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Living Traditions

Living Traditions

Jul 2017

By Kingsley Holgate

Main pic above: Samburu Morane Ltanelon Letelua takes it upon himself to look after the Greybeard. These age-set warriors have a thorough knowledge of the area and have even been known to hunt down Al Shaabab operatives and hand them over to the military.

The three expedition Landies are loaded up with humanitarian supplies, a Zulu calabash of water from the Cradle of Humankind, a Scroll of Peace and Goodwill in support of malaria prevention, and Elephant Art Project materials for kids. A new adventure is about to begin. 

We’re off to the sound of marimbas and drumbeats from Lesedi Cultural Village outside Johannesburg. Once again we’ll need the Zen of Travel to be with us as we point the three Kingsley Holgate Foundation expedition Land Rovers toward a place called Chew Bahir, the Great Ocean of Salt, situated in the cultural kaleidoscope of southern Ethiopia—close to the borders with unsettled South Sudan and Somalia on the Horn of Africa. 

Here cattle wars are a way of life; AK47s casually swung over the shoulders of tribesmen protecting their wealth. Scarifications, tribal initiations, leather skirts adorned with cowry shells, clay lip plates and red ochre make ‘living traditions’ alive and well here in one of Africa’s last great frontiers of real adventure.

Having spent much of a lifetime adventuring in every country on this continent, including her island states, we are keenly aware of the rapidly changing face of Mama Afrika. Our expedition is part of a series of once-off journeys called Africa’s Living Traditions: to document, record, research, photograph and participate in its richly colourful traditional cultural practices, many of which are fast disappearing.  

But our objective is also to cross the giant saltpans of Ethiopia’s Lake Chew Bahir in land yachts—the same contraptions we used a few decades ago in another world-first expedition to circumnavigate the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana.

As with all Kingsley Holgate Foundation expeditions, we’ll use this epic Cape Union Mart–supported journey to improve and save lives through adventure; malaria is rife in the wet season and many die—most villages are just too far away from any healthcare, but their lives can be saved by a simple mosquito net. 

We load up the Land Rovers with bales of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets along with Mashozi’s Rite to Sight spectacles for the poor-sighted. Sight is something so easily taken for granted. A simple pair of spectacles, and with it the gift of better sight, provides instant gratification. 

The Samburu, a Nilotic people of north-central Kenya, are related to but distinct from the Maasai. They speak Samburu which is a Nilo-Saharan language. The leaping into the air by the age-set warriors is part of a dance form to attract the girls.

So often on expedition we come across livestock herders with their goats, camels, sheep and cattle; in hot desert climates, they all share the same contaminated waterhole. Waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera kill about 1.5 million people per year. The expedition distributes LifeStraws, portable filters that provide safe drinking water for one person for a year.   

It’s with great excitement and anticipation that the expedition team arrives in Samburu-land in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District (North Eastern Province), marking the true beginning of our Living Traditions Expedition. We’ve reached the sacred mountain of Sepache with our old friend, the warrior captain Dipa; it’s a feast of colour, Morane age-set warriors, red-ochred bodies and beadwork with all the hues of the rainbow. A friend of Dipa’s is getting married and we’re invited to the traditional ceremony: There’s the slaughter of animals, drinking of fresh blood from a goat’s neck, and at sunset the singing and dancing reach a crescendo with the Morane leaping into the sky and the women ululating. As we leave, the bride gets ushered off to be circumcised on her wedding night. Life on expedition is never dull, and Africa is all good and all bad at the same time. 

Coloured with fresh red ochre, the bridegroom and the best man prepare for the traditional wedding ceremony.

All our expeditions carry a Scroll of Peace and Goodwill. These have been endorsed by Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, ambassadors, presidents, health workers, community leaders, elders and fellow travellers. The next morning, Samburu mamas endorse the Living Traditions scroll with red-ochered handprints as a sign of appreciation for the Rite to Sight and malaria work we’ve done in the village. 

The Samburu elders give us a blessing. Dipa grabs his AK and, with a gang of Samburu Morane, jumps into his old green Defender to escort us north through the ‘badlands’ toward the Omo Delta. These age-set warriors have a thorough knowledge of the area and have even been known to hunt down Al-Shabaab operatives and hand them over to the military.

We’re travelling through the Wild Northern Frontier District—that's what it was called in the old days, and it's still a bit like that today: wild-looking nomadic tribes; cattle and livestock wars; dramatic and sometimes empty landscapes where you can so easily die of thirst; too many old rifles and Kalashnikovs traded from South Sudan and Ethiopia, and bought with cattle and camels. 

At a middle-of-nowhere fork in the northwest track to the Omo Delta in the north of the world's largest desert lake, Turkana, we say goodbye to our Samburu friends. They’ve added much colour and culture to our humble Living Traditions expedition to Chew Bahir and beyond.

A blessing by the Samburu elders.

We enter Ethiopia at Omorati, and it’s on to the wild South Omo region with our clear Living Traditions objective to record and do continued humanitarian work with the nomadic tribes who make up one of Africa's most colourful cultural mosaics. 

We've arrived on the third day of the fierce Mursi tribe’s donga stick-fighting ceremony with long sticks up to 2.5 metres in length. One of the previous day's fighters has his wounds all wrapped up in pieces of cloth. The ‘prize’ for which the warriors will be fighting is a beautiful Mursi girl, who has moved from the shade of a thorn tree to lean demurely against the bush bar of our Land Rover Discovery. I jump backward as an AK47 round goes off close to my ear. Down comes a fighting stick, and then another AK round into the air. The tension builds! Some of the warriors have very dazed looks as they circle each other with their sticks at the ready. The fighting will continue for days, and sometimes ends in death.

Looking on are the Mursi women with their clay, saucer-like decorated lip plates. At the age of 15 or 16, a Mursi girl has a slit made beneath her lower lip; over time the gap is progressively stretched, forming a lip loop large enough for a small circular clay plate to fit. As the lip stretches, so larger plates are inserted until eventually the loop is large enough to hold a decorated plate up to 12cm in diameter—without the plate inserted, the lip can be pulled over the woman’s head! We're told that the larger the lip plate, the greater her bride price: A real whopper can fetch up to 50 head of cattle.

Malaria is also rife in this area, so we help out with some life-saving mosquito nets for mums and babies. It’s really the least we can do in gratitude for being able to share in this living tradition. 

Next are the Hamer people, as we continue to research the colourfully rich and fascinating cultures of Ethiopia’s South Omo region. A previous interaction with the Hamer had allowed us to witness their bull-jumping ceremony, in which—as part of his coming-of-age rite—a naked young man leaps into the air and jumps across the backs of a number of bulls. If he falls between them, he’s shamed and not allowed to marry for another year. If he succeeds, he's a hero and may take a wife.

This ceremony was preceded by the whipping of the Hamer girls by their suitors. As a Westerner, it was tough to watch as blood spurted from a deep gash—one of many that crisscrossed a naked back. One of the girls grunted in wide-eyed pain and then danced forward, tossing her head, spraying her admirer with butter fat and ochre from her thick plaited hair that hung in a fringe above her face, taunting him to whip her again. Down cracked the whipping stick—more blood. As proof of her Hamer tribal culture, she will proudly wear her horrific scars for life.

Today it's different as we move in to do malaria prevention work with pregnant Hamer mums and mothers with infants near Lake Chew Bahir. Now it’s time for our world-first attempt to cross the sun-baked Great Ocean of Salt. Even in the late afternoon, the heat that bounces off the rock-hard crust is mind-numbing as we offload the land yachts from the roof of the big 130 Defender. The booms and masts are almost too hot to handle. Not a breath of wind, apart from the occasional dust devil. 

Late afternoon runs into moonlight: booms, sails, batons, tyres, steering mechanisms, ropes, pulleys and the bolting on of the seats. Like a bunch of heat-crazed madmen, pointing up at the sails, we perform our own Chew Bahir Wind Dance. Somehow it works! The wind picks up and we’re off, racing across the desert crust: the thrill of the wind in the sails; the adrenaline rush as you fly a wheel and the squeal of the tyres as you make a flat-out turn into the wind; transfer your weight to the opposite seat; tug on the main sheet and you're off again, heading for the pinprick of light that marks the distant campfire. 

Ross Holgate and Bruce Leslie race off toward the Kenyan border and then back again in the dark, with the Land Rover headlights guiding them back for camp stew and bedrolls under a Milky Way, punctuated with falling stars. The next day, in strong winds, with dust devils careering across this somewhat unknown place, we all get to sail the yachts deep into Borana country.

It’s mission accomplished! We empty the traditional Zulu calabash of symbolic Cradle of Humankind water, carried all the way from Lesedi Cultural Village in South Africa—and then, somewhat dehydrated, with sunburnt noses and rope-burnt, blistered hands from the land yacht main sheets, we pack up and head homeward along the base of the jagged Hamer range of mountains.

Travel in Africa, it seems, is about timing and opportunity: We call it the Zen of Travel. Shortly after leaving, we hear that Ethiopia has just flared up with widespread anti-government protests, attacks on foreign-owned business, 52 people killed in a stampede at a religious festival, and thousands arrested. A six-month state of emergency now bans the use of social media; the watching of broadcast stations deemed ‘terrorist organisations’; the crossing of one’s wrists above one’s head (a popular anti-government symbol); participation in protests and carrying guns near the capital or within 50km of the country’s borders… There’s also a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, and diplomats and foreigners are banned from travelling 40km outside the capital of Addis Ababa. 

Seems we got out just in time. I shudder to think what they would’ve thought of our eclectic bunch, barrelling across Chew Bahir on land yachts!

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

Lesedi Cultural Village
Lesedi Cultural Village Tour

The Intrepid explorer