep and were heading home. Only to return the next morning just after 6am to start again. They have an incredibly long day.
As got into Sere-Olipi we called Festus for final directions to his house as it was down a track off the main road and we didn’t want to get lost at that time in the middle of the bush. Sere-Olipi, meaning barren river in Samburu, was quiet with no one out and about. Just after we crossed the dry riverbed we turned off the road and arrived at his house.
Festus welcomed us warmly and showed us round his house and boma. He’d cleared and swept a patch under his acacia tree for our tent. Last time Paula was here, just after the rains, the place was swarming with all sorts of insects and scorpions. We did a quick search with our UV light but couldn’t find any. Tent pitched we lit our stove and made some tea and chatted about what to expect the following day.
We were up well before sunrise and after a quick breakfast headed to George’s house in Sere-Olipi where the wedding was taking place. We got there just in time and found the groom’s party was just outside the homestead perimeter with his offering of 8 cattle and one black sheep. Inside the homestead was Charity and here family, guests and Samburu morans (warriors) who’d come from all over the area.
Everything about the wedding was of traditional significance: the bead work, the armbands on their right, the 4 legged stool, the bride, groom and best man being barefoot all day… there’s ton’s more and I’ve probably missed a bunch as I was so engrossed taking photos. The black sheep is hugely significant as it represents the Charity being married off and it takes on her mums name and stays in the manyatta the whole day. It joins their flock and is never slaughtered.
One of the offered cattle must be a pure white bull and it is expertly slaughtered and the meat butchered very precisely by the morans. The elders of the community watched eagle eyed to make sure everything was done properly. Every part of the bull is accounted for with certain cuts kept specifically for an overnight broth that the groom and his best man have to make for the elders. Some cuts are specifically for the elders, others the morans (warriors) and the women.
As the bull was being butchered Charity was in the family manyatta with her mum and the other women elders. It was dark, hot and the smoke from the open fire stung our eyes. While this was going on there was tea! A huge pan of tea is made over a wood fire, stirred with a huge wooden spoon and everyone is offered a cup. It’s made sweet. It’s strong. It’s smokey and it’s delicious!
By midday the temperature was well over 35C and everyone meted away into the shade to escape the heat. Festus took us off to visit Sere-Olipi Primary school where he’s the Chairman of the board. It’s a wonderfully run rural school that’s transforming children’s lives. After a nap in the shade of his acacia tree we returned to George’s for the moran dancing. This was pretty spectacular to say the least! The morans hardly showed any emotion all day long. This was serious business and they had their elders watching over them. They had all dressed themselves in ceremonial beads, headdress and had very intricate ochre face painting and hair. Tucked into their armbands or socks was a comb and small mirror so they could make sure they looked perfect.
The dancing and singing was mesmerising and everyone from the village came to watch and take part. The moran’s led the dancing and onlookers would watch for the best dancers and jump in, grab hold of them and join the dance. It went on till dark.
The next morning we were back just after dawn for their final blessings the send off. Kululu and his best man looked exhausted. They had been up all night cooking the broth for the elders breakfast. They still had an arduous 2 day walk ahead of them to the distant hills where George had some camels. They’d get to stop at various manyattas along the way for food and to sleep. It was going to be another long tough day.
Charity was in the manyatta putting on here ceremonial dress and bead work while the elders gathered outside. Charity, Kululu and his best man lined up inside the fence and some of the elders and family lined up outside the fence. George and an elder stood either side of the gate and George drew a line in the sand with his foot. Once they had crossed this and left the homestead she was gone. As they crossed the line the elders crouched down and started praying. They walked through the line slowly stopping three times to crouch down themselves before disappearing into the bush. That was the last we saw of them.
Thank you Festus for your hospitality and George for all the insights and history behind the Samburu culture and traditions. It was unforgettable.
Here’s Charity and Kululu’s traditional Samburu wedding.