Far yet not far

A Samburu staff member at Sarara Camp. Photo by David Lansing.

Everyone who works at Sarara, except the administrators, is Samburu, a somewhat mysterious tribe thought to be an offshoot of the Maasai (like the Maasai, they shave the women’s heads, adopt a one-legged stance while herding, and speak a Maa dialect which is similar but not identical to the Maasai).

This morning when I had my coffee in the mess tent, I tried talking to the young Samburu waiter but it wasn’t easy. He told me his English wasn’t very good but I think that’s just a polite way of avoiding conversation. I think many Africans find the questions asked of them by mzungus like me to be perplexing at best. Like they must think to themselves, Why would anyone want to know this thing?

For instance, I asked the waiter, whose name was Jarso, how old he was. From the look in his eyes, I could see that his head was about to explode. He had no idea how to answer this, partially because few Samburu have birth records but also because they just don’t record time the way we do. Time is like the stars in the sky; there are many and they go on forever so why would anyone want to count them?

Then I asked him where he was from. This was better. He could name this. He told me with a smile that he came from Sero-olipi.

And where is Sero-olipi, I asked him. Ahh. This was a problem. A mzungu would say, “It’s 35 miles northeast of here.” Jaro said, “I walk in seven hours.”

Now, do you have any idea where Sero-olipi is in relation to Sarara? Because I don’t. That’s another thing that’s so different; they don’t think of distance in terms of miles or even feet. If a Samburu guide (or a Maasai guide, for that matter) tells you that he has seen an elephant and you ask him where, he most likely will point vaguely over his shoulder and say, “Over there.” Pursue that by asking him how far and he is likely to reply, “Very close.” Or, “Not far.” But he will never say a hundred yards or a mile away. Because they do not think spatially the way we do. It makes no difference if the elephant is a mile away or five miles away; it only matters if you can walk there before it gets dark. So “very close” means, Yes, we can walk there in the daylight. But nothing else.

Peter Matthiessen, in his book The Tree Where Man Was Born, talks wonderfully about this disconnect between Western and African thinking: “I would have liked to talk to the Africans, but I spoke no Kamba and very poor Swahili, and even if my Swahili had been excellent, there was no reason to talk that they would understand: I was full of good will but had nothing at all to say. Feeling above all impolite, I sat down by the fire with a drink, and listened to crickets and soft African voices and the hum of the kerosene lamp…”

There it is, you see: I was full of good will but had nothing at all to say. That’s the feeling you have so often with the Africans. And certainly the way I felt with Jaro. So I took my coffee and went off to sit on the rocks, alone, letting Jaro get back to his work.


1 comment

  1. Jeff Wilson’s avatar

    don would have terrible frustrations in this environment. reality is far too black and white to entertain these communications that are not precise.

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