“This is the graveyard of a young woman, eight months pregnant, who was killed by an elephant,” 55-year old Jane Mwamburi of Msorongo Village, Kenya, tells us through our guide and interpreter, Oliver.
There are actually two graveyards, because the Taita people do not believe in burying a pregnant woman with her baby, Oliver reveals, so they operate to remove the foetus, burying the mother and unborn baby separately.
We’re on a cultural visit to Msorongo Village, a half hour drive from Salt Lick, a Sarova game lodge located in Tsavo West, experiencing one of the activities offered to visitors who want an insight into the local Taita culture and way of life.
We walk by an empty animal enclosure, a cattle pen that was full a couple of years ago, before the drought killed the family’s stock. As cattle are expensive, they’ve not yet been able to replace the animals that were their main livelihood.
Jane – whose nickname Oliver tells us is ‘Mana Kucheka’ or ‘happy lady’ because she’s always smiling – and her 76-year-old husband, Mwamburi Mwikamba, show us into the round mud hut that is their home.
We stumble inside – it’s pitch-black dark until our eyes adjust – and sit on tiny wooden benches that serve as their only seating. We’re joined by Collins, a young man from the village who speaks English, who will act as our local guide.
There’s just one low-rise bed for the couple. Their children slept on the dirt floor (they had 12 kids in total) until they turned 15. Then it’s customary for their father to build them their own house. On our way we passed the home that Mwamburi built for a son with the help of neighbours.
“It’s communal work,” Collins explains. “They call ten or 15 neighbours to help. The men make the structure from trees and the women make the mud walls and thatched roof. They take turns to help each other.”
Jane explains that her son’s square mud-brick house, which has a corrugated iron roof, is big enough to sleep them also, but as it’s in the ‘modern’ style, she and Mwamburi prefer their traditional home. It’s cool inside when it’s hot out and in winter they can light a fire to keep warm.
All of the cooking is done in the centre of the room and Jane shows us the rustic cups, bowls, plates, and container used to carry water, all made from dried calabash (pumpkin). A tin serves as a paraffin lamp. There’s storage in the ceiling, above the few wooden beams. They keep their maize there, which the smoke from the fire dries out so it doesn’t get diseased.
“The old life was simple,” Jane tells us. “We prefer it in a way. We never got sick. There were no diseases. But of course if someone got sick they generally died.”
Mwamburi had two wives, Oliver reveals. The graveyard we saw on the way in is that of the first wife. They all shared this small home and got along, the women taking turns to sleep with their husband.
Before she was married, Collins explains, a woman would be confined to a house such as this for seven days. During that time, she’d be initiated by the older women into how to be a good wife.
The woman would be washed and kept out of the sun to become the light brown colour of a child, and they’d feed her up for the week. After the wedding, the husband and wife would be confined to the house for 30 days where they would be taught how to live together.
It’s time to move on. Oliver explains that some neighbours are waiting at another part of the village to perform some traditional songs and dances for us. It’s bright outside – too bright for photos – yet Jane is smiling her broad, welcoming grin, so we can’t resist asking if Terence can make their portraits. They agree and when Terence shows them, Jane smiles even more widely. They’re delighted with the images.
As we walk back to the car by the empty cattle pen, I ask Collins how much it costs to replace their cattle. 10,000 Kenyan shillings (US$124/UK£78) for a cow, Oliver tells us after asking Mwamburi, and 15,000 (US$180/UK£118) for a bull. I discretely hand Mwamburi 1,000 shillings (about US$12/UK£8) as a contribution toward his first cow. When he looks at the money, his eyes light up.
“They are very happy,” Oliver tells us, “They really appreciate your visit today.” There is much handshaking, more thanks, and invitations to come back again one day.
I ask Oliver how many of Salt Lick’s guests actually visit the village. Not many, he says in disappointment. I quickly do some calculations and think how fast Mwamburi and the other villagers could build their cattle stock back up if every guest visited the village and made a small donation.
From Jane and Mwamburi’s humble home, we head to a modest village community centre-cum-dance hall currently under construction. The men have built the structure and now the women must complete the thatched roof, Collins tells us, but they’ve been too busy tending their aloe fields to finish and they also need to raise funds for some materials.
A small group of men and women from the village are going to perform two celebratory dances for us, Collins explains, called ‘Mwasindi Ka’ and ‘Kishawi’, which are performed at circumcisions and after bumper harvests.
Kishawi, he tells us, is performed all night, aided by a traditional brew that helps the dancers and musicians become more “active”. Collins vividly recalls his own circumcision ritual at age 14, and how his elders told him sacred stories and taught him how to behave, while they sang and danced to ‘Kishawi’. “It was a very special time for me,” he says.
The villagers perform for us and it’s wonderful. Like the performance at sundowners the other night, it’s vibrant, rhythmic and hypnotic. At first the men play the drums and the women dance, but for the second dance, one of the women gets on the drums and the village elder, replete with metal shakers on his legs, joins the women. All of the performers are married, Collins confides, as it’s inappropriate for unwed males and females to dance together.
Terence and I are busy making photos and video throughout the performance, and by the end, we’re almost as hot and sweaty as the musicians and dancers. “They’ve really appreciated your interest,” Collins tells us, “They don’t normally do this, but they want to perform a third dance for you!”
At the end of the performance, one of the musicians, whose eyes are now looking rather glazed, offers Terence the home brew they’ve been passing between themselves. He takes a swig. “Not bad at all,” he says. They’s happy to hear it. Sadly, I don’t get to try it. It’s not appropriate for women to drink it seems.
I have no idea how much it costs to finish the dance hall roof, but I hand over a contribution to the village elder who looks very happy. “They really appreciated your visit,” Collins tells us back at the car. And so did we.
If you’re staying at Sarova Salt Lick or Taita Hills game lodges or even another lodge in the Tsavo West area, do try to visit Msorongo or another village. Your lodge will charge you a small fee for the tour that covers the cost of your vehicle and lodge guide/driver.
Donations and gifts
You’re not expected to make donations, but if you do it’s appreciated. What might be a small amount of money for us, can pay for a roof or buy a cow and make an extraordinary difference to these people’s lives. If you don’t feel comfortable giving money, take some school materials: exercise books, pens and reading books for all ages are greatly appreciated. Money, however, will go toward planned building projects, such as toilets and a nursery. The village elder ensures there are checks and balances and funds and donations are fairly distributed to benefit the whole community.