A friendship forged in Africa: An anthropologist remembers his ‘family’ in Kenya

  • Elliot Fratkin and Marty Nathan visit Kanikis Leaduma and family, 2012. Photo courtesy of Elliot Fratkin

  • Elliot’s “officina” in Lewogoso village, with friend Arge 1975. Photo courtesy of Elliot Fratkin

  • Elliot with Laibon Lekati Leaduma (left), son Kanikis, and Lugi Lengesen 1975. Photo courtesy of Elliot Fratkin

  • Above: Fanton Lengesen, Elliot’s language teacher. Photo by Elliot Fratkin

  • Leah Nathan writes her name for Kanikis Leaduma, 1985. Photo by Elliot Fratkin

  • Lewogoso manyatta, northern Kenya, 1975. Photo by Elliot Fratkin

  • Marty Nathan administers oral polio vaccine to Samburu child, 1992. Photo by Elliot Fratkin

  • Marty Nathan weighs children with AnnaMarie Alyaro as part of Maternal and Child Health study, 1992. Photo by Elliot Fratkin

  • Warriors and young women dancing outside Lewogoso manyatta, 1975. Photo by Elliot Fratkin

  • Lugi’s brother taking baby camels to new enclosure, Lewogoso village, 1975.   Photo by Elliot Fratkin 

  • Lugi Lengesen, Marsabit town Kenya 1992. Photo by Elliot Fratkin

For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Published: 2/1/2018 3:21:33 PM

The same week President Trump uttered his odious and ignorant remarks about “shithole countries,” I learned that one of my closest friends in Kenya, Lugi Lengesen, had died. This was not a tragedy. He was a man in his 80s and had lived an active life as a member of a nomadic community of Samburu people, closely related to the Maasai.

I have studied this community as an anthropologist for the past 40 years (for a little more than 20 of those years, I’ve been based at Smith College, where I teach.) Lugi and I first met in 1974 when he was in his 40s and I was a 26-year-old graduate student in Anthropology. We met almost by accident in northern Kenya after I was turned back from Ethiopia by a coup d’etat against their Emperor Haile Selassie. Lugi invited me to stay with his family — two wives and six children — living with his clan in a large circle of 40 houses (which included 200 people, 1,200 cattle and 600 camels.)

I lived there with Lugi for 18 months in the 1970s, and our friendship deepened over the decades. In the 1980s, I returned with my wife, Marty Nathan, and our small daughter, Leah. Marty is a family-medicine physician (currently based at Baystate Brightwood Clinic in Springfield). While I conducted more fieldwork with Samburu communities, she worked in a small health clinic nearby. In the 1990s, Marty and I returned to conduct research on maternal and child health among Samburu nomads. We continued to visit northern Kenya; our last visit was in 2012.

Language lessons

Our experiences in Africa were with a rural and tradition-bound society, very different from the bustling life in African cities today. Although most Samburu children now attend school and are settled, the community in the 1970s was very isolated and nomadic. It was Lugi who invited me to his home village of Lewogoso (“the long necks”). People in the manyatta (settlement) took me in, built me a mobile dwelling and taught me a great deal about Samburu society, beliefs and culture. 

Lugi’s six-year-old son, Fanton, was my earliest Samburu language teacher. Every evening, he would come into my small round house with his list of vocabulary questions.

“What’s this?” he asked, pointing to his eyes. 

“Nkong’u,” I replied. 

“What’s this?” he continued, pointing to his nose.

“L-gume,” I replied. 

“What’s this?” and so on, until finally I said, “Fanton, I know the names of my body. What I need are verbs!” In time, I accumulated 500 note cards of Samburu phrases and vocabulary, using a very old Maa-English dictionary, until I could finally communicate, albeit at the level of six-year-old Fanton.

Warrior lessons

As a 26-year-old, I was treated as a warrior by the village. Warriors were all the unmarried men between 15 and 30 years old who belonged to a specific age set that moved in rank from boy to warrior to married elder every 14 years, beginning with their initiation by circumcision. Tall and slender, donning red shukas (cloths) over one shoulder, carrying spears and wearing their hair in long tight braids dyed red (from ochre and fat), these figures have become the iconic image of Kenya and Tanzania. These young men herd the village’s livestock and defend them from enemy raiders. 

Initially intimidated, I was soon accepted, joining in their activities, particularly evening dancing with the village’s teenage girls. My dancing was like a farce out of a Woody Allen movie — I twirled a spear like the others, but then failed to catch it. The trick of good fieldwork is to not fear humiliation and be able to laugh at yourself.

Lugi had been a warrior in the 1950s when the British ruled Kenya as a colony. He was arrested by the colonial British police for cattle rustling, not an unusual activity among pastoralists. In prison, Lugi learned Swahili, the main trade language in East Africa. He also met political prisoners from the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule and remained a staunch Kenya nationalist to his dying day. As the only one in his community to speak Swahili, Lugi became the intermediary with the government, both colonial and Independent Kenya, and was named an assistant chief to the region. Ultimately, Lugi faced disappointment that he could not run for administrative chief under the new Kenyan government, primarily because he could not read or speak English. 

In the 1970s, as a young elder, Lugi attached himself to a different kind of authority, that of the laibon medicine man, named Lekati Leaduma, whom Lugi had invited to live in his manyatta. For the next year and a half, the three of us traveled to various manyattas as Leaduma was asked to divine future or unseen events by throwing stones from a gourd and to dispense ritual medicine to treat people for a variety of spiritual ailments, including believed sorcery attacks. In time, Leaduma adopted me as his son, and I bonded as elder brother to his small son, Kanikis.

Four times a year, each household in our community of 40 houses sacrificed a goat in a ritual called soriu, which essentially asks God (en-gai) for rain, grass, milk from their cattle and protection of their manyatta. It is a festive ritual, a bit like our Thanksgiving, an opportunity to eat meat and reaffirm their family solidarity. 

Lugi approached me and said, “Elliot, what will you slaughter for soriu? You don’t even own a goat.” 

“Well,” I quipped back, “I can sacrifice my dog, Rufus.” 

Lugi and his friends laughed in disbelief. “What? A dog? No, you will sacrifice a goat, because I will give you one for the ritual.” 

At soriu, all men walked from house to house in our large circular manyatta. Women were secluded in their houses, waiting to butcher and cook the animals. The male household head slaughtered a sheep or goat, collecting its blood, and wiping some on the backs of their livestock to bless them. Lugi brought me a goat, as promised, and handed me a sharp knife. I had never killed an animal before, and I didn’t want to screw up. As always, humor saved me. I bent over and said into the goat’s ear, “Acheoling! Ey Laiseri!” (“Thank you very much. And goodbye!”) The men laughed, having never heard of such a thing, but they repeated “thank you, and goodbye” to every animal in line for slaughter. Despite the levity, the rituals always ended with serious prayers from the male elders for the welfare of the community. 

Generosity lessons

Generosity and sharing were normal features of social life. Sometimes I would get annoyed by the steady requests for sugar or tea — I gave what I could, but I simply did not have enough supplies to be a constant storehouse. Late in the evening, when I finally had some privacy to write up my notes of the day’s events and conversations, I would turn on my propane cooking stove to heat some water for tea, looking forward to my prized chocolate biscuits hidden away in a locked steel box. Within seconds of the flame coming on, several heads would appear in my door, usually older men reciting to me the oft-used proverb, “You know, only a hyena eats alone!” Yes, I knew that, which is why I always made enough tea or food to feed three or four people. 

Lugi had an uncle Leriare, who was in his 70s when I first met him. He was a crusty old guy who was not given to small talk or friendly conversation. He was surprisingly active despite his age and arthritis, which gave him a stoop. He had outlived four wives, and he took care of himself alone. 

One day, I passed him while he was bringing firewood to his tiny house. “Ero (youth), give me your hat,” he said, gesturing at my soft, broad-brimmed safari hat. “It is too hot out here for me.” 

To his surprise, I replied, “Here, Grandfather, you take it.”

That night, old Leriare came to my house with his new hat on his head and a gourd of milk in his hand. He handed me the gourd and said, “N’go (take this). I don’t ever want to hear it said that you went hungry in this village.” 

And indeed, each time I go back to Lewogoso, one of Leriare’s sons or grandsons (the old man has long passed away) brings me a container of milk. As the Samburu say, “A cow has no owner.” All will be fed in the village. 

Another day, I woke up shaking with fever, alternating between boiling and freezing. My head felt like it was in a vise. I crawled over to Lugi’s house, where his first wife, Padamu, was making tea. She looked at me and said “Nkerugwa. You have malaria.” She told me to lie down on the leather mat that served as the household bed. I lay there for the next four days, feverish and hallucinating. Fanton had gone to my house and brought back my chloroquine tablets, which, augmented by Padamu’s hot cup of sugary milky tea, helped me recover.

Life lessons

Periodically, I had to deal with my own ethnocentrism — the assumption that my own knowledge and cultural practices were the most correct. I had a hard time drinking blood or sour milk, two staples of the diet; I did not like their traditional herbal cures that made me vomit; and I didn’t like the patriarchy where women had little voice or authority. Samburu fathers arranged marriages over which daughters had little decision-making power. Women could not own, trade or buy livestock, except to milk animals for their household’s use. And most disturbingly to westerners, young Samburu women endured female genital cutting, often on their wedding day.

A woman once asked me if we circumcised our daughters in my country. I said, no, we think it is very bad, although I was careful not to moralize or lecture these women like some foreigners do. The woman replied, “It is very bad that you do not circumcise your daughters. A child born to an uncircumcised woman would be a wild animal who never obeys her parents.” She went on, “How can a woman bear the pain of childbirth if she does not know this pain? You have your customs, and we have our customs,” and that seemed to end the conversation. I am not justifying female genital cutting, which I deplore; I’m trying to explain how those who practice it, and many do in Northeast Africa, view the custom. Increasingly, women who go to school are foregoing FGC, and if not, seeking medicalization of the procedure. 

In 1985, I returned to Lewogoso with Marty and Leah. Marty practiced in a small mission clinic about 30 miles from the manyatta and was quickly welcomed by the Samburu women there. One day, I overheard two woman in conversation: “It is so sad about ‘Maati.’ Here she and her husband are so wealthy, with a car and nice clothes, but they are poor in children with only one child.” They suggested to Marty that she convince her husband to take a second wife to help share in housework and to produce more children, a benefit to every family. Marty responded with a smile, “Take a second wife? What for? No, I think I will take a second husband instead!” The women roared in laughter, but remained convinced that our American culture was truly strange.

The last time I saw Lugi Lengesen was in 2012, the year Marty and I were Fulbright Fellows teaching in Ethiopia at the University of Hawassa, myself in their anthropology department and Marty in their medicine program. We traveled three bumpy days on buses and open trucks south to Kenya until reaching Marsabit town.

Lugi was still spry and witty at 80. Old age did not seem to have slowed him down very much. But sadly, Leaduma, the medicine man, had died in his 60s in 1987; his son Kanikis passed away at 52 just this last year, and most distressingly, Lugi’s son Fanton, my young teacher, had died in his 20s from infectious disease. Access to good healthcare remains a critical concern in so many African countries.

Several years before our final visit, I had a house built for Lugi near Marsabit town where his fourth wife farmed a small patch of land with her small children. But Lugi spent very little time there. He apologized and acknowledged my gift, but said, “No, I will never settle down to scratch the earth as a farmer. I need to sleep in the open, under the stars, with my animals.” 

Lugi remained a true nomad and pastoralist to his dying day. May he rest in peace. And may others appreciate that Africa is a continent of wonders and wonderful people.

Elliot Fratkin teaches anthropology at Smith College and is the author of “Laibon: An Anthropologist’s Journey with Samburu Diviners in Kenya” (2012 AltaMira Press).

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