An egg and a bangle

There is nothing as satisfying as gradually seeing a child’s face go from “I really don’t know what you are talking about” to lighting up with understanding. To see eager hands raised ready to answer questions or ask some more. For anyone charged with passing out knowledge and skills, this (in my opinion) is the ultimate.

We were out on an education trip in Samburu County, an area called Chumviere. As usual, I was there to document, in photos and video, the mobile education lessons that Save the Elephants conducts up north.  My back was killing me, thanks to the rocky path that we like to call a road. I enjoy these sessions, but on this particular day, I simply wanted to get back to camp and rest. Just before we ended the lesson, my colleagues suggested I take over the question and answer session, to test the students’ comprehension and grasp of the topic. We had gifts too. So anyone who answered correctly got some sort of stationery item. Soon, the classroom was a delightful spectacle; with  hands flying, students running to the chalkboard to label something and trying to outdo each other on speed tests.

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Photo: R.J Walters

It wasn’t long before we had run out of gifts. To wrap up, I decided to give a short pep talk on sharing and gratitude. I love it when I have a chance to impart more than curriculum to the kids. Values will take you further than anything you might learn from the normal school syllabus. I think.

 

“Teacher Trezer!”

I heard someone call out as I walked back to the car. I turned to see a tall, slender boy running towards me. I wondered what I had forgotten. I felt my pocket for my mobile phone and did a quick scan inside the brown box I was carrying; I couldn’t tell, so I waited.

He was almost out of breath when he got to me. I sensed some hesitation as he reached into his pocket and held out towards me a yellow bangle and an egg. I looked at the contents of his hand, then at his face. What was this?

As if sensing my unspoken need for clarification, the timid smile on his lips gave way to these words…

“I thought about what you said in class, about giving even when you could do with more yourself, and always saying thank you. Please accept this as my thank you to you for coming to Chumviere today.”

I stood there, lost for words, as his eyes pleaded with me to accept the gifts. I did. It took a lot not to tear up…(I can be a cry baby :D)…because this was, and still is the sweetest gesture anyone has ever extended to me. Raw and genuine. A bangle and an egg don’t seem like much, but coming from this young man, they spoke volumes. Eggs are such a luxury in these parts. I could even imagine the kind of meal he had envisioned  having after school, but here he was giving it to me. I don’t know why he chose the bangle though; maybe he thought the egg would be too little a gift by itself. Whatever his reasons were, I was moved.

I wore my bangle immediately and didn’t take it off for the duration of the week long trip. Every time I got frustrated about the heat, dust storms and long days, my yellow bangle would remind me about the ‘why’ and the impact on these great minds. This young man’s small act had succeeded in getting me to appreciate that what would seem like ‘just another day at work,’ is in fact an opportunity to inspire.

What a world it would be, if everyone of us was as receptive as this boy was! If each one of us acted out on what we know as right, and strive to see, do and commend the good around us. What a world it would be! How about I start practicing what I preach? Here, catch!

“Thank you for stopping by and taking time to read 🙂 I hope it was worth your time. Remember,  you’ve got the ammunition to make someone smile today. Do it! You will be happy you did :)”

 

 

A lesson in dreaming

I treasure children. I love their innocence and all they can get away with in the name of being ‘children’, because when a grown up does them, they are branded childish. I love the genuinity(is that a word?) in their eyes; the windows to their souls. I can tell, earnestly, when they are happy, sad, bored or whatever other feeling. Being around kids is refreshing. I started accompanying the education team for documenting purposes, film and photography. Then, unofficially, hype man (woman) was added to my TOR-Terms of Reference. So whenever the kids look bored or are unresponsive, I am there to do an equivalent of ‘ikibamba sana wapi nduruuuu’! Anyway, so this one of those times, the Save the Elephants education team, is out in Chumviere, somewhere between Isiolo and Archers post. To get to Chumviere Primary School, you will need:

  1. A strong purpose
  2. One of those cars used by drivers in the Rhino Charge events
  3. Water
  4. A state of the art backbone.

There is a British Army barrack just off the tarmac. It is the only modern building you’ll see until you get to the school. The terrain is mostly rocky and thorny, and when its not, its very dusty. There are ‘manyatta’ villages scattered every few kilometers. Sometimes, you will see an old woman with her donkey carrying a jerry can or two of water and boys tending to goats. They stop to look at you and/or your car and the young boys run after you waving excitedly. If they see a ‘mzungu’ they will shout proudly “How are you?” and run away giggling at the response, “Fine.” Only, the mzungus are sometimes too eager to show off their Kiswahili skills, they shout back a “Jambo!”

We get to the school and its just perfect. Well, not perfect PERFECT, but it certainly beats my lowly expectations. I spot a water tank somewhere, and then classrooms built of wood and oiled black. The Kenyan flag is flying high on a high metal pole planted in the middle of a circle of well-arranged white stones. A few meters away, a stone walled toilet brightly painted blue and white. Some writings on it, I can’t quite make them out. After a briefing at the headmaster’s office, we head to the Standard Six class. There are about 20 of them, more girls than boys this time. There have been incidences of banditry and cattle rustling, and most of the boys had to go help their fathers with the herds. The girls stayed back with the women folk. Staff introductions and the lessons begin. “Living in Harmony with Elephants,” they are dubbed. The education team goes round schools built around elephant corridors and carries out lessons to find out the students attitudes towards the elephants and how Save the Elephants can help in areas of conflict.

The team concludes part one of the lesson and one of them whispers in my ear “enda uwachangamshe kidogo before we start part 2”) Ha! So I step up and ask each of them to tell me their name and what they would like to be when they grow up. Cliché, I know, but I love to hear that kids still dream in this day and age. I tell them to smile while at it because it makes it even more interesting, and I like to see happy faces (…also, we need to get really happy photos for social media and the website) I get a couple of answers; from doctors (of course) to teachers, pilots and even rangers, but nothing could have prepared me for this one. “My name is Raphael, he says, “…and I want to be a farmer.”

Source: Internet

A young farmer

I say a ‘wow!’ Careful not to sound too surprised. I tell him to keep working at it. I expected all the other answers. Almost all of them had seen someone in that career once. Pilots, they had seen flying planes over their schools. They have been through enough hard times to see soldiers and men in uniform around, so being a soldier or pilot don’t sound so farfetched.

Why you ask, did the farmer amaze me so? Picture the terrain I have just described. Nothing grows there except thorns and other random weeds. The livestock eat whatever they can find. On a previous visit, lunch was githeri (A mixture of hard boiled maize and beans-a Kenyan delicacy) No one wants to eat this everyday though, but to some of these kids its life. A hope. For Raphael, being a farmer represented people and green lush farms that he’d only seen in books. A farfetched one, but a dream nonetheless. It made me happy, that he wished to explore the world beyond Chumviere. He knew that to fulfill his dream he had to work hard to get out of Chumviere where farming doesn’t happen and who knows, come back and supply green leafy vegetables home.

Aaaaah! A lesson in dreaming.

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. -Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

The Blood Moon

Interacting with different cultures fascinates me. I am always eager to take in as much as I can from the people I am visiting. Their traditions and way of life. I am nosy. LOL! But I am also a trained journalist, so I guess its a skill too. This post is however not about me(…the number of times I said ‘I’…whoa!)…

The full moon always scares us elephant people. In fact, while others call it lovers night, we call it blood moon. On days when there is a full moon, security around parks is heightened; rangers are on high alert and radios are fully charged. Poachers love the full moon. Easy spotting of their target and easy get away. They work so fast. Then all we find is blood and flesh, in place of the elephant face. Always seeking to be one step ahead, they now use the more advanced night goggles and poach whenever they want. Full moon or not. We are on to them.

Wednesday 8th October 2014, a blood moon is scheduled to be seen at different times the world over, well, almost. A different kind of blood moon. The lunar eclipse. I am seated at the edge of the Ewaso Nyiro marveling at the beauty of the illuminated full moon. Tonight it looks different, very very bright with a somewhat orange hue surrounding it making it stand out against the perfectly blue sky. Its breathtaking. A night guard at the camp joins me and says,

“Niliambiwa leo mwezi itakuwa nyekundu”-I am told the moon will be red tonight.

Blood moon

I ask him if he knows why, then I go ahead and try to explain the earth blocking the sun’s rays and what not. He looks at me blankly. Partly because I can’t find certain words in Kiswahili. So I google (21st century lifesaver 😀 ) a lunar eclipse image and show him. He nods, but he still doesn’t understand how the earth can block the moon yet the moon is on the sky that’s on the earth’s rooftop. Its hilarious. Never thought of it that way.  There are many myths surrounding the lunar eclipse around the world, I was excited to hear the Samburu version. Another guard joins us and together they tell me what the lunar eclipse means to the Samburus.

Lunar eclipse

“No one sleeps when the moon turns red. We believe the moon is God’s eye at night. When it is red, it is dead. All the women and children wake up and sing to the moon. They sing a “Surwa surwa” song. A song asking it to wake up and shine bright. The men also wake up and chant prayers to God. We sing healing songs too.”

This can go on for hours, until the moon shines bright again. It is healed.

I laugh at how interesting and fascinating all this is. Very different from my culturization.

“The born-towns don’t value the moon as those in the rural areas. All the electricity blinds you. You almost never notice how bright the moon is. How marvelous it is.  For us, it is a major boost to our night life. We will notice when its not as bright as it should be.”

I agree. Look up more often Born-towns 😀

PS: Surwa means blue in Samburu. There is some science about the blue and red of the Lunar eclipse here. What a coincidence that the the Samburu song was asking the moon to ‘go blue’ again!!

Being the 1st ‘Different One’- A moran’s perspective

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“How do you feel when you see your age-mates getting married and you are just there?”

I feigned a “Pardon?” while digging my brain for an appropriate answer.

A few days ago, I was in Kiltamanny area in Samburu County, interviewing a moran(A circumcised Samburu young man) about early marriages, polygamy and Female Genital Mutilation in his community. We were chatting up pretty easy until he asked me a question that caught me completely off-guard;

He didn’t ask, how would you feel, he said do. Ok, maybe I’m paranoid.

“How do you feel when you see your age-mates getting married and you are just there?”

One of two things;

  1. He wants to marry me (LoL)
  2. He’s trying to drive a point home by contextualizing* the issue.

“It depends.” I tell him.

“On what?”

Funny how this guy had turned the tables on me and now ‘held the microphone…’

“On how old you are, what kind of society you live in and personal life goals.”

“Ooooh. But isn’t a girl is a girl anywhere in the world. Girls like ‘groupie (not his exact words, implied) things.’ Following each other, doing things at the same time because you don’t want to be left behind.” TRUTH

I disputed with a couple of ‘intellectual’ arguments revolving around personality and reiterated my first answer. He nodded and let it go.

But he’d made his point. In communities where there is little exposure, education (formal) and influence from the outside world, questioning traditions is useless. A girl is circumcised at age10, 11 and by 13, she’s ripe for marriage. By the time, she’s 20, she has at least 5 children. After a few more years, her husband will then bring her a helper and the cycle will continue until there are no more cows to give as dowry.

“In other parts of Kenya, there are more unmarried women.” He says.

I laugh and ask him if by marrying more than one wife a man does a favor to women folk. He smiles.

“In these villages, if my age-mates are getting married at 13, having gone through the rite of passage, I can’t ‘hang out’ with them if I haven’t done it. They are WOMEN…I am not. The feeling of seclusion and solitude is universal. I think that’s the biggest hurdle. To convince someone that its ok to be different, to be the FIRST different one.”

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How many women are you going to marry?

“Nikioa wengi, ni mmoja tu.” (Only one)

So why was he trying to defend the polygamists, FGM and early marriages?

“I did no such thing. I just stated facts and why outsiders need to find more innovative ways of bringing mindset change where its not wanted. If any strategy is to work, the initiative has to be taken up by those of us (from the community) who have tested and seen the benefits of first, education. Education really is the key. I would be somewhere in the bushes raiding another community for cattle if it were not for an education.”

I left this interview EDUCATED. All the stereotypes and ujuaji I had coming into this had vaporised.

Lessons:

 -Dare to stand out. Be the first. Take one for the team.

– The feeling of seclusion and solitude is universal. Reach out when and if you can. At one point or another, you have felt something similar.

-Formal education is cool, but it won’t take you nowhere without informal education.

-Have conversations with an open mind, you will get what you came for and more.

 

 

Why do snakes exist?

I was recently up at the Samburu National Reserve on a work trip. Our research camp is set on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro which separates The Samburu National Reserve and The Buffalo Springs National Reserve. As you can imagine, this is quite a bush set up, we don’t want to totally change the landscape as we are on wild animal territory. It is their home after all and have full rights to be here. The Samburu team are housed in tents and other temporary structures which a visitor would find very unsettling seeing that the wildlife here roam through the camp quite often. More often than not, elephants, some of whom we know by name like Yaeger and Sarara, graze and browse unmoved as people go about their work. I  have never gotten used to the dazing effect, watching such a huge animal mind his/her business. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you get to look at them in the eye, and the feeling is indescribable. You have to experience it yourself.

On one of my first visits up North, I was held captive, pleasantly so, by 3 young male elephants who were casually grazing right next to my room. I panicked and called the camp manager who told me to relax, that they would be on their way as soon as they were done. “Elephants don’t attack unless provoked,” He said. So I sat there, listening to them tug at the grass with their feet and the silent seconds when they would use their trunks to put it into their mouths. I was tempted to open the door and watch them eat, but  decided against it. Instead, I took a chair and climbed to reach up one of the windows. I looked outside and at that particular moment, one of the bulls lifted his head and our eyes met! I almost toppled over, but I held on long enough to take in this moving moment…and as fast as it had happened, it was all over. I don’t think I will ever forget this, ever! It gave a deeper meaning to my work. Sounds silly, I know.

So, as I was saying, I was up there recently and one particular incident has tugged on my heart since. A young girl, about 5 years old was bitten by a snake on her wrist. She was brought to our camp in the dead of the night so we could drive her to the nearest hospital at Archers post. She didn’t last long, hours later, she was dead. I shed a tear, I haven’t felt that sad in a long time. I don’t know what angered me most; the fact that the parents had waited for hours before taking her to hospital, choosing to use some traditional curative method in preventing the poison from spreading, or that snakes…snakes bite people for no particular reason. I mean, lions would kill you then eat you, because they were hungry. Hippos kill you when you get in between them and the water and so on. But snakes bite or spit on you, then slither away. I don’t understand and if I read my Bible in Genesis, they are the devil himself.  It makes quite a lot of sense then, that I can’t stand them, I hate them and they are my biggest fear when I’m in the bush.

A day later we hear of another kid, this time older, who also dies from a snake bite. That night a small cobra was ‘sitting’ resting near the dinner table. I am told as I wasn’t present, that people just looked at it and continued eating unperturbed. It seemed full, they said. Some suggested that they murder it but the others, mostly the White counterparts (not to sound racist or anything close) said it should be left alone. I inquired, and was told it is one of the deadliest snakes and kills with within minutes if no antidote is available. Later on, one of my colleagues meets a huge snake as he was walking to his tent. It was long gone when he came back seconds later with a group of men to finish it off. A search in the nearest bushes yielded nothing.

When one of our American friends heard what had happened, she was pretty upset. She said we had no right to kill the snakes because we were the trespassers here. That we should let them be. I know she makes sense about the territories and all, but what to do when you find yourself living in the same space with them? Should we wait till a snake bites someone then kill it? Even then, have we any right? I don’t know, maybe its my fears talking…but I don’t see how a snake can be conserved for future use 😦 Future use to kill? Ah. I know there are snake lovers out there as well as there are elephant lovers and one would argue that no love is greater than the other…actually I would in favour of elephants 😀 them being keystone species and all; but why do snakes exist? Why the can’t they sense good intention just like elephants and just leave humans alone? I wish God would just call off this snake curse 😦

I am not blind to the deaths elephants have caused, or the yields they have mercilessly trampled on as they ate to their fill…sigh! I guess I am just confused as to why the world ain’t perfect.

What do you think?

 

Inside the Kraal-Part 2

I first went to Turkana in August 2011. I had just began my internship and was immediately thrown into the deep waters…well, yeah. “Deep waters.” It was the hottest time of the year up there and the dehydration was real…but once I got over the heat and the initial culture shock, I realized I was right in the midst of beauty…in place and culture. Long before the oil discovery and the lunar eclipse attractions, Turkana was already amazing.

I got another chance to visit this year, though in a totally different context. Turkana County is big, so I am not doing it any justice by not mentioning the specific places. I know I have them written somewhere…sigh! I am not completely hopeless though. I do know that where I am about to speak of is named Attan. There is an Attan Primary School there where I have had a chance to talk to the children about elephants and why we must save them. Now Attan is so dusty, that I was told(by more than one person, so its credible) that when kids come home from school, the mothers have to wash them to ensure that they don’t have the wrong child. I feel them. After that particular school trip, I needed some identity wash myself.

The Turkana wedding ceremony continued…

A few days ago, I wrote Inside the Kraal-Part 1. A colleague was getting married. I spoke about all the things that baffled me about the Turkana wedding culture and some of it was quite bloody. Today, today we speak happy things. I think being born a lady in Turkana lady is a feat. Really. You are the family’s chief source of wealth. Apparently, you can’t be officially married unless your suitor pays a dowry of at least 50 cows/bulls. At least. It could be more. You can do the ‘come we stay’ thing and even have kids, but you’ll never really be fully married until you are done paying up. Mind you, the cattle dowry cant be brought in form of cash. So imagine a man has 5 daughters. I’ll leave you to do the math. Where is Julie Gichuru when we need ‘Who owns Kenya?’ The Turkanas are almost always at loggerheads with their neighbours over cattle rustling, so you can understand the value they attach to owning a huge number of cattle.

So my colleague had finally finished paying up and this was the day his wife would be handed over to him officially. The ceremony takes place inside the father-in-law’s compound. This man must be real wealthy. He has 4 wives. I am sure he has paid for all of them in full. There are things an outsider’s heart would miss a beat for, like people smiling, posing, next to a bull that has just been speared right in the heart. Outsiders never understand that this,for them, especially the bride and groom is a sign of ownership, freedom…relief.

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Soon after the meat is cut and young men carry it to the bride’s mother’s kitchen in bits. All this time accompanied by songs of praise, joy and sometimes mockery. There was an instance where I almost took to my heels, only to be stopped by an ‘apaiya'(elder)who had accompanied us on this trip. The young men and women from the groom’s side were fighting with the women manning the kitchen on the bride’s side. I could have sworn it wasn’t a mock fight. They were roughing each other up for real. After the assurance that everything was under control, I dropped my city girl-ness and sat down, on the dust, with some women who kept asking me for money in return for taking their pictures. I guess that’s the price you pay for travelling with white friends.

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Oh my! These people can sing and jump for hours. I was already seeing double, this heat again! And there was this man who couldn’t leave me in peace. He wanted me to photograph every little detail and at one time I tried hiding behind one of the huts to catch my breath but he still found me. I forgot he knew these corners more. Anyway, I am told they’ll do it, the dancing, till dusk, till dawn. After the dung ritual explained in part one, the groom is let out of the kraal and led to another corner where he’s to sit with his peers. He is not allowed to leave this spot till the following morning, where his bride, also in a separate location with her peers will be brought to him. the elders will then bless the marriage and they will be allowed to enter their home as newly weds. They must wear their wedding outfits for another four days, because…drat. I don’t remember. I guess to remove any doubt just incase one wasn’t present to witness?

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The Attires

Bride and Groom: The men, in my opinion, end up standing out more than the women. Bummer. They have on colourful lesos and on their heads a headgear made of ostrich feathers and mane. The women on the other hand wear skin. Sigh. They of course have the choice of the colourful beaded jewellery which the bride here used to cinch her waist and define her long neck. I think the men should wear the skins though…lol!

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The rest: Whatever story you’ve heard on the origin of the mohawk, throw it out the window. Here, deep in Turkana land is where it all started. I insist. The women, just like their urban counterparts take time to get ready for such ceremonies. On their hair, they apply some oily mixture and the result is either a red or very black look. Their jewellery is phenomenon. Earrings, necklaces. Look at them. They look quite heavy but I love them. I would have asked for a pair of earrings, but I am quite sure I am not ready for a hole that size on my ear.

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On their feet, well, akalas(shoes made of of tyres). I guess they gave up on this dust a long time ago, because their feet are so cracked, it reminds me of my childhood nanny who used to say she could fit a ‘bob’ through hers.

The men are less traditional. They bring out their Sunday best shirts and pair them with lesos and akalas, of course accesorized with the beautiful shangas and earrings.

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After a great meal punctuated by lots of nyama choma, we took our leave, knowing very well that we were going to miss the main bash. The one that would take place when the sun had set, people dancing to beautiful acapella voices that we’d already sampled and young men ‘tuning’ young girls in some corner, convincing them that their wedding would be much bigger and finally, the bride and groom counting the hours and smiling when the sun’s rays peek at dawn.

Congratulations Wilson and family!!

Photos by Yiwei Wang and Trezer Oguda

Inside the Kraal-Part One

I had never seen anything like it. My camera froze in my hand, as my eyes moved slowly round the Kraal. So much was happening, and for the first time, I was confused on where a photographer was to focus the camera lens. My nostrils had long gotten used to the stench and my eyes had finally given up the dust-wind fight and had teared up to their satisfaction. I looked hard at the spot where the bull had fallen with a spear wound that ran straight into his heart. He was long gone now and…

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“Piga picha!”(Take the photo!)

I was startled back from my trance by a rugged old man. I couldn’t understand why he had on his shoulders a winter blanket with temperatures souring 40 degrees. “Piga kimila yetu picha!” He repeated. Before my eyes had wandered off, the old men had been preparing what is commonly known here as “the old man’s soup”. The ingredients: Fresh blood from a bull, I kg sugar, fermented milk and ghee. All this in a large sufuria where the octogenarians would take turns stirring using special carved sticks.

Milk is added to the frothy mixture

Milk is added to the frothy mixture

 

While waiting for it to be ready, I saw one of them drink ghee like one would milk. Gha! Anyway, soon the mixture was smooth and ready to be served in the waiting metallic cups. His feeble hands shook as he took a sip and subsequently gulped down the first, second and third cups. Yuck! I tried not to let my disgust show at the thick froth he seemed to enjoy. His mates shared this secret little joy. See, this was an elite club. Only old men who had married off their daughter(s) were allowed to sit with the mates and drink the delicacy.

Yummy?

Yummy?

An elder partakes of the delicacy

An elder partakes of the delicacy

“Hold him! Hold him before he hurts himself!”

A moran was having convulsions. It took three young men to pin him down. Whoa! What’s happening to him? I wasn’t expecting anyone to answer. Hmmm. Strange. Apart from the ones who’d rushed to help, no one else thought this was an emergency even when three more men went into a similar state and one even threw himself into a thorn bush! “Relax, wamepandwa tu na mori” Someone volunteered to ease me off my I’m gonna bolt out of here look. “Ati?” I thought they were possessed and I didn’t want to be there when the demons left them and sought a new home! “Wamepandwa tu na mori. Wameshikwa na uchungu mbaya kwa sababu ya hiyo wimbo inaimbwa.” Oh, that song! I thought it was pretty depressing for a wedding but I had quickly told myself I wasn’t allowed to think, or even voice my thoughts here. I knew nothing! The man revealed that the song, usually sang by a group of morans who sat with the groom, was meant to do just that…make them angry enough to go to war as soon as yesterday. The song taunted the young men, asking them why they were seated there, celebrating, while someone had made away with their pride, their cattle. Now if you know anything about the Turkanas of Northern Kenya, you know that their cattle are their pride, I would even dare say their everything. Maybe that would explain why they are almost always at loggerheads with their neighbours the Samburus, cattle raiding being the order of the day.

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So after this revelation I just stood there, asking myself if there was anything/one I would die for…just like that moran who had thrown himself into that thorn bush. Eh. Pressure! Well, I would answer this question later, because soon enough the tempo picked up and I guessed something interesting, or scary was going to happen. The young and old men all stood up and walked round a huge pile of fresh dung that had been extracted from the bull. There was yet another ritual to be followed here. As the group went round the dung singing and chanting, some, mostly old men, would pick some dung, sniff it and then apply it on their leg. The others were only allowed to lightly step on the dung. Again, only men whose daughters had been married off could touch the dung and apply it. The rest, irrespective of age could only step on it.

Finally, two hours since he had bid me goodbye, I saw the groom in the procession. He smiled and told me…”Its over now”..as if sensing that I had been in a state of shock for sometime now. It was time to move on to the next phase of the Turkana traditional wedding.

Okay. Your facial muscles can relax now 😀 Look out for part two!! It will be less shocking and more jovial, like a wedding is supposed to be. I promise 😀 Here’s a sneak peak!

Dancemania :D

Dancemania 😀