The Assumption of Nalantei

by Stephen Marvin

Preface (Loiyangalani, northern Kenya)

(Page 1 of 16)

They live together now, the Samburu, Turkana, and the others, on this sun-encrusted dark and salted land, among palm huts standing in yellow sturdiness that bulge like shore grass mounds, and the greater punctuations: silent volcanoes, themselves dark protrusions in their age of inexplicable idleness, resting, merely waiting like kettles on a forgotten hearth. There is little grass, even by mildly saline Lake Turkana, which shines as an unfulfilled promise, receding steadily in the desiccating heat. This land will not be furrowed, will not support its peoples or their cattle, which are their wealth and their love. For the Samburu, Ngai (God) and the cloud-gathering grace of Mount Kulal send the redeeming clear spring that emerges among the palms, acacia trees and loiyangalani bushes which it sustains. There is the safety of a village. Here, Samburu and Turkana do not raid for cattle, which in any case are few. The Samburu keep to the old ways and are sustained by goats, the few cattle, and some tourists who provide shillings for grain, tobacco and supplies. The Turkana and Lmolo eat the abundant lake fish which the Samburu despise. No vegetables will grow.

The administration of Kenya that would control them is nearly silent now but has reduced proud warriors, muran, to a state of institutionalized indolence in their loss of function, to promote a tenuous harmony, but the complex rituals that define the essence of Samburu pride and honor persist. The Ilmugit ceremonies, or feasts, mark the progress of a boy from child to warrior to elder. Women, always at the center of culture, retain dignity in their own customs, more hidden, furtive; they are most often ignored or avoided by the men who direct the balance of their lives. Nkanyit, the respect and honor of Samburu custom exemplified by elder rule, is the enduring core of life and ritual.

There is a Catholic mission hidden among the acacia at an emergence of the spring, and within it a school to which some children come to learn of faith, government, numbers and history, to explore the mystery of typewriters, telephones and light bulbs; some eagerly turn worn pages of a few books and search for maps or images of a larger world, and the streets of Nairobi.

Among the peoples who converge in Loiyangalani there is some trust and kindness, and the common interest of survival.


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