As I walk through the front door, a cold, empty home greets me. I plop down on the couch and frown, realizing I never really liked this couch—just an uncomfortable reminder of yet another thing I did for him. My tears finally stream down my face. I am lost - unsure of my purpose now. No idea which direction to turn. All I know is I need a way to take my mind off him. But everything in this city holds reminders. I sit in silence for quite some time before an idea hits me; I need a work trip. But where? Somewhere remote for sure and as far away from here as possible.
The next day
I watch him through the glass window of his office as I try to gauge his mood. Hmmm, he looks pretty chipper ... for Bob. So, I take a deep breath and barge in with confidence.
"Bob, got a minute?" Before giving him a chance to answer, I continue, "I want to write an article on the Samburu tribe in Africa."
He drops his pen and interlocks his fingers as if bracing for something. We have been known to go a few rounds over stories.
A few dramatic pauses later and he asks, "Why the Samburu?"
"Well, we need a story this month with a little more humanity. They are fascinating people and the government is trying to take their lands from them." I take a few steps closer. "I really want to do this story to highlight their plight and show the world the beauty of their culture."
"Uh-huh," he says, tapping his thumbs together. "And how long will you be gone?"
"I think seven days should be enough - five days with the tribe and two days travel time."
He studies me carefully for a few moments before asking, "Anna, are you up for a trip like this? You have been running nonstop since-"
"I'm fine!" I interrupt, growing annoyed. "And I want to take Josh as my photographer."
Bob leans back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest - his posturing when he is about to argue with me.
"Josh? He is a little green, don't you think? I think Ian would be a better choice."
I cross my arms on my chest, showing him I won't back down. "Josh is every bit as talented as Ian. He will be even better with experience. I want Josh with me."
Stare down. A few minutes pass, then Bob wisely gives in sighing, "Okay, it's your story, kiddo. Take Josh if you really think he's up to it." He shakes his head, "You can't stop your thing for helping underdogs, can you?"
I release my breath, "I may resemble that remark, but you will see I am right about Josh. He just needs a chance. Thanks, Bob," I say, already on my way out of his office.
"Yes." I look over my shoulder at him.
"Just be careful. Research their customs thoroughly before you go."
I nod at him replying, "Already have." I know his concern is about more than just their customs. Smiling to myself, I try to picture Josh's reaction when I tell him the news.
A week later
Josh settles into the seat beside me on the plane.
"Hey, in case I forget to tell you later, thank you for bringing me as your photographer."
I smile back saying, "You're welcome. You deserve to come."
Josh is a handsome guy, mid-twenties, and has an artist's eye. I do think he has more talent than our veteran photographer, Ian. He just needs more experience. And this might be a rough trip, so I need Josh's positive personality by my side. Ian can be ... well ... moody. I definitely don't need that where we're going.
An equally handsome man slides into the seat beside Josh and exchanges pleasantries with us, but it is obvious Josh is the one who grabs his attention. While he and my photographer get to know each other better, I start refreshing my mind about the Samburu, reviewing my notes.
They are deeply rooted in traditional customs, haven't changed much over the last century, compared to other tribes. Cattle, goats, and sheep play a vital role in their life and are the singular reason they are semi-nomadic, constantly moving to fresh grazing grounds. Their diet is mostly milk, vegetables, and roots, with occasional meat for special ceremonies. Hmmm, this could be how I lose those stubborn last ten pounds. I am milk intolerant and not a huge fan of roots. I don't imagine a Mcdonald's will be around the corner. Eww! I throw up a little in my mouth, reading about how they occasionally cut the jugular of a cow and drink a little of its blood. Ummm, no. Definitely a "no" for me. Blood is not on the menu for Anna.
Their living quarters are quite different too. No pillow-top mattresses for them! More like huts made of mud. Damn, I feel spoiled. Josh and I bringing our own tents was definitely a good idea.
I think about how I wanted to take this trip to get away from everything. It appears I will get my wish. Nothing about the Samburu appears to hold any reminders of my life back home.
Wanting to rest a bit, I put away my notes and close my eyes. Two hours passed and Josh wakes me asking if I want a snack being passed around. I gladly accept the meager offerings of the flight attendant, realizing it might be my last recognizable food for a while.
"Hey, Anna, I will be back in a little bit. Gonna roam around with Tom," he says, gesturing to his handsome seat buddy.
I cock an eyebrow at him and he winks at me in return, flashing me his famous shit-eating grin. They return about thirty minutes later with that look on their faces. You know the one.
"Really?" I ask, furrowing my eyebrows.
"Hey, don't knock it 'til you try it," he says with a smirk. Another reason I am happy to be here with Josh - no awkward sexual tension that happens between co-workers on a trip like this. I would have to sprout a penis to get his attention. We have more of a brother/sister relationship which I find very comfortable. Another man in my life is exactly what I don't need.
The rest of the flight is uneventful and we land in Kenya early in the morning. Luckily our luggage made the long journey with us, and we look for our guide/translator.
"There he is," I say, pointing to a man standing by a jeep, holding a sign with my name on it. "So Josh, I arranged for a translator because they speak their own dialect of the Maa language. We aren't the first outsiders to visit them, but from what I understand, they know very little English."
"Well ... that adds a layer of difficulty to this trip."
"Yes, it does. And we don't want any misunderstandings ... so watch your actions, Josh," I say sternly.
"Yes, Mom," he replies, winking at me.
We drive to the dry north, isolated area of the Samburu tribe. I read about their abundant wildlife and am happy to see our guide has a few weapons with him - just in case. They are known for the vast herds of elephants roaming their lands. They are a big reason the government is trying to seize their lands - for gaming. I also hope to see rare animals such as the Reticulated Giraffe, Grevy's Zebra, Gerenuk, Somali Ostrich, and the Beisa Oryx.
Words can't describe the beauty of this unspoiled land, highlighted by the clear, blue skies. Then, we see them. A few of the men are walking with their cattle. Elegantly tall, striking men wearing cloths around their waists and little else.
"Look! Look! Look!" I point to them in the distance.
"Mmmm! Nice staffs!" Josh chuckles.
"I will ... maybe. Damn! Look at them!"
We look ahead and have arrived at the settlement. It is mostly dry, barren land, and surrounded by a temporary fence of sticks. One by one, they notice us, point, and hurry towards us. A good sign ... I think.
"Anna ..." Josh rapidly pats my arm. "They are beautiful ... and naked."
We climb down from the jeep and stand together, mesmerized by the sight before us. The Samburu are breathtaking. Their skin color is a warm shade of brown. Colorful beads adorn them all - around their necks, arms, and ankles. The thing I notice the most is their eyes - so vibrant. They are somewhere between grey and brown, but sparkling somehow. I feel their joy and pride instantly.
Long, brightly-colored cloth hangs about the men and women's waists, covering their privates. Both are bare-breasted. The women's tits hang, partially covered by their beads. Most of the women's heads are shaved, while the younger men have hair colored a burnt red. Our translator, Mako, tells us it is dyed with red ochre.
I immediately see I stick out like a sore thumb with my pale white skin and blonde hair. I feel like a strange bug under the spotlight as the members of the tribe look me up and down. Josh is pretty dark-skinned, dark-headed, and blends in a little better. Mako points to us and says, "Josh" and "Anna."
Two beautiful women rush to my side, giving me beads and saying their names, "Naserian" and "Makena." I bow, accepting the gorgeous beaded necklaces. They lead me by the hand to a group of children playing. I look over my shoulder at Josh and he waves me on, saying they will set up the tents. I turn back around and see him - the most striking man I have ever seen. I point and Makena says, "Kioko." I don't know if it is his intense eyes or his strong jaw with lips firmly set, but he exudes power. He carries a tall spear and I swear his eyes burrow into me. I smile at him, but his expression remains fixed.
I manage to tear my gaze away to return my attention to my new lady friends. I spend the remainder of my day getting acquainted with the tribe and even help prepare the evening meal of soup. Josh is busy taking pictures and I spy him getting some spearing lessons from one of the warriors. Every now and then, I spy Kioko. Each time he is staring at me with the same intensity. I am not sure what his peering eyes think of me, but I know what I think of him. I have felt excited since I laid eyes on this warrior. There is just something about him.
Josh and I turn in early as we are exhausted from our trip, but I hear the Samburu singing long after I have slipped into my sleeping bag. Mako told me singing and dancing are an important part of their culture. I find it soothing as I drift off to sleep in this different land. Their lands are beautiful, but the last picture in my mind is that of the fierce warrior, Kioko.
Day 2 with the Samburu
I take my time getting up today, still jetlagged. Suddenly, Josh bursts through my tent.
"Hey Anna, Mako says the chief is ready to talk to us now ... about the issues with their land."
"Great, let me get my notebook."
"Oh, and guess what? They are having a big celebration tonight ... a ceremony honoring a boy becoming a man! Party with the Samburu!" Josh jumps up and down waving his arms in the air, doing what I can only assume is his party dance.
"That sounds great, Josh. I know how you like to party." I feel responsible for him and issue another warning. "Just remember what I said about being careful with your actions. We are a very long way away from help."
"Yes, Mom." He stops to give me a quick hug then resumes his party dance.
We spend the next hour with the chief, hearing about their plight. Their settlement has not been affected yet, but several others have been raided by police using force to drive them off their land. Mako adds that he heard the government is selling their land to big companies who want to use it for gaming. So, this isn't just trouble for the Samburu but the wildlife as well. I must draw attention to their crisis and garner support for them. Yes, their warriors are brave, but their spears are no use up against police with guns.
Later in the afternoon, Mako peeks in my tent announcing Naserian and Makena have come to prepare me for the celebration tonight. This was an unexpected, yet welcome surprise. The ladies enter with their hands full of beaded jewelry and several colorful cloths. I remove my shorts and shirt and they help me tie one around my waist and the other around my chest, with my bare tummy showing. As I sort through their bead selections, Makena braids my long blonde hair, weaving in red beads throughout. Naserian ties my beaded jewelry choices around my wrists and ankles. I find my pocket mirror and gasp at my appearance. A very different woman stares back at me and I like what I see. There is something different about my eyes - they have life in them now. I hug the ladies and spend some time adding notes about my trip before the ceremony.
I look up to see a long horn entering my tent, followed by Josh. Before I can respond, he says, "Wow, Anna! You look ... amazing! I mean you-"
"What the hell are you wearing?" I interrupt, gawking at the long horn-like thing where his penis should be. "And why are you naked?"
"Oh, this is my koteka - penis sheath. All the guys are wearing them for the celebration tonight. So, they gave me one."
"All the guys? By guys, you mean the Samburu warriors?"
"Well, yeh," he says casually. "Hey, take my picture, will ya?"
I shake my head, still not believing what is standing in front of me.
I know we can't move on until I get this over with, so I grab his camera. "Strike a pose, Josh the Warrior."
He smiles, posing, showing off his ... lengthy sheath.
Handing him back his camera, I try to casually ask, "So ... all the warriors are wearing these kotekas tonight?"
Josh smirks at me before he nods his head with a yes.
"Now back to you, girl. You look breathtaking," he says, running his fingers down my blonde braids. "Red is your color too. I see that warrior who can’t take his eyes off of you. His koteka might burst when he sees you."
"Josh!" I shriek, punching him in the arm. "Stop it."
"Okay, okay. Just know, I know," he says winking. "Let's go."
I maneuver around his ... um, sheath ... to get out of the tent. Sounds of music and whoops and hollers draw us to the ceremony.
We sit on the ground watching them sing and dance in circles. The tribe has upped their appearance for tonight, wearing more beads than usual. Some of their faces are painted. Others wear ornate headpieces. The atmosphere is electric. Forming a circle, they hold hands and dance around warriors jumping in the middle. It is an odd dance. They stand like sticks and jump straight up and down as high as they can, while loudly chanting and singing. The stars light the sky overhead and the energy is contagious.
I look around in amazement at these people. This tribe is a family. They live in their own huts, but they act as one family, each with his/her roles, working together for the whole. I am jealous of the love and joy I see here. We could learn so much from them back home.
I have been searching for him amongst the jumping warriors. My breath catches as his spirited eyes find mine and he smiles. I return his smile, blushing like a young schoolgirl. He slowly makes his way through the dancers towards me. When he reaches me, he says nothing but extends his hands holding a beaded necklace. It is gorgeous, made of bright red beads. I nod my head, bowing, allowing him to drape the necklace over my head. I look down at my chest, fingering the beautiful necklace. The other women smile and whisper around me. As quickly as he came, he leaves to return to his fellow warriors, dancing and singing.
Josh plops down beside me, grinning from ear to ear. “You know what the beads mean, don’t you?”
“He is telling the tribe you are his.”
“He is not! It is just a gift.”
“It isn’t just a gift, Anna.” Then, he starts singing, “Anna has a warrior boyfriend. Anna has a warrior boyfriend.”
"God, you are annoying! Good night, Josh," I say, stalking back to my tent. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Kioko is still dancing.
I sit alone in my tent, contemplating this place. Surely, Josh is wrong about the beads. A moment of sadness washes over me. I don't want Josh to be wrong. I try to distract myself by going over my notes from the trip so far, but my thoughts keep returning to the virile, powerful, sexy warrior with the burning gaze.
Finally, I hear the singing die down. I crawl into my sleeping bag and go to sleep.
Day 3 with the Samburu
I awake the next morning and want to see Kioko. I race out of my tent running smack into Josh.
"Whoa! Where's the fire?"
"Oops, sorry, Josh. I was just wanting to find-"
"Your warrior?" he interrupts.
"Yes," I say blushing.
I pull Josh along with me as I walk around the settlement. Some of the women are busy as usual chasing after the children. Others gather firewood and water, milk the animals. Laughter and singing fill the air. I force myself to stop and take a deep breath, soaking in the atmosphere, determined to live in the moment while I am here.
"There he is," says Josh, pointing.
I follow his finger and see Kioko talking to Mako.
"See ya later, tater," I shout to Josh, forcing my feet to slow down as I head toward Kioko. Just seeing him, half-naked, sweating, stirs me up again.
I approach smiling and say hello to them. Kioko gives me a big smile which warms me. To my delight, Mako tells me Kioko would like to take me to see the elephants if I am interested. I think my jumping up and down squealing conveys my answer and I race back to my tent to grab my camera.
Kioko extends his hand to me and I take it, letting him lead me out of the settlement. He pulls me along behind him, seemingly excited to show me his lands. I don't speak Maa, but he understands my excitement and pleasure from my gasps and squeals and excited swinging of our interlocked hands. Words aren't needed as they can't possibly describe the rugged beauty of this land and the untamed wilderness. Then, he crosses his arm in front of me to stop my movement, pointing. I see them - the elephants.
A herd has stopped at a mud hole. Some of them have to be around fifteen feet tall. I can't move. I can't breathe. These magnificent creatures overwhelm me. I move closer to Kioko, in awe of them, but also fearful of their massive size. Slowly, he leads me closer. I try to pull back, but he won't let me. Oh my, a baby. A baby elephant stands up out of the mud. It trumpets and several larger elephants immediately come to its side, caressing it with their trunks. I hear coo-rumbles coming from the older elephants surrounding the fussing baby. Their gentle compassion for each other will be unforgettable.
I occasionally take pictures, but mostly just watch them interacting and playing in the mud. Several elephants look right at us but don't seem bothered. The obvious trust between the Samburu and the elephants is moving.
It breaks my heart to think of the Samburu and the elephants losing their land to gamers. The ivory trade industry has killed so many of these breathtaking animals. This day convinces me more than ever of the importance of bringing attention to their plight. Kioko stands, but motions for me to stay where I am. Holding my breath, I watch as he walks directly into the herd. Again, they notice him but don't react. He places his hands on the smaller ones, stroking their large ears. The elephants and the Samburu peacefully coexist. Many I know could learn a thing or two from them.
We eventually head back and he joins some of the other warriors in the fields with the cattle. I spy Josh in the distance taking pictures - and his hair is braided - and red. I wonder if these people realize how rich their lives are - money can't buy the type of richness they enjoy here. To my pleasant surprise, Makena leads me to a blanket for an afternoon of making jewelry. I can't believe the intricate necklaces these women create. Again, the atmosphere is so pleasing to me. The smells. The sounds. It is hot, but a gentle breeze kisses my body every so often.
Suddenly, we hear angry shouting in their language and I look around to see what is going on. There are men in uniforms climbing out of their jeeps yelling at the Samburu. The chief is walking towards them, surrounded by his warriors. I don't see Kioko. The women are screaming, with arms flailing at the men.
"Josh, grab your camera," I yell.
"Got it," he says as we head towards the commotion.
I look for Mako and make my way through the shouting women. "Hey, what's going on?"
"The police came and are telling them they have to leave this land. The chief is refusing to leave, saying this is their ancestral land."
One of the policemen moves towards the chief and his warriors surround him with spears drawn. More shouting. Then, I see guns. My heart stops as I witness the police retrieving guns from their jeeps. The beauty of this place has just been tainted.
"Stop!" I yell, running towards them. I don't know what comes over me, but I have to protect them. "I am an American and you should know we are filming you." I point to Josh before I realize that wasn't a very smart thing to do. One of the police points his gun in his direction.
"Ummm ... thanks, Anna," he squeaks. A few warriors move in front of him, taking a protective stance with their spears.
"Give us your equipment," one of the police commands, speaking English.
"Too late, he has already sent it live via satellite. I would imagine you would want the world to now see you leaving. Am I right?"
More shouting erupts between the police and the Samburu, then a man, obviously in charge, directs the other men back to the jeeps. They drive away with the Samburu continuing to yell.
I had been running on adrenaline, and not really thought about the danger, until now. I can't catch my breath. My heart is beating out of my chest and I am loudly gasping for air. Oh no! I can't breathe! Kioko is in my face, holding my cheeks with his hands. Can't breathe! Can't...
I slowly open my eyes and find myself back in my tent, lying on my sleeping bag. Josh's worried face leans over me, "Hey, Anna. You okay, girl? Damn, you scared me."
"Whaaa ... what happened," I ask, groggily.
"You hyperventilated and passed out," he says, wiping my damp hair from my sweaty face.
I glance to my left to see Kioko towering over me.
"Umm, he hasn't left your side," Josh says. "I am going to go see if they have some soup or something for you, okay? The women have taken up a vigil of some sort outside your tent. I will make sure they know you are okay."
"Thank you, Josh."
He quickly leaves the tent and I am alone with Kioko. He looks upset. Usually, he wears a confident or joyous expression, not this solemn one. I pat the sleeping bag and he kneels beside me taking my hand in his.
"I kill if Anna hurt," Kioko firmly states.
I believe it by the threatening look on his face. Reaching my hand up, I softly stroke his cheek. No words are needed between us. He settles on my sleeping bag with me...
Day 4 with the Samburu
I awaken the next morning, hearing the singing of the women. They must be making the food for breakfast. I look down to find a beautiful beaded necklace draped in my hand. It is stunning! Bright colored beads of indigo, red, and yellow. Kioko did this. I know he did. Memories of last night flood my head and I can't stop smiling.
I would love to lie here awhile longer, but feel guilty lounging in my tent. The Samburu do not seem to indulge in such luxuries. They start their days early and with purpose - everyone contributing in their own ways to the community. We Americans could learn so much from them.
I freshen up, tying a beautiful cloth around my waist as a skirt. Makena gave it to me and it brings out the colors in my new necklace. I leave my tent and upon seeing me, the women converge, touching me, kissing my cheeks. Mako appears, telling me they have been worried about me. I smile and hug each of these beautiful women in turn. A family! We are all one family here.
Of course, I scan the area for Kioko, wanting him to see me wearing the necklace he made. I spot him in the distance, walking away with the other warriors. He hears the commotion and looks over his shoulder at me, smiling. I wave before the women shuffle me away to eat with them. After we eat, I play with the children, teaching them the game of tag. Some of the other women join in. Honestly, I can't even tell whose child belongs to which woman. Never before have I witnessed such a sense of community and sharing as with the Samburu. Awe-inspiring is what it is. It is unbelievable to find a culture unchanged by Western influences.
Mid-morning, Mako leads me to speak privately with the chief. I have him translate my intentions to share with the world what happened with the police in hope of garnering support for them. The chief reaches for my hands, clasping them within his own. Mako says the chief is grateful. He then tells me horrific stories of what the police have done to several other Samburu groups. Women have been treated with the most horrific disrespect. Livestock killed. Some warriors injured. The chief pleads with me that they must not lose their access to grazing lands and water. "You must understand, these are their ancestral lands," Mako translates. I cry for these people and promise the chief I will do what I can to protect them and their precious lands.
Our talk is interrupted by Kioko entering the tent. He and the chief have words, then he extends his hand to me. Mako explains there will be a community healing ceremony tonight, necessary after the police incident. Kioko has a special duty to perform in preparation for tonight's ceremony and he wants me to join him in the experience. He is tasked with capturing a specific eagle to bring peace back to the settlement.
Like a huge bird lover, I am immediately upset. "Mako, they won't, you know, sacrifice it, will they?"
"No, Anna. Kioko will bring the bird to watch over the ceremony, bringing peace and protection to the Samburu, and then it will be released tomorrow."
Unsure if I should tag along on this occasion, I look to the chief for approval. He nods his head and his warm smile puts my fears to bed. Curious and excited, I accept Kioko's hand. This bird-catching thing is obviously important to Kioko and the tribe, therefore, it is important to me.
Once outside the settlement, Kioko turns and fingers the necklace I wear, smiling.
"Thank you, Kioko." I kiss him and his bright smile lights up the savannah.
"Come," he says, pulling me along with him.
I take another deep breath of the air unspoiled by man. The African savannah seemingly goes on forever without crude grey buildings in the way. The world just seems bigger here. We walk the grasslands, hand-in-hand, occasionally running into small groupings of dispersed trees. There are no thick tree canopies here to block the blue sky. I know it is the same sky as I see back home, but its color is more vibrant here. The animals are roaming in abundance today and I keep stopping our movement, pointing, wanting to know the names of God's creatures surrounding me. Kioko answers but keeps tugging at my hand, obviously intent on leading me somewhere else.
As I study Kioko's determined face, I think about what I read about their beliefs surrounding birds. The Samburu believe the birds are the souls of humans. After you have been reincarnated seven times on earth, you reach the glorious state of a bird, achieving the ability to ascend into the air. This is the only creature of air, land, and water and symbolizes the ultimate earthly freedom. This is a truly beautiful thought to me. Isn't ultimate freedom something anyone would love?
Furthermore, they believe if you kill a tree, you are killing a bird. My goodness, I am glad they will never see what we have done in America to our forests. Kioko breaks my thoughts with a swift throw of his spear, impaling some sort of rodent running along the ground. Eww! I am a little sickened by this sight, but try to keep an open mind about his customs. He swiftly moves to release the rodent from his spear and then does something even ickier to my eyes. He takes a stick and impales the rodent once again and plants it in the ground. I am not a hunter, but even I can see this unlucky creature is serving as bait.
Kioko pulls me back and we move behind a thick tree and wait. And wait. And wait. His smell gets to me. I can't quite describe it, but it turns me on. Beads of sweat now cover his body, bringing out his natural scent. I reach out to him and stroke his arm with soft, gentle caresses. He pulls me close, hugging me tightly. Then, he freezes, putting a finger to my lips. I don't know what has happened, but don't move a muscle.
He points to the branch on the tree - the same tree we are leaning against. An eagle of some sort has landed and has his hungry eyes fixed on the bait. This bird has a bushy head and short tail, with grey shoulders and striking red facial skin, bill, and legs. Without a doubt, this is the most beautiful eagle I have ever laid eyes upon. I hold my breath, anxiously waiting for what I suspect will happen next. In one swoop, he flutters about the bait, and in one swoop of his own, Kioko has the mighty eagle by the legs. Amazing! It happened so fast! The eagle loudly screeches, flapping his mighty wings while Kioko holds his legs tightly. My heart beats out of my chest.
I carefully approach Kioko and try to stop shaking from the unexpected commotion I just witnessed. He chants to the bird in a deep voice and the eagle settles down. Kioko has the bird's back against his chest, with a deadlock grip around his legs. I am not a bird aficionado, but I know an eagle's talons and beak can easily rip a man's flesh. Nature is what I am witnessing. The hunter was hunted ... and caught.
I pat Kioko's back, showing him I am proud of his capture. He smiles, obviously pleased with himself too. We head back and he loudly sings songs of something. He repeats certain sounds and I catch on and join in his chorus. Miraculously, the eagle in his grasp has remained pretty relaxed on the journey back to the village. He seems to know he will not be harmed. We are met with excited Samburu, upon returning to the settlement. They make way for the chief, who leads Kioko to an enclosure of sorts made of sticks. A group of warriors lifts off the top and Kioko drops the eagle into the cage. I watch, hoping Mako was correct in that they won't harm the eagle. The Samburu circle the cage, dancing and singing. Kioko stands back alongside the chief. Josh is in the middle of the scene, snapping away with his camera.
Their joy is contagious and my heart swells. I cannot wait for the ceremony tonight. Josh comes to me beaming.
"Oh God, Anna. Do you see this? He captured an eagle for Christ's sake!"
"I know, I was there."
"No? Really? You saw it! Tell me. Tell me everything,"
I see Kioko's warrior buddies ushering him away and then they turn and motion for Josh to join them. Another shining example of the inclusive nature of the Samburu.
"Tell me later, okay," Josh calls over his shoulder, running towards the warriors. "My buddies want me!"
I grin, knowing what that gesture means to Josh. I am feeling a little tired from the excitement of the hunt and want to be my best for tonight's celebration, so I head back to my tent to jot down some notes and hopefully get in a short nap.
I awaken an hour later, shaking off the grogginess from my nap, I see something draped across my open hand. Oh my goodness, it is a beaded headpiece! Kioko strikes again. That man is a stealthy one. I am a pretty light sleeper, but somehow he manages to sneak in and out of my tent without stirring me.
Sitting up, I examine the eye-catching headpiece. It is tightly woven with all red beads, matching the first necklace he gave me - the one that claimed me as his. It comes to a point in the front. I scurry around for my pocket mirror, anxious to try it on. Slipping it down around the top of my head, it fits perfectly, the pointed front reaching between my eyebrows, while the rest decorates my pale-skinned forehead. The red is a striking contrast to my blonde hair and fair skin tone.
Glancing at my phone, I see it is time for me to dress for the ceremony. I know which cloth to wear - the red one with gold flecks. I shall be a fire princess tonight, adorning myself in mostly bright red. I decide to unbraid my hair and it cascades around my shoulders in curls from the tight braids. Leaving my midriff bare, I tie a thin gold cloth, that brings out the gold flecks in my skirt, around my breasts. Moving my tiny mirror up and down my body, I try to see everything.
Feeling confident in my appearance, I head to the ceremony. The bright colors hit me first. The Samburu are half-naked with the men donning the penis sheaths and most of the women naked from the waist up. However, their necks, arms, and ankles are covered in elaborately beaded jewelry of all colors. A few wear beaded and feathered headpieces. Others have painted their faces and bodies, further showcasing their vibrant eyes and spirits. The atmosphere is electric with voices chanting and drums thumping.
Our guide and translator, Mako, approaches, and I mention, "Drums? This is the first I have heard them since arriving."
"Yes, they represent a unified heartbeat of the tribe. Anna, this night is about purging the evil brought into their village from the police. They intend to heal tonight and cast a veil of protection over themselves and their land. I am so happy you get to witness tonight's celebration."
Looking around in awe, I respond, "So am I, Mako. So am I."
I turn and smash into towering Kioko. My God, he is awesome looking. He painted his face and wears a beaded necklace so thick, I can't see much of his neck. I can't help but stare. I finally tear my eyes away and look up to see appreciation in his eyes as he rakes them up and down my body. I think he likes me in red.
Kioko pulls me into the circle of dancing, our eyes savoring each other's body movements. There are no defined moves, just freestyle dancing. Arms and legs seem to have a life of their own. Although everyone moves differently, there is a rhythm to their movements. Being a former dancer, I quickly catch on. My hips take the lead, popping to the beat of the drum, with my arms moving out to the side. Kioko's more of an athletic dancer, hopping up and down, kicking the air, switching from one foot to the other.
Suddenly, the dancing stops as the chief makes his way to the eagle enclosure. Something important is about to happen.
The warriors circle the eagle and lift the lid on its cage, allowing the chief to reach his arm inside and pluck one feather from the eagle. As he holds it high into the air, the Samburu sing and shout. The chief travels around the circle of his people, one by one, swooshing the feather across each forehead. Josh and I are standing off to the side watching.
Mako tells us the swiping of the feather adds the eagle's protection to each of them. I witness the renewed security on their faces through this sacred act. The Samburu obviously believe in the power of this ritual.
Next, we are served meat, a rare thing for the Samburu, and then singing, drumming, and dancing resumes. Looking around, their community spirit overwhelms me to tears. I was told one of the women lost her husband to disease several weeks ago, yet here she joyfully dances surrounded by the other women. No one is ever alone in the Samburu tribe. What a comfort that must be.
After a while, chanting and hollering call my attention to another part of the settlement. My heart skips a beat at what my eyes witness. Oh my God, one of the warriors is walking across the trail of hot embers! Amidst the ruckus around him, his face is stoic. His walk slow. No sign of pain. I rush over for a closer look, not believing what I am seeing. One after another, the warriors conquer the firewalk. Again, no sign of distress on their faces.
"I wanna do it!" exclaims Josh.
"No! Josh, no! I don't know why they aren't screaming in pain, but that has to be burning their feet!" I grab his arm, adding, "We are nowhere near an Emergency Room, Josh!"
"Anna, I know of this custom. Many around the world practice the rite of firewalking. It is actually supposed to be healing."
"Healing? How can burning your fucking feet be healing?"
I break my fussing to watch with my breath held as Kioko strides across the hot embers. His face is one of focus, determination, and peace. I decide there must be extreme pain and they have just been disciplined to hold back their cries.
Josh continues, "No, Anna. It is a ritual of healing and conquering fear. You are walking through your fears. They are using this to recover from their fear of the police taking their lands. Think about it for a second. We are taught to fear fire. They face that fear ... literally ... by walking on hot embers. And you know as well as me that fear can be crippling. When possible, we need to rid ourselves of fear. I'm gonna do it," he finishes, breaking free from my grasp. He looks over his shoulder saying, "And I think you should too!"
Damn, for a young guy, he packs a lot of insights. I steeple my fingers and pray for my brave friend. Before beginning, the warriors surround him and he sways and chants with them, almost looking like he is entering a trance-like state. Then, first step. Followed by another. And another. I hop from one foot to another as if on this journey with him. To my shock, Josh calmly walks the path of embers, no different than the warriors before him. Once upon the cool grasslands again, he lets loose with a warrior's cry of joy. I am inspired ... truly inspired.
He looks my way and I nod in admiration of him. His joy is infectious. At this moment, I don't care if I burn my fucking skin off, I want to feel what they are obviously feeling. Before I can change my mind, I head to the embers. Josh stands at the end, encouraging me. The warriors encircle me, with Kioko facing me. His hands raise my face to his and I repeat whatever he is chanting. Over and over and over, I chant. My fears ... all thoughts really ... leave my mind as my body sways and my mouth chants. It is like I moved to another plane of existence. I can't explain it, but my feet propel me forward onto the red, glowing obstacles previously inhabiting my mind. With each step, I feel nothing but strength and pride. These feelings grow exponentially as I continue my forward progression. Miraculously, I feel no pain. At the end of my journey, Josh is there, poking me with his penis sheath, as he hugs me, hurting my back with his intense squeezing.
Once Josh releases me, I head for Kioko. He swoops me into his arms, hugging me. He seems proud of me, but moreover, I am proud of myself. We return to the dancing circle and spend the rest of the night singing and dancing. The evening is magical with an air of joy, happiness, and celebration. Afterward, I lie on my sleeping bag, reliving the past several days. I know I don’t want to go home tomorrow. And as the perfect end to this perfect day, Kioko enters my tent.
Day 5 with the Samburu
I awaken once again to singing from the women. I would never tire of waking to their energetic singing and will miss it greatly. Reluctantly, I start packing. Ugh. I am not looking forward to going home. Mako pokes his head inside my tent to tell me the jeep will be here in an hour and we need to say our good-byes.
I hurry, gathering my things as Mako begins taking down my tent. Scanning the area, I don't see Kioko. The all-knowing, perceptive Josh appears by my side and says, "He's in the field ... seemingly sulking. You know, it is a weird thing to see a warrior, who just walked on hot embers last night, sulk."
"Thanks!" I say, kissing Josh on the cheek, before heading to the field.
His back is to me when I reach him. I am not sure what he is thinking, so I tread carefully, gently placing my hand on his shoulder. He doesn't turn around, forcing me to walk around to face him.
His eyes look off to the side, so I turn his face, hoping his eyes will follow. They do. Oh my goodness. His eyes look sad. Gone are the sparkling, vibrant eyes I am used to seeing.
I simply say, "I will miss you, Kioko," and reach up to kiss his cheek.
At first, he doesn’t respond, but then he pulls me into his hard body in a warm embrace. When he finally pulls away, he rests his forehead against mine, looking me in my eyes.
"Miss you, Anna."
Josh had smartly brought a Polaroid camera and given me some pictures he took of us. I pull them from my pocket and hand them to Kioko. His face lights up as he raises the pictures closer to his face, studying them, smiling.
"For you," I say.
He lifts me off my feet and hugs me again. I grab his hand and he walks me back to the settlement where the jeep is waiting.
The Samburu have gathered around us, hugging us. Mako translates as I thank the chief for his hospitality and reassure him I will bring awareness to their issues over land with the police. He shares his appreciation and wishes us well in our journey. Kioko kisses my cheek and then walks away, leaving me with the women and children vying for the last hug. I understand it is his way and he doesn't want to see me leave. He looks at our pictures as he heads back to the field.
Sadly, we climb into our jeep and drive away, turning around to watch the Samburu out our back window.
The children run after us, waving goodbye. An elderly woman's face tells the story of the Samburu - etched with pride, confidence, and contentment. We wave, smiling, but a tear trickles down my cheek.
Josh sees and puts his arm around me. "Hey, you okay, Anna?"
I sniffle and reply, "I want to feel what they feel. Instead, I return home to loneliness and humiliation."
"Hey, it was his humiliation, not yours. He was the one who got caught with his pants down."
"It's hard him being in the public eye, you know? Now, I have no one, Josh. My parents are gone. Now, I lost my husband too."
"Hey, hey, hey. You still have a family. I am your family. There is a seat for you at my Thanksgiving and Christmas table every year. I mean it, Anna. Many feel the same as me about you. You know my own mom was never there for me. I kinda feel like you are a mom to me, even though you aren't that much older. You always support me and fuss at me too, when I need it. You aren't alone as long as I am living and breathing."
I look at his sweet face and can't help but smile amidst my tears. Settling against his shoulder, I indulge in a long-overdue cry. My head tells me I don't belong with the Samburu and if I stayed I would just be running away from my struggles. I need to gain a warrior's strength and go home and face my life.
A month later
I rap on Bob’s door.
“Hi Bob, you wanted to see me?”
“Yes, yes, sit down, Anna.”
I sit and try to predict his next words based on his body language. But, I get nothing. He just sits back in his chair and stares at me.
“So, I just read your piece on the Samburu.”
He pauses. I know he does this because he knows how impatient I am to hear his feedback. Grrrrr!
“And?” I say, tapping my fingers against my thigh.
“Damn fine writing. Damn fine, indeed.”
Whew! I try not to seem too pleased but am jumping up and down inside. I value Bob’s opinion very much.
“I have seen some of Josh’s photos and he did a helluva job as your photographer. I predict some awards for him too.”
I can’t help but beam with pride.
“You want to say it. Go ahead, Anna.”
Attempting not to gloat, I simply say, “I thought Josh just needed a chance to prove himself.”
“You know, he sent me the video of your run-in with the police and it was not-so-accidentally leaked to the press.”
“Hmmm. Wonder how that happened?” I smile at him, having already seen the incident reported on television.
“No clue,” he winks. “But, since it happened, we have been inundated with calls from animal and human rights groups wanting to jump on the Samburu cause. I have sifted through them and here are some names of those I think you should contact,” he says, handing me a paper.
I look at the recognizable names on the paper and can't hold back my reaction. “I am so excited about this, Bob! You have no idea! Thank you so much!”
“You have done a good thing, highlighting their plight, Anna. People like the Samburu need someone on the outside fighting for them.”
I can't help but smile, and my thoughts shoot to one particular Samburu. Bob and I wrap up our conversation and I return to my desk. Pulling up some of Josh's photos, I daydream about being back in Africa.
Later that night…
I walk up the stairs to my apartment door and see a large flat package propped against the hallway, addressed to me. There is no return label, so I am curious as to its contents. After unlocking the door, I carry the package over to the couch and sit down. Carefully, I unwrap it and gasp as the picture is revealed. Josh! I sit staring in awe at the beautiful canvas of the Samburu and me. Kioko is standing beside me. Josh must have taken it the night of the healing ceremony as we are dressed in our finest clothes and adorned with beads. You can see the eagle in the cage beside us, watching. I cannot help but smile as memories flood my mind.
Also, inside the package are smaller pictures of just me and Kioko. Thank you, Josh! I carefully hang the canvas across from my couch and grab a glass of wine. The picture brings a smile to my face. Fingering the pictures of my warrior broadens my smile even more. He showed me what it feels like to be held by a strong man - loyal and hard-working too.
That trip changed me. I'd like to think for the better. Like the Samburu, I will work to form my own community. Family doesn’t have to mean the same bloodline. I became a hermit after my divorce, but I'm ready to get back out there and form some meaningful connections. There is a great big world waiting for me. Also, I want to be a champion for those who don’t have a voice. Everything that happened with my ex-husband doesn’t matter anymore. What we had was superficial. My new life with purpose begins now.
The Samburu have shown me the way.