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“Seeing Is Different Than Being Told” (Or, Two Cows for Sister Katharine)

An African proverb says that “Seeing is different than being told”. Truer words have never been spoken, and I feel like, at this point in our story, no words I say would begin to do our experience justice, but I’ll try. We congregated back by the pool where Andrew had a surprise for us; Julia (his sister) had heard that it was a Market Day, and she was headed over there to introduce two new teachers to the Samburu culture (never fear: There will be more on Julia and her school in a later post). It wasn’t an experience that they normally offered, but did we want to go, too?
Um….are you KIDDING?!?! We loaded up in the Rover and headed out. The “20 minute drive” took about an hour, and we not only got to see a lot of wildlife on the way, but we also got to drive through the village of Kirimun, which was home to Hussein, our awesome Samburu guide. In fact, Hussein was about to open a shop there.Hussein's Shop, and he let us take a picture of it! Side note: Later, back at the lodge, I looked at my map of Kenya, and I could not believe that Kirimun was on there; when I say “village” picture a few buildings on either side of a wide dirt road. Again, seeing is different than being told.
Eventually, we began to see increased foot traffic on the side of the road, including lots of young boys herding their goats (Samburu boys start herding goats at the age of three, so some of these boys were quite young). Hussein told us that these people had just come from the market. Sure enough, just after we passed a van and crossed over a ridge, we arrived at the market. The road to the market
Andrew told us that we really shouldn’t take pictures, but (unbeknownst to us at the time) he hung back and snapped a few pictures with my camera. We set off with the ever-knowledgeable Hussein as our guide. We wandered past men selling goat hides and into the heart of the market itself. There were “booths” fashioned out of acacia branches, and people were selling just about everything you can imagine. The blacksmith had set up shop under a tree, and he showed off his wares while Hussein explained them to us. There were lots of different cowbells (and goatbells, for that matter), some spear heads, and more than a few bracelets (these had been fashioned from cooking pots, or jiko, that had been melted down). Each bell had its own unique sound, so that once they were tied to the goats, each boy could easily identify his own animals.
Hussein was eager to show us the most important part of the market, so we made our way over to the livestock pen. Since it was late in the afternoon, the only animal left was an ornery bull; all of the other goats and cattle had been sold or traded. By this time, we had attracted a rather large following; we had been told that this was the first time most of the people had ever seen a white person, let alone a group of them. The children were curious, and although they were a little bashful, we had a good time waving, smiling, and winking at them. The women were stunningly beautiful, and it was all I could do to mind my manners and not stare at them. A few people reached out to touch us, but most just watched us or followed our group. Hussein was doing his best to keep us on track, so even though we would rather have stood stock still and just taken in our surroundings for the next, oh, 5 hours or so, we sucked it up and followed him over to see the cobbler.

Every tire in Kenya is recycled. The rubber goes to the cobbler who fashions shoes known as “thousand milers” from the old tires and a few strategically placed nails. Every man we saw was wearing a pair of these, so the cobbler had a pretty decent business going on. Next to him we saw a few booths selling clothing, some selling toys, and, most entrepreneurial of all, a booth that specialized in charging cell phones. If you needed a charge, you could leave your phone with these gentleman, who would plug it into one of MANY power strips powered by small portable generators, and go about your business (maybe even visit the booth next door and get a haircut at the barber). Business was brisk at the charging station, to say the least.

We all had one deep desire, though, and that was to buy a kikoi. We had given Nic such a hard time about his choice of attire every evening, but secretly, we were all coveting his skirt-like wrap. The kikoi is best likened to a sarong, but it’s really so much more than that (in fact, Katharine can list well over 100 uses for a kikoi). We finally found what we so desperately had sought…..a whole booth dedicated just to kikoi! Andrew came through for us in a big way; he told us that we could all pick one out, his treat. We deliberated over color and pattern, and ultimately, each chose the best one: Katie and I got matching hot pink ones, Dana chose a muted green, Dad selected burgundy, and Hussein chose a bright green one for Kevin (which, by the way, he’s wearing as I type this).
At the market
Julia found us, and she introduced us to the two brand-new teachers who had come from New York to teach in her school (don’t worry; there will be a lot more about her school in a future post). One young boy pulled Julia aside and asked if she thought three cows was a fair offer….for Katharine’s hand in marriage. She told him that he’d have to ask Dad, but I think he was more than a little intimidated by the tall white bwana, so he just continued to follow us around. We made a few more stops, learning about “khat“, or, what the purveyor described as “american whiskey”. Khat is a plant that, when the leaves are chewed, has an effect similar to that of cocaine. Never fear; despite the salesman’s best efforts, we all politely declined. We walked past a few more booths where women sat beading (again, there will be a LOT more on the beading in a future post), and Hussein explained that some of the small buildings made of acacia branches were called “hotels”. There were not roofs or walls, just thorn branch huts that serve as a place for people to gather and have drinks and a visit. Finally, though, we made our way back to the Rover. It was 3:00 in the afternoon, and we were just beginning to realize that it had been quite a while since we’d eaten breakfast back in Buffalo Springs. After a brief mishap with Julia’s Rover, we were on the road back to Ol Malo.

At this point, I think it’s extremely important to say that the above description in NO WAY comes close to delivering the experience. There are not enough pretty words to describe how absolutely life-changing it was to visit that market, see the people, and learn first-hand about a culture that is so completely different and utterly fascinating. A simple narrative is not nearly enough to convey how profound it is to stand in the middle of a dusty market halfway around the world and feel so welcomed and warm in spite of so many differences. I will always wish that I had the ability to tell this story more eloquently, but I take some comfort in knowing that, even as I sat down to write this today, I still felt as overwhelmed at the memory as I did at the time of the experience, and I can honestly say that I have full understanding of that African proverb.

“Seeing is different than being told”. Indeed.

Kikoi as a blanket

One Response to ““Seeing Is Different Than Being Told” (Or, Two Cows for Sister Katharine)”

  1. Kevin Donahue Says:

    Very well said and very well told. I will never forget the market. I wish we could have taken more pictures because it was an amazing experience.

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