North Kenya is wild frontier country inhabited by some of the toughest and most interesting people in Africa. Spartan, tall and regal, these nomads belong to ancient warrior races that migrated south from Ethiopia in the late 10th century, or from the lower Nile valley in about the 15th century.
Across the river, to the south of Elephant Watch Camp, live the Borana and Merille-Somali communities that are Muslim, plus a few immigrant Turkana who are mostly animist. North of the river, live the Samburu people who are closely connected culturally to the Maasai and are our direct neighbours.
Tall and handsome, the Samburu are semi-nomadic that revere cattle, which are their main livelihood, but also own vast herds of goats, sheep and camels. They move regularly in search of fresh pasture, and rely heavily on the rains for their existence. Their spiritual beliefs and most rituals centre around N’gai – a multi-faceted god who is the source of all protection from the hazards of their existence – to whom they appeal constantly for blessings in daily life.
Young circumcised men between the ages of 8 and 15 become warani (warriors) who are charged with tending livestock and securing access to pasture. They wear pink or red wraparound shukas (cloths) with short stabbing swords at their belts, and their hair is twirled into long thin braids and rubbed with red ochre and fat. The women, who are shaven headed, stay back in the manyatta (homestead) to fetch firewood and water, tend the children, and milk the animals, which they do with great proficiency. They keep only what they need as excessive possessions are a hindrance.
Up to 90% of our workforce at Elephant Watch is local, coming mainly from the manyattas bordering the reserves, as we believe passionately that the Samburu are the best ambassadors for wildlife and this extraordinary northern wilderness. Although many lack a formal education, the extent of their traditional knowledge is breathtaking and their understanding of the landscape and animals is second to none, so there’s a lot we learn from each other.
Eco-tourism has proved to be an essential alternative livelihood for these extraordinary stoic nomads who face hardships we can barely imagine. By building on their traditional knowledge and natural conservation ethic, we provide extensive training to help our staff gain new skill-sets to adapt to the modern world while retaining their vibrant traditions, and together with Save the Elephants we run a scholarship programme for promising students.
We are enormously proud of the achievements of every single person at Elephant Watch – from our brilliant guides, to our superb cooks, bar staff, waiters, tent stewards, guards, builders, student interns and managers – and we’re very happy too that so many of our previous trainees have found work as top level guides and chefs in other parts of Kenya. With their irrepressible sense of humor, warmth and enthusiasm, we are their biggest fans!