unchanging existence. Then some of them went to former Yugoslavia,
and found wealth - and savagery - beyond their wildest dreams
IT'S SATURDAY morning in Bara-goi, 400 miles north of Nairobi on the El Barta plains, as good a day as any for a Samburu warrior to come to town. And come they do, in large numbers, decked out in their finery of beads, feathers and ivory earplugs, trekking 10, 20, even 30 miles from their mud and dung huts across the pale grasslands to lean casually on their spears and watch the world go by from the colonial-style verandas that front the shops.
It may look like a timeless ritual, but this tiny town deep in the Rift Valley has changed in the past year, its sleepy frontier face revamped by commerce. Once, the main street made its way straight on to the police post and the District Officer's compound. Now, it turns into a dirt road lined with one-storey cinder-block buildings and other evidence of a construction boom: shops, hotels that serve potato stew and slabs of roasted goat meat, malodging dosshouses where it costs pounds 1 to spend the night on a rickety wooden bed, and bars - like the Bosnia Wine and Spirits, where Rosemary Benzina, a fat, jovial woman in a flimsy white dress, is slapping beer, vodka and Coca-Cola on to the counter for her regulars.
It's the bar's name, executed with a steady hand on the fresh paint of its exterior, that explains the surge in Baragoi's economy; that and the fact that the strip is known locally as Yugoslavia Street. Benzina's boss, like the owners of almost all the other new businesses in town, is a veteran of the conflict in the former Yugo-slavia and, like his colleagues, he's done well out of the war.
Like other Third World countries, Kenya has found hiring out its army to the UN a useful way of getting foreign exchange. For contributing a battalion for peacekeeping activities in a war zone, the government receives some pounds 1.2m per month (roughly pounds 1,400 per man). Kenyan military and police have served as UN observers in Cambodia, Nam-ibia, Liberia and the Western Sahara. But nowhere has the Kenyan army been more active than in Croatia and Bosnia, where its first 900-man battalion was despatched in May 1992. Its task, and that of its two successors, was to patrol for a year the southern end of the ceasefire line that provided a cordon sanitaire around Krajina, the self-proclaimed Serbian republic in eastern Croatia which has since been dissolved.
News of these missions prompted a rush among Samburu men to enlist in the army, a move encouraged by its then chief of staff, Major-General Lekerde Lenges. A Samburu himself, born in a mud hut not far from Baragoi, he knew that the Samburu are natural warriors, hardened by life in a harsh, elemental word. Most adult Samburu males have killed a lion, elephant or buffalo with a spear, and the political world they inhabit is menacing too: recently, they and the Home Guard civil militia have had to defend their homesteads against Somali, Pokot and Turkana armed bandits. Neighbouring civil wars - Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi - have flooded the region with cheap assault weapons. As in the former Yugoslavia, everyone knows someone who has been killed.
Even more importantly, opportunities to earn money are hard to come by. Essentially cattle-herders, most Samburu live on the margins of the cash economy, surviving on just a few hundred pounds a year. A private in the Kenyan army does little better: about pounds 55 a month. But a private in the Kenya army chosen to act as a buffer between the warring Croats and Serbs could find himself earning around pounds 800 a month. No wonder such postings were seen by the Sam-buru as tantamount to winning the National Lottery.
DAVID LOLPIRDAI is a case in point. A UN veteran in his early twenties, he has never been to school, does not speak English and was just another warrior on the poverty line before joining up. Today, in the sleepy hamlet of Lesirikan, which is a four-hour walk from Baragoi, he is "a big man", a member of the new entrepreneurial class, a man who owns real estate.
In fact, his is one of nearly 20 buildings that have sprung up along Les-irikan's very own Yugoslavia Street, thus more than doubling the size of the town. He has invested his UN earnings in a small shop with four back rooms which he will let as accommodation. Like the other merchants of Yugoslavia Street, he will be catering for a semi-nomadic population with modest purchasing power; his goods will include sandals made from car tyres and individually wrapped aspirins. Next door to his emporium is the one-room Bosnia Hotel, where the transient clientele can while away the morning over a cup of tea and a sugarless mandazi doughnut; like many of the spin-offs of Kenya's UN gold rush, it has a tin roof and a cement floor and is painted in bright Legoland colours.
Lolpirdai's photos tell one side of his Yugoslavian experiences. There he is in military uniform, smiling with his fresh-faced buddies. And here's a shot of his suitcase, propped up on a chair with its lid open; inside, stacks of dollar bills are carefully laid out on top of his clothes like a bank robber's haul. As to how he earned his pot of gold, he is matter of fact. He had, for instance, learnt how to use a parachute (he calls it pamvuli, the Swahili word for umbrella). The course, as he tells it, consisted of jumping from a tower on to the ground and then being taken up in a plane and pushed out. "We went up so high you couldn't even see the plane from the ground," he remembers. "I was a little frightened the first time. It was OK after that."
Not entirely OK, though. When talking about the Serbs and the Croats, he is vehement. Although the ferocity of the fighting they witnessed left the Samburu unfazed, the atrocities they saw shocked them deeply. "They are not soldiers like we are," says Lolpirdai. "They slaughter wom-en and children like dogs. Real soldiers only fight men."
For his friend Gabriel Lekimain, the experience drastically rearranged his previously unblemished regard for Europeans. "I went into a house where they had shot the woman while she was cooking. She was lying on the floor, and her baby was sticking out of a pot on the stove. They had thrown it into the boiling water; its head had burst open. When you see children die like that, you want to cry. You're not afraid of dying yourself after that. You just know that you have to stop it happening again."
Lekimain was so traumatised by what he saw that he left the army on his return to Kenya. He has slipped easily into the leisurely pace of Sam- buru life, and much of his time is spent courting a young girl on whom he has lavished beaded necklaces. He is wearing his red shuka (sarong) with casual grace, but on his wrist there is a US Army watch, with SDM sub-machine-gun bullets sewn on to its leather strap.
ON THE vast plains of El Barta, in settlements such as Lesirikan and Baragoi, Samburu, life goes on, only partly transformed by the warriors' Balkan adventures. A few hours after our meeting, Lolpirdai attends the circumcision ceremony of two boys in their early teens. Both are clad in black and both are extraordinarily beautiful; there is a delicate vulnerability to their faces that is almost feminine. Beyond the boma (homestead), the plain is a moving kaleidoscope of red and white figures and brown and black cattle as the warriors drive the herds home for the ceremony. Bellows of protest rise above the sweeping horns and swirling dust.
The boys' elder brothers, Ltun-kayun Ledudej and John Lempesi, watch as the animals file past. Both bear the scars of conflict. Ledudej's are physical, wounds from a lion that left him with such bad septicaemia that he spent three months in hospital recovering. When the lion pinned him to the ground, he severed its jugular vein with his sword. Lem-pesi's are mental, the result of what he saw in the former Yugoslavia. He remembers his time with the UN on the Bosnia-Croatia border as one of lunatic brutality mingled with cam-araderie. Sometimes he would share his food (meat and yoghurt, a diet very similar to the one he enjoyed at home) with Serb fighters and talk through the night with them as they drank enormous quantities of vodka and wine which he, as a teetotaller, refused. The next day, the same Serbs would threaten to kill him. "They'd come running up to me and stick the barrel of their gun up against my neck. We were there to stop the fighting, not to kill people, so I'd say, 'Go on, shoot me.' Then I'd take the gun out of their hands."
Some of the Kenyan troops were delegated to guard pockets of elderly Croats from the Serbs who surrounded their villages. The Croats became so devoted to their guardians that they even learnt a smattering of Swahili. None the less, the Croatian government this year demanded the withdrawal of all African soldiers, saying that it would be preferable to have European peacekeepers. The UN complied with its wishes and dismissed the Kenyan battalion in May.
The circumcision ceremony has started, and Lolpirdai wanders over to photograph a group of warriors with his Instamatic. I look at his US Army watch and his "No Fly Zone, Bosnia-Hercegovina" T-shirt and sense the undertow of change. A savage conflict in a remote part of Europe has brought the Samburu to the brink of the modern world. Their tight-knit society of animals and grass, ritual and survival, will never be quite the same again. !Reuse content