It was a mild September night, and I was in Kenya’s northern frontier district, Laikipia. The Samburu Trust had arranged for me to spend a couple of hours with a Samburu elder and his family, including two of his five wives and their children. It would be a fly-on-the-wall visit. I didn’t want anyone to make a special effort or reenact a cultural tradition, nothing manufactured for the curious traveler. I just wanted to capture—as inconspicuously as a stranger with a camera could—a tiny slice of their everyday life.
It was twilight when Leuya, my Samburu guide, and I arrived at Mzee Lekolua’s manyatta (the Samburu term for "home" or "compound"). Lekolua welcomed us, staff in hand, surrounded by dozens of his goats. The Samburu are pastoralists, so cows and other livestock are what establishes a man's rank in society and are the cornerstone of Samburu wealth. By the tribe's standards, Lekolua was one of the richest in the region.
Night was falling, and there was much to do. The goats had to be counted, milked, and put to bed. Lekolua's wives and children zigzagged around me in a rush of controlled chaos as they tucked the manyatta in for the night.
My guide Leuya is a man torn between Western influence and Samburu tradition—education being the catalyst. Estranged from her husband and unable to feed her children, Leuya's mother sent him as a boy to live with missionaries. They sent him to school, and he grew up learning Swahili and English. His teachers forbade the tests of courage young Samburu boys go through as they approach adulthood: He didn't have his two lower front teeth removed, his ears showed no sign of piercings, and he didn't boast the scars the young men etch into their skin. He was never a warrior, also known as a moran, a role Samburu men are bred for from an early age. He was, however, circumcised in a sacred public ritual that celebrates a boy’s ascension into manhood.