The creator of this piece was born and raised in Kenya. She has dedicated most of her life to studying and recording Samburu culture before it disappears. She is now in her 70s.
“I am white, and many Kenyans tell me I can never truly belong here. They don’t care how long I have lived here, or that I speak Kiswahili. According to them, I will never be a Kenyan.”
I was born here. My parents were penniless refugees from Eastern Europe. They went through hell to get here. Their journey took two years. I was born two months after their arrival in Kenya. Call it karma, or destiny, or fate … or whatever. I have nowhere else to go. So, yes, I am a Kenyan!
I am white, and have been told I can never truly belong. I often feel like a second-class citizen. I think quite a few of us feel that way. We belong, yet we are not really accepted. I don’t like that! But maybe I would rather be a second-class citizen here than first-class somewhere else, because I don’t belong anywhere else? I think this is the best I can do for myself. This is it. But, yes, I do feel second-class.
Our national flag is such a powerful symbol of our struggle for Independence. And Mount Kenya, so high and proud, and reaching up to the sky: another powerful symbol. Most importantly, I do feel black. Very specifically, I do feel Samburu. I am so tied to them. I know that’s tribal, and not national, but that’s how I feel. I am Samburu in my heart and soul. That is what makes me belong here.
My Body Map – Second Class
“I called my map “Second Class” and stamped those words officially right across my body. That title says it all.”
My body fell into a natural position diagonally across the canvas, and I always listen to my body. But when it came to painting everything, I found out I had made it very awkward for myself. Because I have a bad back, I had to lay the canvas across a table. I could never see the whole thing all at once, so I found myself going round it in circles, and sometimes writing upside down. In the end I decided it didn’t matter.
The first thing I painted was a circle around my neck. I realised I was painting a large flat necklace, rather like the beaded collars the Samburu girls wear. It may look Samburu, but to me it symbolises the 40 years I spend collecting beads and making jewellery. So that was the central character, if you like. That is what I felt born to do. Everything else came later. I’m a very well-rounded sort of person, with a lot of different experiences. I have tried to put them all on one canvas – something I have never done before. I enjoyed the process of doing all that.
My time line is mainly symbolic, beginning with my parents coming here as refugees in 1942. I looked up the relevant national flags, so I could put Poland and Romania in my story. They left Europe in 1939. By the time I had drawn in the two years it took them to get here, I realised I could see my body as the map of Africa, with them gradually getting nearer.
The next most important date is 1952, when my parents first took me to visit the Samburu. I fell in love immediately with that part of Kenya and with the people. They became my life’s work. It was like being guided, and I still go for it. In my map, I have put my Samburu name, Noongishu. It was given to me when I was officially adopted by a Samburu family in 1990.I also have another tribal name. I studied another pastoral tribe, called Borana, and they gave me the name Hadaweche. So you can begin to understand that I am a very complex person, with all sorts of weird experiences behind me.
The long wavy hair came from the fact that I have a very small head, and I have always wanted it to be bigger. Since my hair is untameable anyway, I just capitalised on that, and made it bigger with paint.
I studied Samburu star lore in depth, and stars became very important to me. That’s why I painted in the constellation of Orion. The Samburu see it as God’s family in the sky. Whenever a Samburu marries, the constellation must be replicated on earth by human counterparts. Those stars form the bridal procession.
I had a hiatus in my life when I married an American and moved to New York. I hated the experience, divorced and came back to Kenya in 1981. Those dates are upside down. Maybe psychologically they are meant to be?
The most important date in my timeline in terms of career came in 2000. I was invited to lecture on the Samburu at the Royal Geographical Society Headquarters in London. There were 700 people in the audience, and I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (F.R.G.S.) in recognition of my work. That is my only academic qualification and validation of everything I have worked for with no reward at all.
At the bottom of my map, I wrote AHITI (Animal Health & Industry Training Institute), which my father founded in 1965. That was my father’s main contribution to Kenya. It became a negative influence for me when I recently attended what was supposed to be the 50th Anniversary, and found that the Principal had changed the facts and that my father was not even mentioned. I felt – once again – a second class citizen.
In my map are two arrows pointing north. These are my safaris. I’m always going northwards. I feel at home there.
In 2015, I visited Maralal for the umpteenth time, looking for a project to support. Samburu culture is dying, and having recorded it for posterity, I realise that their future can only come through education. I found a high school to support. They need books, water, electricity, a laboratory … everything! The school represents my aspiration for Kenya’s future.
I should try to explain the coloured stripes I painted across my body. I think they mean I’m schizophrenic? Well, as a second-class citizen, I probably am!