We’re in Samburu land. Dusk is falling. The elephant herds are on the move. They’re heading for the river. A man strides across the landscape. He’s clad in the traditional Samburu costume, red and yellow, lots of beaded bandoliers. His hair is ochre-red and intricately plaited. He’s a long way away from the elephants; hardly seems to notice their presence. He stoops to pick up a handful of dust and throws it in their general direction. The elephants continue tranquilly on their way.
It’s as a simple cameo, and yet an ancient rite of passage has just been enacted.
According to tradition, if a man from the Samburu ‘elephant clan’ meets an elephant whilst walking in the bush he must throw dust in its direction. The mud poses a question: ‘Is it safe for me to pass?’ Only when the elephant responds by throwing dust in the general direction of the man is the question answered: he may pass without fear.
The ritual dates back to a time when the Samburu believe man and elephant lived side by side in the village. At this time, the elephants had a great affinity with the women and helped them with their household chores. It was a happy relationship until one day a bad-tempered woman accused an elephant of not collecting enough firewood for her hut. Enraged, all the elephants marched out of the village. As they left, they issued a warning, ‘be careful when passing an elephant in the bush,’ they said. ‘Be careful when passing a person in the bush,’ responded the villagers. And so began the age of conflict between man and elephant.
It’s been a long and bitter conflict. Many elephants have been killed: many humans too. And in times of drought it becomes particularly fierce.
This is the time when both man and elephant must dig wells in the sandy floor of the Ewaso Ng’iro River: the time when nomadic herders and elephants must share the land. And yet… though conflicts do occur, observers say they don’t happen as frequently as they might. Elephant-human relations, it seems, are different in the lands of the Samburu. Why? ‘The elephant are our ancient relatives, we must respect their rites’, they say.
Intrigued, researchers from the organization, Save the Elephants, orchestrated a series of community meetings. Everyone was invited: warriors, youth, elders and women, and they were invited to simply sit down and talk about elephants. The results were astounding. There was a generally held belief that man and elephants can live side by side and help each other. People spoke of how elephants create paths to the water that humans can use. How elephants dig dams in the river that humans can share. They told of how the elephants break branches that the women can use for firewood. So… it seemed that the links to the ancient legend were already resonating. And they were about to resonate even more strongly. »