At first I wondered what the sound was. It was faint but somehow familiar. I walked outside the cottage by the river and listened harder. And then I realised that it was Maasai women, many of them, voices raised in song. Hearing Maasai singing was not unusual for us, given our neighbours across the river often enjoyed traditional evening celebrations, but something was different today. For a start I could only hear women, and it was in the middle of the day. And it was moving, heading downstream, like the slow trickle of water left in the river.
Curious, I persuaded the children into shoes and hats, and we headed off in pursuit of the sound.
A few minutes later, as we rounded a bend in the river, we saw them. Probably over sixty Maasai women, dressed as usual in their traditional brightly coloured wraps and beads, singing as they stood by the water’s edge. The sun’s direct heat was intense and they had beads of sweat framing their faces. As we approached, I saw most of our camp staff, all men, watching. Nixon came over to explain. The rains had failed, and people were desperate. The women of Shompole had decided that it was time to take matters into their own hands, and this was part of a traditional ceremony for praying for rain. This was one of many groups of women to be singing today and for days to come, across the landscape, and their journeys’ were taking them from the river to the swamp, to the open plains and back.
The women saw us and beckoned us over. Slightly overwhelmed by the greetings of so many people at once, the children and I were adorned with beads and asked to join in with the singing, of course accompanied by the traditional dance moves. This was cause for much merriment as the women watched me try, and fail, to replicate their shoulder and head gyrations. As ever, I was struck by the ease at which our friends and neighbours were able to laugh, even during the hardest of times.
After a brief pause to cool themselves off in the shallow water, the women headed out, through the trees, to the plains. As they walked and sang, one elderly woman sprayed milk from a gourd on the ground as if as an offering to the parched soil and to the listening ears of Ngai. We watched as they headed off, hopeful of the change they were going to bring to their people.
Throughout the rest of the day we heard the sounds of singing ebb and flow as they passed by the camp. I could not help feeling a sense of being transported back in time, to when I believe that more societies had faith that collective action could indeed have an impact on their situation, and to when traditional mechanisms were still relied upon to make a change. To my children, who know that I check the weather forecast on my laptop, I hoped that somehow this was a lesson in the power and value of both traditional mechanisms and modern science in guiding our lives.
Did the rain come you may want to know? Yes it did. In the days that followed, there were scattered showers around the ecosystem. The Maasai men at camp were sure the showers fell in accordance to where the women sang. However, as I write today, there has still not been enough rain, so I will continue to check the forecast, and the women will continue to sing.
Samantha du Toit (Russell) is a wildlife conservationist and works for SORALO in the Olkirimatian-Shompole ecosystem in Kenya’s southern part of the Great Rift Valley. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.