The Astromancer

Did Ledumen, the celebrated Samburu prophet, know I was coming to visit him three months before I decided to do so?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian June 18th 1994

I had heard of Ol Doinyo Nyiro, the holy mountain, long before I travelled to Samburu district. It was here, in the midst of the arid lands of northern Kenya, that God was said to live. But it was only when I reached the little town of Baragoi that I heard of the mountain’s other famous inhabitant, a man said to be the greatest prophet the district had ever known. Intrigued, I decided, on the spur of the moment, to visit him. With a Samburu friend called Peter I set off across the shrivelled lands of some of the last true nomads in Africa.

The savannahs were as dry and creased as a paper bag. In places they looked pink, as all that covered the ginger soil was a furze of knee-high bush, bleached as grey as driftwood. There had been no rain in this region for four years. We climbed into the mountains, the heat-shattered rock scraping the underside of the Land Rover. Baboons loitered beside the road, listless as youths in a derelict estate.

The lands we passed through are among the most changeable on earth. Places that, at the height of a drought, may be little more than desert can be waist-high in grass a fortnight after the rains fall. A few weeks later they may have reverted to desert. The only sure means of survival here is the strategy pursued by the ancient Israelites: driving herds of animals across the savannahs, following the rain. This nomadism demands extraordinary skills: the Samburu can run a herd of cows two hundred miles across the desert in three days, they possess a minute understanding of biology and meteorology, can count a herd of stock at a glance and run down lions and despatch them with spears.

But of all the skills these people cultivate, none is more valued than prophecy. Growth and desiccation in the savannahs are so rapid that the herders must start moving before the rain falls. While all the elders can read the clouds or smell the moisture in the wind, the Samburu say that only Ledumen can truly divine the intentions of God.

As we passed the mission settlement of South Horr and climbed towards Ol Doinyo Nyiro, the land turned lichen green. I looked up and saw the holy mountain, capped with a bluff of orange rock in the shape of a recumbent lion. A track led up the slope to the four or five huts where Ledumen and his family lived.

I was surprised to find a crowd of twenty or thirty men standing among the houses, staring hard at us as we came into view. They half-raised their hands as we approached, but no one came forward to greet us. The elders among them watched us with quick red eyes, chewing the dregs of their tobacco. I looked around the ring and asked if Ledumen were there. No one replied. I asked Peter what all these people were doing. He addressed them, but the men just shuffled their feet and looked around. I began to feel uncomfortable.

The elders were a ragged bunch of men in dirty jackets and broken hats; but the warriors who flanked them were more splendid even than those of the Maasai. They wore triangular headscarves, chokers and necklaces, cuffs of beads around the stretched lobes of their ears, rings and bracelets. On their eyelids and high on their cheeks delicate patterns of red ochre had been painted in filigree. They carried maces with metal heads and long leaf-bladed javelins.

An old woman, tall and shaven-headed, crawled out of one of the huts and straightened up in front of us. A blue cloak covered one shoulder and one breast. She did not seem remotely surprised to see us. I asked her if she knew where Ledumen was. She tilted her head towards the valley. Then she stepped into the goat corral, lifted her skirts and, behind the fence, still standing, still watching us, urinated. In Samburu district it is the men who squat.

We sat in the middle of the village and waited. The men spoke, if at all, in whispers, scratched the ground with their sticks, and seldom took their eyes off me. After half an hour there was a sudden stir among them, and several of the warriors got to their feet.

“The prophet is coming,” said Peter.

I saw two elders striding up the hill towards us. The man on the left was small and grey, but the man on the right was tall, sharp-faced, with penetrating eyes. He glared at me, as dignified as a hawk. Behind them came an unadorned young man in a red cloak and a digital watch, whom I took to be the prophet’s disciple. I stared as the tall elder strode into the centre of the village, raised his hand with stately gravity and disappeared into one of the huts. Peter tapped me on the arm.

“This is Ledumen.”

I turned round. Standing beside me was the young man with the digital watch. He had a smooth face and a soft moustache. He smiled, shook my hand, said “Yes,” when I introduced myself and followed the elder into the hut.

After a few minutes he came out again, smiled his brief, businesslike smile and asked if I had brought any gifts for the crowd of men. Perplexed, I told him I had not: I had had no idea that so many people would be there. Ledumen turned to the crowd and passed on what I had said. Grumbling, they walked off down the hill. I turned back to Ledumen, but he had disappeared into one of the huts. A glance at Peter showed that he was as confounded as I.

The prophet kept to his hut until evening. When he emerged I stood up to speak to him, but he turned away from me. He climbed onto a rock and sat watching the sky above the mountain. As night fell the wind quickened, and the fires inside the flimsy huts roared and sputtered. The prophet did not move for two hours. A large white planet teetered on the rim of the mountain then slipped away, and Ledumen jumped down from the rock and wandered over to where I sat. He apologised for not having greeted me before.

I asked him what he had been looking for in the sky. Until the children of the village were asleep, he said, he could not tell me much: people who heard his predictions before they were prepared could suffer misfortune. But all his attention had been focused on Venus: he watched it every night, then woke early to see it emerging from the eastern horizon. His prophesies were based, he told me, on the colour of the planet and the length and direction of its rays. I protested that Venus was white and rayless. He agreed that it was. His gift was to see what other men could not.

Ledumen looked around. The children in the huts had fallen silent. He leant forwards and spoke in a whisper. All he could predict, he told me, was rainfall, the movements of people and certain national events, like the outcome of the forthcoming elections. Yesterday, he confided, he had seen that there would be a migration of people from the eastern plains to the slopes of this mountain; today he had seen that rain would fall on the southern lowlands in a few days’ time.

No one had taught him these skills. His second sight, he told me, was the gift of God, inherited from his father and grandfather. Only through solitude and contemplation could he see what he needed to: he kept to himself as much as he could.

He fell silent. I could hear the fires roaring inside the huts, the old woman shifting, hawking and spitting. What, I asked him, were all those people doing when we arrived? He smiled.

“They were waiting for you,” he said. “I told them you were coming three months ago.”

I felt a prickle of alarm run up my spine and through the hair on the back of my neck. I shook my head. I told him I had decided to come only yesterday. I had told no one but Peter, and he had never left my side. No one else knew. Ledumen simply nodded.

On the following day I found some of the men who had been waiting in the village. It was true, they said, that Ledumen had told them of my visit three months ago, and they had eagerly looked forward to it, in the hope that I might bring them some presents. Ledumen had spent the morning of the previous day, before I had even heard of him, trying to find a goat to slaughter for my arrival; but no one had one to spare. Perhaps, I asked them, foreigners came here all the time? They insisted that I was the first European to visit Ledumen for nearly a year.

I sat on the mountainside with my head in my hands. Was this some elaborate trick? Was there any way that the news of my intentions could have reached them before I did? But no rational explanation made any sense. I did not want to believe it, but I could draw no conclusion other than that Ledumen, without ever having met me, had predicted my movements.

I might have been one of the last outsiders to be brought up against the imponderable in this way. The Samburu are in serious trouble. Most of the livestock that survived the long drought have been stolen by bandits armed and organized by corrupt ministers in the Kenyan government. Rich local officials, game parks and army training grounds have annexed the Samburu’s best lands. Most pertinently, an enormous hotel is now being built on the slopes of the holy mountain. Skills as subtle as Ledumen’s cannot survive the coarse intrusion of mass tourism. It will, as ever, destroy that which it loves: the fearsome fascination of the unknown.