Ewaso Village: Author Chip Duncan explores the Maasai people of East Africa in a book of intimate stories

Kenichi Sugihara: Your work as a writer and filmmaker emphasizes people and place. Why did you choose to take readers to this extraordinary landscape of a relatively unknown part of the world?

Duncan Chip: I’m especially drawn to people…but place plays such a huge role in defining who we are and how we live our lives. I was born in Iowa, and from what my friends tell me, I can’t get rid of Iowa. I visit Iowa often and always love the rolling cornfields and big blue skies filled with cumulus clouds. As much as I love my time in New York and my home near Lake Michigan, part of me is still drawn to the small towns and rural lifestyle.

Kenichi Sugihara: So you must feel at home in Laikipia County – it’s rural, relatively flat, with a big sky, people who live off the land…

Duncan Chip: Ha, well, you’re right, but wow, those two places couldn’t be more different. The characters featured in Ewaso Village live in a savannah that has become a very difficult place to live. For centuries, the Maasai and their Samburu neighbors lived as nomads while herding cows and goats in search of food and water. Water is plentiful in Iowa and the land is fertile. But climate change has made living near the village of Ewaso a huge and, I believe, ultimately insurmountable challenge. Lifestyles and traditions near the village of Ewaso are changing as the resources that once made this area rich and diverse are no longer available. What was once a 30 year drought cycle is now a 1-2 year drought cycle. The water table under the local river has been depleted as glaciers atop Mount Kenya disappear. In more than a dozen visits to the village each season, I have only seen the river flow once. Literally, just once.

Kenichi: That doesn’t seem sustainable.

Duncan Chip: They are resourceful and innovative people, so anything is possible, but the challenges that began with the colonization of Kenya have only grown. What was once free range is now land with borders, fences, power lines and roads. Wildlife faces similar challenges, but wildlife has more advocates. Conservationists often have influence that native peoples rarely have, and the big safari ranches — the same ranches the settlers once owned — they also have financial resources and ties to the federal government. Most of the safari guides in this area are Maasai men who were raised in the bush…but if asked they will also tell you how difficult it has become to maintain their family’s way of life and traditions. . There may be a spring-fed water source on the ranch to feed zebras, lions and elephants, but local Maasai and Samburu herders are not allowed to use it to feed their cattle and goats.

Kenichi Sugihara: So that’s it Ewaso Village is then – the challenges facing indigenous peoples in rural areas of Kenya?

Duncan Chip: Not exactly, but I’m glad you asked the question. Ewaso Village is a celebration of a culture that many of us know little or nothing about beyond the image of a Maasai warrior in the movie “Out of Africa”. But the book is a bit like yin-yang. There is no joy without pain, no happiness without sorrow. So while I use poetry to help articulate the story of the people I know and love in Ewaso village, I also use prose to describe the “how and why” of the mode of life, culture and rituals that define their lives at the beginning of the 21st century. . I love this community and hope love comes through the book.

Kenichi Sugihara: Can you give me an example?

Duncan Chip: Take death rituals. In the United States and Europe, even though we are not religious, we tend to follow Judeo-Christian traditions when it comes to disposing of the body when someone dies. But this is not at all the case near the village of Ewaso. So rather than judging their practices, I try to find the beauty and purpose of their traditions. I’m a curious person so I want to know “why” things are the way they are. And if you go back to our discussion of location, how does “location” help define what they do with the body when someone dies? Here in the United States, we usually burn or bury. But many in the Ewaso community have a beautiful ritual of using goat fat, cowhide and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the poem Water, Earth, Sky is a great example. And when people are done reading it, I hope they understand that their practices are not only unique, they are also practical and a beautiful way to celebrate life, death and place.

Kenichi Sugihara: You also use photography throughout this book. How do your images enhance the storytelling?

Duncan Chip: For a long time in my career, people called me a documentary filmmaker. It was true, but around 2004 I started incorporating still photos into my work abroad. I still remember a trip to Afghanistan where I brought a DSLR and wow, I was able to shoot vertical photos for the first time! So like any good cinematographer, I started turning the camera sideways and voila, portraits instead of landscapes! Then, as a book author, publishers like Select Books started asking me to include my still photos with my stories. So today, I simply call myself a “storyteller” and use all the media at my disposal that help create the best story. In Ewaso Village, readers can meet real people who are friends of mine, Maasai and Samburu elders, safari guides, cooks, teachers, herders, nurses… they are real people, thoughtful people, people smart, fun people who like to laugh, mothers, fathers, children… and in many cases you can also see their picture. I don’t just describe their dress, I show it. I’m not just talking about a lion eating a zebra, I’m showing it. I don’t just write about a musical instrument, I show it. Maybe that’s part of what defines Ewaso Village apart from other books, I don’t know, but I believe it makes reading the book an entertaining experience.

Kenichi Sugihara: You put a lot of emphasis on the role of women in the Ewaso community. Can you explain that?

Duncan Chip: An entire chapter and most of the afterword is devoted to a group called the Chui Mamas. In English, they are called “Leopard Women”. The Chui Mamas group was co-founded by a local Maasai woman named Ellie and I try to share her inspiring story in the book. What started as a handful of single, mostly older women sitting and beading together under an acacia tree has grown into an organization of more than 450 women who are united in their quest for better educational opportunities, better jobs and more choice for girls when they get married. and childbearing years. It is not a passive group. I consider the Chui Mamas to be one of the finest examples in the world of women empowering women, women fighting for women’s rights, and women making a difference. I won’t share all the details here, but yes, if you’re looking for success stories, the Chui Mamas are one of them.

Kenichi Sugihara: Besides telling some of their story, are there any other ways you can engage with the people of this area? I know you visit every year, but what else?

Duncan Chip: Even during the pandemic, I managed to make a visit to Ewaso village. But it is clear that the challenges they face are considerable. The pandemic has ruined tourism in this region. When I was there at the end of summer 21, it had been eighteen months since the local pavilion had had a foreign visitor. When I returned in March of this year, the situation had not changed. Jobless and with their worst drought in years, food is scarce. Because I sit on the board of a small nonprofit that helps provide resources in this area, we were able to help. Since October 2020, we’ve delivered over 40 tons of food, and as we speak, we have another food drive in the works before the end of the year. Colleagues of mine in Nairobi documented the first food relief effort which included Kenya Red Cross. And the council I serve with is called the Loisaba Community Conservation Foundation. LCCF takes contributions and there is no overhead – 100% of donations go directly to the people of Ewaso Village. My personal quest is to increase support for Chui Mamas and donations can be made to LCCF specifically for their work in the community.

Kenichi Sugihara: You also include a foreword by a Kenyan journalist, why?

Duncan Chip: Salim Amin is not just any journalist. Salim has been recognized globally for his work and he is at the heart of a career that has made him a household name in Nairobi. His legacy also includes that of his father, photojournalist Mohamed “Mo” Amin. I discovered Mo’s work over two decades ago, and find myself somewhat in Mo’s work. He died in 1996, but Mo’s story is captivating in part because of his willingness to go where others won’t and tell stories often overlooked by major networks and publishers. Mo was comfortable with the Maasai. He was comfortable in Somalia and Pakistan, Rwanda or documenting the Hajj. He worked well in the wild, found ways to navigate and survive the crisis, and if measured fearlessness is a trait to be admired – and I think it is – then Mo has set the bar high. . His son, Salim, relied on Mo’s legacy to have his foreword in the book Ewaso Village is a privilege.

Kenichi Sugihara: Where can people find your book?

Duncan chip: Ewaso Village is available in print-to-order at any bookstore, or it can easily be purchased from Amazon or similar online services in print or electronically. It’s also my first book featured on Audible, and because it includes poetry, it’s been read by yours truly.