A Tale of Love, Bulls and Goats

A tribal wedding in Kenya shows that globalisation can be reconciled with the preservation of time-honoured ways of life

Africa Dispatches
Wedding belles: The bride and her maid-of-honour in Merille 

Kenya is back in fashion. Prince William and Kate Middleton may well do more for East African development than Bono. Their engagement in Kenya sends a clear message to millions of holidaymakers that this is a beautiful, peaceful and romantic country, well worth a visit.

Three years ago, post-electoral violence, in which more than 1,000 people were killed and many more were displaced, scared away tourists and investors alike. It left the country not only in shock but also in deep economic trouble. 

Now things are looking up. Since 2009, Kenya has had a new constitution, which most Kenyans agree has a chance to tackle countrywide corruption more effectively. Justice is slowly being restored as the “untouchable” perpetrators of the violence face Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. Some of the accused will soon be on trial in The Hague. 

However, as the violence showed, Kenya remains a country divided not by “ancient hatreds” and “tribal prejudice” but by the lack of uniformity in the pace of economic development. The south-west, where Kate, William and most tourists go and where Nairobi’s cosmopolitan aura reaches, is modernising fast. The east coast, with its Arabic influences and history of maritime trade, has always been unique and vibrant. But the north, nearer to the volatile borders with Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, is a different and in many ways a more fascinating story. Home to warriors, nomads and cattle-raiders, northern Kenya is only slowly entering the 21st century, and the confrontation of traditional and modern ways of life is captivating to observe. Apart from anthropologists, few Westerners penetrate these remote regions.

Merille, a village on the main road between Ethiopia and Nairobi, is the principal battlefield of this clash, struggle and eventual accommodation. Modernity gained a foothold here just over a year ago, when a Tarmac road was finally laid from Isiolo, shortening the 300-mile journey from Nairobi by five hours. Electricity, plumbing and mobile phone coverage, ubiquitous elsewhere, have yet to come to Merille. Water still needs to be fetched from bore-holes and there are frequent shortages. But at least the boreholes are now in the village itself and women no longer have to walk for miles every morning. Thanks to the new road, trade has picked up and cheap (mostly Chinese) wares abound: batteries, flip-flops, pots, radios, T-shirts and Bollywood DVDs. While many remain wary of China’s growing political and economic involvement in Africa, in the short run it has had a transforming effect on the quality of life of many of the continent’s poorest. 

As yet, however, modern gadgets have not uprooted the strong sense of tradition among Merille’s inhabitants. The north is home to a number of tribes — the Rendille, Samburu, Turkana, Burana and Gabra — who are proud, fierce and belligerent and do not take kindly to interference in their affairs. They are warriors and, like the Nuer of Sudan, will kill and die for their herds. But they are also welcoming and curious about those who come in peace. Richard Dowden, in his 2008 book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (Portobello, £5.29), wrote of the Somalis: “From grief to laughter, from love to hate, Somalis seem turbo-charged, hyper-driven with life force.” The same can be said of the closely-related Rendille, who share many customs and a similar language with the Somalis. Their ways parted early in medieval times when the Somalis adopted Islam. The Rendille are also monotheistic but they have remained faithful to their ancient God, Waakh. The Somalis, too, use the word “Waakh” to mean God, if they don’t use “Allah”. Out of 20,000 Rendille living in the area around the villages of Merille and Kor, only about 200 are Muslim and 30 Christian.

Rendille are also faithful to their traditions. These regulate their daily lives — dress code, architecture, family ties, division of labour — but are at their most prominent and spectacular during festivals and celebrations. Death has no ceremony among the Rendille: the dead are left for the hyenas in the bush and speaking of them is taboo. So celebrations of two important rites of passage, circumcision and marriage, are the occasions when Rendille culture can be observed at its best. I was fortunate to be allowed to witness a Rendille wedding, which is a joyful, colourful but also very complicated affair.

The wedding day starts at daybreak. The fleeting night is chased away by the shouts, shots and stick drumming of charging warriors who accompany the groom on his way to the bride’s home. 

The groom’s face is intricately painted with ochre — red is the favourite Rendille colour. Near the huts, the groom’s party meets his clan’s elders (mzee) who are leading a bull and a goat needed for the sacrifice. Nine bulls will have to be paid by one clan to the other as the price of the bride’s hand. Her brother is already seated outside the hut in which she had been locked. She will not come out until all the necessary rites have been completed and the brother decides to hand her over. Normally, this function would be performed by her father, but as he is dead, her brother takes his place after a ceremony that temporarily changes him into an elder. 

He has been given a cloak and a holy stick, without which no man is allowed to talk at the elders’ meetings in the holy circle, the naabo. Lion-skin strips have been tied around his knees, and around his stick is wrapped his sister’s maiden leather apron — signifying his maturity and her leaving maidenhood respectively. He is now ready to accept the sacrifice of the bull.

The mzee anoint the restless bull with fresh milk and the men hold the beast tight. The groom takes a knife and nicks the bull’s throat, and then another man finishes the gory act. The gushing blood is quickly collected by the men: it will be mixed with milk brought by women and served among the mzee as refreshment. Blood and milk once mixed cannot be separated. Neither can man and woman once they have been joined in marriage. Divorce is unheard of among the Rendille.

The dead bull is placed on green branches and the lengthy process of skinning and dividing the meat will take place under the careful supervision of the bride’s brother. Although he is the one accepting the offer, he will not benefit from it directly. The remaining cattle will be given to his clan members. The meat of the sacrificial bull will feed the wedding party, though the first-choice cuts will be presented to the women waiting in the bridal hut. No men are allowed there until they are ready to bring the meat. This will take time and the bride inside is hot and tired of waiting.

She looks lovely in her colourful attire but the ceremonial collar and the strings of beads on her head and shoulders are very heavy. Her neck is also itchy from the ochre and the fumes from the fires in the hut have given her a headache. She stayed up late the previous night to have her hands and feet decorated with phantasmagorical flowery henna patterns. This is not a Rendille tradition but a fashion fad adopted from their Somali cousins. The bride’s skin glistens but it is not possible to say if it’s from the heat or from the oil her maid of honour occasionally applies over the henna from a highly-decorated gourd flask. The young woman is supposed to spend the time listening to the advice of her aunts, but it is obvious she has other things on her mind. Inside the hut, time flows slowly.

Not so outside, where women from all around the area are gathering. They have brought the milk that will be mixed with blood and are presented with sugar and tea leaves in exchange. Outside the acacia thorn kraal (fence), old men are waiting for their share of the meat or tobacco which is also given out on such occasions. The bride’s clan has to be generous: the wedding will not be complete until the men chant a prayer and the women intone a blessing song. But this can be done only after the meat has been presented to the bride. Four hefty strips of the underbelly are ceremoniously borne into the hut by the groom and his best man. Once inside, they are received by the women and carefully placed under the roof between the supporting beams. The symbolism of this is unclear: possibly it is just the place where the meat is not going to get dirty. 

It is now time for prayers. The men kneel down and Arabic gum incense is lit. Their prayer is melodic and they rhythmically stand up and kneel again. Then the women gather around the hut entrance and intone a song that has been written specifically for the occasion. Only after she hears the song can the bride leave the house. There is no exchange of rings or affection between the bride and groom — it is only much later, when they are out of the public gaze, that he may embrace and kiss her. This will be done in the “white house”, a brand-new hut that will be built by women for the new couple. It will take 30 of them most of the day but it has to be finished there and then for the ceremony to be complete. It is now time to dance and feast. 

It is during the feast that the benefits of the new road can fully be appreciated. Crates of Coca-Cola and other drinks are brought in and placed on the desert dust — not in the sun, but under the canopies of snow-white marquees. The bride is finally seated in the cool shade, her beads and goatskins replaced by muslin and stilettos. The groom also no longer sports ochre face-paint but a top hat. The 400 guests are either seated in the shade too or dancing to the rhythms of Céline Dion and Michael Jackson. But for the 40° heat (and lack of rain), this could almost be an English wedding — although in England the dancing guests do not have to negotiate their way through goats and chickens, which are brought in as gifts. 

The way tradition and modernity meet and intertwine among the Rendille is refreshing. To see USAID food sacks lining the inside of traditionally built huts, or plastic syringes decorating warriors’ ears may bring a smile to visitors’ faces, but is also a sign of the adaptability and longevity of Rendille traditions. It brings hope to those who believe that globalisation can be reconciled with the preservation of time-honoured ways of life.