First Contact

by Geoffrey Clarfield (November 2012)

In April 1985 I met my first Rendille twenty kilometers south of Marsabit town in Kenya’s desert northern frontier. He was no more than nineteen or twenty. He had curly hair with a bone ornament in it. He had ivory earrings in large pierced ears. He was wearing a red cloth tied around his hips, the kind you see in ancient Egyptian wall paintings. His face, neck and chest were covered with red ochre and that covered large parts of his dark brown skin. His nose was pointy and his cheek bones highly placed. Remarkably, his eyes were a greenish blue.

He carried a shiny wooden club in one hand and a slender spear with an iron blade in the other, topped with a black pom pom made out of ostrich feathers – a sign that I later discovered meant that he was not at war with anyone. We had stopped to repair our fourth punctured tire en route from Isiolo, the town at the foot of Mount Kenya and the gateway of Kenya’s lawless northern deserts. The young man approached our car and pointed at my jerry can filled with drinking water.

I pointed to the jerry can and said in Rendille, “Biche?” He replied “Biche donna” I want water. As I handed him the Jerry can suddenly the many articles and books that I read about the Rendille sprung to life in front of my eyes. This was my first live encounter with this tribe of camel herding nomads who are the last Somali speaking group of nomads that have not converted to Islam.

He looked at me and I looked at him with equal amounts of curiosity. We stood there, I, my wife and our four year old boy, in all of our technological complexity, beside our Japanese Toyota Land cruiser fresh from the assembly line in Japan and borne on freighters across the Indian Ocean to Mombasa port, and from there on the railroad from Mombasa to Nairobi (the famous Lunatic Express of 19th century fame) through the dealer to our university research project whose goal was to better understand the problems of prospects of East Africa’s most conservative pastoral societies – the Masai, Samburu, Rendille and Borana.

We had been vaccinated against tropical diseases, took malaria tablets regularly and slept under mosquito nets. We had our bags strapped to the roof rack, two government escorts with automatic weapons ready for use, a child in the back seat, we had typewriters, note pads, first aid kits, maps, tents and enough tinned food and medicine for a month until we would need to drive back to Isiolo to restock our supplies.

Marsabit town, where we were heading, was known to be cut off by torrential rivers that are dry as dust for most of the year but during the rainy seasons dormant river beds would burst their banks, drown unsuspecting herdsmen in a few minutes and wash away large sections of the road.

During one of these floods a Roman Catholic priest, out preaching the gospel climbed a tree and was stuck there for three days while the waters raged below, like Noah on Mount Ararat, until he was finally rescued by a Toyota Land cruiser like ours with the fancy fangled snorkel like intake pipe that takes in air from a foot above the roof of the car, eight feet off the ground.

Our Rendille visitor had never been to a clinic, was not vaccinated, and had survived an excruciating circumcision ceremony at the age of sixteen or eighteen. He regularly, slept on the ground in the open and on occasion traveled by foot with a gourd of water that carried no more than a liter of fluid. At the same time he and three or four of his fellow age mates would on occasion take a cow, kill it, spend the next four days consuming it, put on many kilos in a short space of time and then not eat anything for more than a week.

As our Rendille visitor finished the water I took back the jerry can. He looked at me quizzically and asked me “At a gob oh?” This is the first question that Rendille ask each other after they have exchanged greetings of peace. It means “what clan are you” I looked at him, not knowing what to say.

With that he turned his back on us on walked off across the plain. I stared after him. At first we could see the full frame of his lean figure outlined in the glaring sun. Soon after all we could see was a ball of red from the reflection of his wrap around or what is called in Kiswahili, a “shuka” and then, he disappeared into the desert. A small twister of dust sprung up in the place where he had stood and all of us contemplated that solitary pillar of cloud as it moved across the desert.

Like Columbus and all the explorers who I had been taught to admire during my childhood, men like De Soto, Cabot and Cartier, like them, this was my first contact with a tribal culture. For the next two years I lived among the Rendille. I learnt their language as best as I could. I drank the milk of  their camels, sang their clan songs and moved with them and their beloved camels across the arid plains. I observed them, took notes, conducted interviews, recorded songs, took photos and films and tried to inscribe their culture on paper before modernity and the priests of Christianity and Islam convert the Rendille to their faiths and incorporate them into their communities.

During the last years of the twentieth century I did my best to understand a foreign and tribal culture, not too different from those “Indians” who puzzled the conquistadores, and like them I tired to understand them from a world view caught between Biblical morality and Greek skepticism.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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