The Singing Wells of Lebihia

September 18th, 2012

Every time I visit northern Kenya I learn a thing or two. Sometimes the learning is overwhelming. Most times I marvel at how rich their resilient lifestyle and culture is. I have learnt from the paradox of the complex lifestyle clothed in simplicity. Increasingly, I have developed a passion for observing nomadic pastoralists and their way of life. I am sure pastoralist way of life is full of new learning for everyone.

From the scenic environments, the rich fauna and flora, to the rich culture and the people, the images are hard to forget. The beauty of the locals cannot be overemphasised. The hospitable, usually happy people, are hard to part with. Despite the unforgiving environmental harshness, you always want to stay longer.

I was in Mandera in early this month. Exactly a year since I last visited the area. Unlike in my last trip to the vast region when the area was strewn with carcasses of domestic animals due to the now cyclical and prolonged droughts, the weather was friendly. It was cold, very cold as per the locals’ definitions of cold. It was their ‘winter season’ as one Alikhery Mohammed put it. I put winter in inverted commas since the temperatures were about 20-24 degrees Celsius.

The last time I was in Mandera, I was leading a team of 10 international journalists covering the devastating drought. The visit was sponsored by The Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA). We not only gave prominence to aspects that were not being highlighted by other agencies (the plight of animals and the need to secure a nucleus herd for each household in order to recoup after the drought) and media houses but also officially launched an emergency program that aimed at ensuring the locals retain a nucleus herd. As with last year the team visited Borehole 11 village in Elwak and selected sites around Mandera County. But this time, I was leading a team of consultants to film, produce and package short films on our projects in the area. The details of our mission are a subject of discussion for another time.

One specific feature caught my attention this time. The singing wells of Lebihia village, Mandera County. It started with the organisation by the herders, their animals’ urge to quench their thirst and the musical approach the locals fulfilled their animals’ needs. From the vast fields, the animals run to the wells from all directions. In response to their shepherds’ commands, they cheer each other as they run towards the water troughs by the rehabilitated shallow wells.

They (animals) converse in low tones as they approach the watering troughs. And with little commotion, they line up and take their positions on both sides of the troughs. Their conversations decrease as they settle to drink their fill. Others wait for their turn to drink too. All the while, the livestock owners and handlers are busy fetching clean water for their animals.

They sing melodious songs (in local dialects) as they pick; roll-down the ropes and bucket to the shallow wells and as they pull the bucketful of water and pour onto the ever decreasing volume of water in the troughs. The rope and bucket technology is one of the appropriate technologies Practical Action has supported in the area. It is affordable and easy to maintain.

The unified voices of the singers are inviting. And as if in agreement, the animals have learnt to – in turns – appreciate the euphonious melodies from their owners and handlers by sprinkling a few millilitres of their share of water and by twisting their tails and raising their heads in an orchestrated manner.

Some spillage is reserved for their herders/handlers who oversee them as they drink from the troughs. Am sure some of the older animals spill some water from their mouths as a sign of their gratitude to their ancestors. The Moooo, Meeeee and HeeeeHoooo sounds surrounding the troughs is enough proof that the animals being watered are not new to the lyrics of the songs. They have learnt to honourably acknowledge the heaps of praise from their owners as they quench their thirst.

“The songs we sing serve two main purposes. We sing to praise our animals: for their beauty, their ability to reproduce regularly and to commend them for their obedience. Additionally we sing to encourage ourselves as we fetch water for our animals,” explained Abdi Hassan, a herder.

And when all the animals have had their share, the herders take turns to cool their systems with the remaining waters in the troughs. It was interesting to witness other owners and herders pour numerous buckets of water on the soloist as he comfortably squatted on one of the troughs as he led the rest on with the song’s lyrics to the climax. ‘It must be a very fulfilling practice,’ I thought. So, where did they learn this, I asked?

“This aspect of our lives is historical. It’s been practised for many years. It is handed over to the next generation with each generational change,” explained Ali Noor, a local.

And when I asked about the future of this unique practice, Noor was quick to say, ‘this is something that is at the core of our lifestyle. It will not die.’

As I put myself to rest that night, I could vividly remember the images at the wells. I tried to find an equivalent in my culture in vain. I scribbled it on my note book and promised myself to ask my kinsmen when I go back home.

6 responses to “The Singing Wells of Lebihia”

  1. Ella Jolly Says:

    Hi George,
    The singing wells sound amazing! It’s wonderful to read positive stories from Mandera, especially after the drought hit the communities so badly last year.
    Hope you are well.

  2. George Kamau Says:

    Hi Ella.
    I am well thanks.
    Mandera is relatively better than it was last year. Hope the area receives the short rains.

  3. Ella Jolly Says:

    Yes I am also hoping that the rains come!

  4. Josephine Says:

    The people of the north may face many adversities but one thing stands out, their culture is beautiful and intact. No adversity can take it away.

  5. Greg Malek Says:

    Are you the George Kamau who at one time lived in Phoenix, went to Thunderbird and Grand Canyon College? If so, please respond to my email address.

  6. chris momanyi Says:

    Hi George?
    Hallow gearge, hope the way you have quotated in the above massage we its so dad that God willing things will change once it rains.
    Otherwise the other areas are privilleged by reciving rain and ready to cultivate to plant crops.
    Life in this area its difficult but wamesoa.


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