Francis is a dear friend. I met him four years ago at Eldoret, a city eight hours away on the road that runs from Nairobi to Uganda. In this city, there is a small community of university students of CL who I visited various times during the year. He was one of these students and slowly he began to stand out in the group for his seriousness, so much so that he became a point of reference. We spoke often on the phone; on multiple occasions, he was a guest in our house of priests. From the very first moments of our friendship, I have been fascinated by the faith and profundity of this kid, born and raised in villages of the Samburu territory. Like many other tribes in Kenya, the Samburu are pastors; they live in dry lands that are impossible to cultivate and they maintain their ancestral traditions. Each village is surrounded by endless flatlands, which can be as large as Milan. Even though the whole territory is owned by the village, only a small part of it is actually used for living. The centers that are used for living, called Manyatta, are made of a few miserable tents where the head of the family and his two, three, or four wives live (each in their own personal tent) with their children. There is no water or electricity; the bathroom is the savannah. As soon as the sons are twelve years old, they are moved away from the family to live in the savannah where they live in a primitive state, to use a euphemism, pastoring the herds of the family. When these boys grow up they will become Morans, the warriors of the village, indispensable for defending the herd and in the fight with other villages and tribes. They always move about armed with daggers and spears and their greatest honor consists in the killing of a lion using these insignificant arms. Clearly, only a significant number of them go to school (the education enrollment arrives to 12%, when things go well). The majority of the women live in the villages and do not receive any education, a sign of the very low consideration the Samburu mentality reserves for them.
My friend Francis lived in the tents until he was 16 years old, and his face displays tribal signs: two teeth in the back of the lower jaw are broken, the sign of reaching maturity; his ears are cut, similar to what is done with some animals; various traces of scars on his face, the sign of his belonging to the Samburu. To allow him to study, his father had to argue with his own father (the grandfather of Francis) who wanted Francis to become a Moran. When he turned sixteen, he left the village going first to a boarding school and then to a university, where he met a totally new world: running water, light, school. His parents are Catholic (missionaries arrived there in the 60’s and were able to convert a minority of the population).
The friendship with him began slowly: we had the possibility of sharing many experiences and much time which allowed us to get to know each other. That being said, it is a miracle that two people coming from environments and cultures which are so different can become real friends. I believe that what made this friendship possible was Francis’s desire to live and share with me his Christian faith. After university, we lost contact. He had returned to Samburu Land, where he is an administrator of a village, a kind of representative of the government within the village, even if he now lives citadel. I found out that he had had a baby with his fiancé and that they live together.
Soon, we began to stay in touch again. I tried to convince him to consider the possibility of celebrating a religious marriage, and not only the traditional one, given that his fiancé is herself Catholic, educated in Catholic schools. Many months were necessary to put together all the cows the bride’s father had asked for the marriage. Finally, the date was fixed for the 16th of December. We prepared together and he asked me to celebrate their marriage in the Manyatta of his bride, a place which is found between Maralal and Wamba, about 400 Km from Nairobi: eight hours away, four hours on asphalt, four on dirt and desert. I invited other friends who knew Francis and we found a way to stay for three days in a village without water and electricity, with hygienic standards that were very different than those in Nairobi. We brought tents, sleeping bags, flashlights, portable water and what was necessary for the days of travel. Francis found us a guide, a friend of his who brought us to the village. It does not happen every often to spend a few days in the savannah, without any touristic structures at your disposition. The nature is truly impressive for its vastness, for the millions of colors and sounds. The night sky is literally covered with stars, without any empty spaces. They seem poised to overflow onto the earth, for how many there are. We met the head of Manyatta, the bride Monica’s father, and then the whole family. In the evening, under the light of the stars, there were the wonderful dances of the Morans (for this occasion there were others who had joined from other nearby villages, they challenged each other to see who could jump highest trying to get the girls attention), with lively rhythms.
I was only able to speak with the bride and groom from midnight until two in the morning, to prepare the Mass for the following day. In the end, we went to bed with empty stomachs, because the Samburu diet provides a cup of tea in the morning and in the evening, with a more substantial lunch. The morning of the following day, at six, there was the traditional marriage which consisted of the killing of a bull given by the family of the groom as a gift to the father of the bride. Only at noon, three hours later, we were able to have the religious marriage and baptize the daughter. Few people were present, because the Morans only go to wedding for the night dances during the day they sleep. After the Mass in Kiswahili, with the homily translated in Samburu by the local catechist, we had other dances with the newlyweds and their friends which were very beautiful, all of which finished with the cutting of the cake. After a sparse wedding lunch, we assisted other dances of the Morans. In the end, we started a fire in the middle of the tents and we talked with some young kids of Manyatta. We spoke about friendship, about politics, about polygamy and monogamy. Those of us from Nairobi insisted on the fact that monogamy is reasonable because each woman is unique in her value. They smiled and said that they could even agree, but that in the end it was something that the head of the village decided: if he says that they have to marry another woman, they cannot withdraw. The day after we celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving and then we left for Nairobi, happy to have been immersed in this world which is so far away from what we live.
We brought home with us (other than our hunger!) the faces and existential questions of many people, who certainly desire to know more about the meaning of their life.
Gabriele Foti has been a priest for ten years, he is in mission in Nairobi (Kenya) since 2010. He is assistant pastor of St. Joseph’s and a teacher in the St. Kizito school. In the photo, a moment in the wedding.