Driving the Samburu Bride
By Diane C. Perlov
Reviewed by H Patricia Hynes / Original to ScheerPost
Diane Perlov’s memoir of the two years she lived among semi-nomadic people in northern Kenya as a doctoral student in anthropology is singularly engaging for a host of reasons. For one, it has compelling freshness of detail, story, humor, observation, image and sentiment as if she had just returned from her rural fieldwork. She, in fact, conducted her research there forty years ago, in 1981-1982. To my surprised admiration, she had Kenyan associates from her field study read her
manuscript for accuracy – how often do anthropologists afford that respect? For another, she is a skillful storyteller, inherited from her mother “who never lived a day she could not improve upon” with story and anecdote, and a loving Russian grandmother (the Countess) who read Tarot cards and “told spooky stories of Baba Yaga.”
Perlov chose to focus her doctoral research on livestock marketing issues and the integration of traditional and commercial markets. She selected the semi-nomadic, cattle raising Samburu people in Kenya, nearby the district capital town Maralal. This frontier town was growing and held more economic potential. More importantly, everything needed for cash-based trade was developing: a daily marketplace in town to buy and sell cattle, improved transportation infrastructure for cattle transport, and growing demand for beef in the emerging urban centers.
The Samburu did sell cattle intermittently at market; but given their rural, communal culture and traditions, cattle were more often of greater and lasting value in their nonmonetary economy as gifts and loans; for breeding, trading, and rituals; and for sustenance and inheritance rights. “What use is money?” one elder asked rhetorically. “Money runs through the fingers like sand. My cattle serve me throughout their lives, and when they die, I can eat them.” The market economy in rural northern Kenya being underdeveloped in the early 1980s, theirs was a sound economic decision; and as the market inevitably develops, “the Samburu will inevitably also engage with it,” she notes.
“This is the book my mother always wanted me to write,” she exclaims, in concluding her Preface, its “outcome…far more than academic.” Agreed: the generous, warm, and quick-witted vignettes of daily life living among the Samburu are far more extant in Driving the Samburu Bride than her compressed academic findings. Her Land Rover staked her out as chauffeur to market and hospitals and as rescuer from wild animals. She shared meals, songs, and stories, and served both as an informal resident health consultant with her community and guest lecturer in the local elementary school.
There were many lessons the confident neophyte field anthropologist learned “through trial and error and a few blunders until I finally just got lucky.” A seminal lesson, finding a local assistant or two or three (in her case) would be vital for language and access to the community for interviews: “THEY NEVER TAUGHT US THAT IN SCHOOL,” she bursts onto the page. (Why ever not, I wondered. Isn’t it a fundamental of social intelligence in doing anthropology fieldwork?)
After a month completing the census and conducting interviews with local Samburu, her first assistant Joseph handed her a three-page love letter: she had to lie herself out of the dilemma saying she had a husband in Nairobi. Losing “diligent” Joseph immediately to the Kenyan Air Force, she promoted “overly confident and charming” John to top assistant, only to find that “behind my back, he was extorting money from the households we were interviewing.” John lost face in the community and was “run out of town.”
Her third assistant, Symon, an adult education teacher, was a gift from his father Lentoijoni, because, as Symon told her, “He feels sorry for you.” Here Perlov seizes the moment to digress about this prominent male in Samburu culture and community: Lentoijoni was “in the firestick elder subage grade…a social stratum of middle-aged men who are political and ritual leaders of the community. In addition to “advising government bureaucrats and school officials,” they influenced
community opinion. The successful owner of hundreds of cattle, Lentoijoni was also a prophet. Prophets in this culture have many varying and distinct gifts of prediction, among them the weather by reading the stars, the fate of animals by their sounds and calls, and future illness in humans by their present state. Lentoijoni’s gift was predicting the future of a person by reading the color of their face. Though Perlov never witnessed any convincing evidence of his powers, “he accurately predicted I needed Symon’s help with my research,” though “it hardly took the gift of prophecy to interpret my woebegone face and high turnover of assistants.”
Around this same time, she inadvertently learned from personal experience the Samburu cultural tradition of punishment for theft. When three boys broke into her room to take some pencils, Lentoijoni placed a curse on them that was only to be lifted when they returned the stolen goods. Her observation: “While you may be justified in beating someone who wronged you, there was no justification for stealing from your neighbors.” Pencils returned, the boys were beaten by their fathers, and from then on, Perlov never had to lock her door again.
In the early 1980s the Samburu were ambivalent about primary education of children. School took children away from herding and other family duties: It was best for “dull boys” and “girls who had poor marriage prospects.” Educating a daughter, in particular, was a complex decision for her father: she might bring in a higher bride price; however she might also ”get their own ideas about things, become headstrong, and difficult to control…a mixed blessing for the family patriarch.” As for herself, Perlov learned that the Samburu supported her education and willingly answered her survey questions out of sympathy: “I think they saw education as my only path to success, since I was clearly useless for the herding life.”
Perlov balances perfectly the seeming Samburu illogic to her at times with hers to them: “I don’t understand anything you white people do,” Symon, matter of factly, said at one point. The song she tried to teach them, “The Farmer and the Cowman,” from the musical Oklahoma made no sense to them. After all, farmers encroach on the open range of cowboys; why would they be friends and why would cowboys dance with farmers’ daughters? “No, no, no! We would not do that!”
Though not part of her formal research, we learn in detail the tradition of what Perlov calls “female circumcision” in the Samburu culture, about which little had been written at that point. She witnessed the 30-second operation by designated women of cutting off a non-sedated teenage
girl’s clitoris, just prior to her being married to a man older than her by decades, and the subsequent traditional tea celebration among the women. As the husband-to-be and his best man, followed by the suffering, downcast child bride-to-be, proceeded slowly in the ritual walk from the girl’s father’s household to the new groom’s household, Perlov offered them a ride in her Land Rover, which they eagerly accepted, with no compunction about breaking a traditional marriage ritual. Perlov observed “three circumcisions during my fieldwork, but this was the only time it went off without any complications. The girls accepted the highly ritualized event, as did all the girls I talked with.”
While some girls expressed apprehension, none could refuse: “It was the only avenue open to them within the culture for their social maturation from girlhood to adult women and wife.” Assuming this was a representative finding from her interviews, it lacks a context of insight and ethical evaluation, as she stays safely culturally neutral.
Over time, the community’s warmth and her resilience fed each other and humanized what might have been, but decidedly is not, a detached, dry anthropological participant observer treatise. Driving the Samburu Bride is engaging and humanistic with one exception – Perlov’s neutral rendition of the violence of cutting and removing a teenage girl’s clitoris to prepare her for her husband-to-be. Many academic endorsers recommend her book for students in undergraduate anthropology courses. I strongly recommend that class discussion also include past and current African and Middle East feminists’ position on female genital mutilation (FGM) as an ongoing patriarchal, dangerous, and inhumane practice.
Perlov does provide us with a brief, compassionate summary of Samburu women’s second sex status in Samburu culture of the early 1980s: “very little authoritative power,” and “regarded as children who must submit to their father’s or husband’s wishes.” Women were overburdened with heavy physical work, more so than men, including building their own homes from sticks, mud, cow dung, and water. Having little access to money, not speaking in front of men, and being served the worst parts of the animal eaten at meals—she notes empathetically of women in Samburu society, “even God didn’t seem to on their side.”
Driving the Samburu Bride finishes with the story of an unforeseen surprise for Perlov. When she returns to visit the Samburu many years after her field work there, she learns the lasting impact she had on girls and women who watched this independent, educated woman driving a Land Rover and handling herself as a peer with men. One young woman was receiving her college degree, and many girls were in school.
Kenya had changed country-wide for women in the decades since she left. Perlov writes, “Female circumcision [sic] has been outlawed and attitudes are changing to help enforce it. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution requires more rural development and female representation. Women have significantly greater access to education, participation in government, and more independence in business. Electricity, cell phones, banking, and paved roads have contributed to opening the wider world for them.”