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Kenya's Samburu boys share a sacred bond. Why one teen broke with the brotherhood

Paris Lekuuk, 15, (center) listens to a math lesson in the third grade classroom of his primary school in northern Kenya. Just weeks earlier, he had been living the traditional life of a Samburu "moran," or warrior — herding cattle on a mountain.
Claire Harbage
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NPR
Paris Lekuuk, 15, (center) listens to a math lesson in the third grade classroom of his primary school in northern Kenya. Just weeks earlier, he had been living the traditional life of a Samburu "moran," or warrior — herding cattle on a mountain.

The Science of Siblings is a new series exploring the ways our siblings can influence us, from our money and our mental health all the way down to our very molecules. We'll besharing these stories over the next several weeks.

Paris Lekuuk is 15 years old. But he's standing in the third grade of a primary school in Northern Kenya – squeezed between 8-year-olds who barely reach his elbows.

The teacher is leading his classmates in a rousing rendition of a classic.

"Heads, shoulders, knees and toes!" she calls out.

The little kids sing back with gusto, "Knees and toes! knees and toes!"

Paris gives a shy smile and pretends to mouth the words. He doesn't speak English – or even Kenya's other, more commonly used official language of Swahili. Until a few weeks ago he had never set foot inside a school. In keeping with the custom of his people, known as the Samburu, Paris had been on a mountain, living in a band of boys.

The Samburu have kept cattle in this region for centuries. Teenage boys like Paris serve as the community's "morans," meaning warriors, charged with looking after the herds. During the dry season, when the grasses on the plains here wither, small groups of these moran boys spend months on their own – driving the cattle ever further up the highlands in search of the last remnants of pasture and water.

To survive, the boys rely on a bond that they say makes them closer than brothers. It's a sense of mutual obligation central to their Samburu culture – so strong that anthropologists and economists have come from afar to document its impact.

But it's a version of the sibling relationship that, with the onset of climate change, is increasingly under threat.

For Paris the consequence has been a break with the brotherhood. And a dilemma: How does he build a life without it?

Three morans hang out at their campsite: Ltesekwa (center), Leseu Mareketo (left) and Lepenari Lepeni. The beaded ornaments they wear mark them as morans.
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NPR
Three morans hang out at their campsite: Ltesekwa (center), Leseu Mareketo (left) and Lepenari Lepeni. The beaded ornaments they wear mark them as morans.

'You can't face the knife.'

"I don't even like to look at that mountain now," says Paris, speaking in the local language of Kisamburu.

We're sitting in the courtyard of the school, called Lkisin Primary, set in the vast expanse of the plain. There are a few one-story classrooms and dorms. Beyond that just parched red earth stretching for miles until, looming in the distance, the peak that Paris is pointing to.

A few years ago Paris was begging his father to let him join the moran boys there.

"My father kept telling me, 'Wait,' " recalls Paris. " 'You're too young. You can't face the knife.' "

His father was referring to the circumcision that a boy must undergo to become a moran. It's done in group ceremonies held about every 15 to 20 years.

Paris stands in his dormitory at the primary school. At 15, he is starting school for the first time.
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NPR
Paris stands in his dormitory at the primary school. At 15, he is starting school for the first time.

Paris was on the young side – 11 years old – when the initiation rites for the current generation of morans got started in 2019.

And during the ritual "you're not supposed to even flinch," notes Paris. Even though the circumcision is done without any painkillers.

But Paris says he told his father, "Look at all these other boys even younger than me who are stepping forward."

Paris says he got through it by concentrating on the chanting of the elders around him. When it was over he was given the moran's due: A cow from his father, so that Paris could start breeding a herd of his own. A set of beaded ornaments to drape over his body, so everyone would recognize his new status.

Lastly, and arguably most important, Paris was now granted membership in a fraternity of fellow morans who would owe him their lifelong support. The Samburu call this the moran's duty of "mboita" – which roughly translates as "unity."

Paris's half-brother Ltesekwa stops to chat with a moran at a campsite near his own. During the dry season small groups of the boys spend months roaming into the mountains in search of pasture and water for their community's cattle.
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NPR
Paris's half-brother Ltesekwa stops to chat with a moran at a campsite near his own. During the dry season small groups of the boys spend months roaming into the mountains in search of pasture and water for their community's cattle.

It comes with lots of rules. "The one I like most," says Paris, with a grin, "is that if I don't have food and another moran does, he'll give some of his to me." In fact, a moran is not supposed to take a single bite alone. He must always eat in the presence of other morans to ensure they share.

But all the requirements essentially boil down to this: For the coming roughly 15 years – until the next crop of boys is old enough to take over responsibility for the community's herds, and the morans in Paris's generation can retire to start families back down in the plains – they are supposed to live only with each other. And they must always have each other's back.

'For the girls to see!'

To get a sense of what this looks like, I head with an NPR photographer and producer to Paris's former mountain campsite – driving as far as possible up a twisty, rocky road, before a final three-hour trek on foot through even steeper terrain.

One of the herds on the mountain. Samburu have made their living keeping cattle in this region for centuries.
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One of the herds on the mountain. Samburu have made their living keeping cattle in this region for centuries.

Our guide is the only boy in Paris's moran group to whom he is actually related – his 13-year old half-brother Ltesekwa Lekuuk. At the campsite Lteskwa introduces the three other boys based there.

All but one of them wear the customary moran adornments, along with the ultimate perk reserved for morans – hair in long braids, dyed red with ochre. A tall boy named Marketo Leseu explains that while they're on the mountain they tuck the braids under a hairnet to keep the dust out. But, he adds, come the rainy season, when they can move closer to the lowland settlements, of course he'll let his hair out. "For the girls to see!" he says to raucous laughter. Peacocking is a moran tradition.

Ltesekwa sits in the shelter where he sleeps at this mountain campsite.
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NPR
Ltesekwa sits in the shelter where he sleeps at this mountain campsite.

Their daily routine on the mountain also seems barely changed from the days of their ancestors. And it's entirely centered on teamwork. Breakfast is milk from the cows – always shared. Then some of the boys split off to drive the cattle into mountain meadows for grazing, while the rest take shifts guarding the latest additions to the herd: three tiny white calves, snuggled in an enclosure built of thorny branches.

In the afternoon, when the work is done, the boys entertain themselves with an ancient game: sharpening the tips of spears with machetes – then tying a branch into a hoop shape and sending it rolling down the mountain as they throw the spears toward the center. Ltesekwa's spear makes it through and he whoops in triumph.

In the afternoon, when the work is done, the boys entertain themselves with an ancient game — throwing spears through a rolling hoop.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
In the afternoon, when the work is done, the boys entertain themselves with an ancient game — throwing spears through a rolling hoop.

On the hike back down, his expression turns serious as he beckons toward a tree. There's an object he wants to show me in its branches that hints at the harder side of this life – the reason his half-brother Paris has left the group. It's the skull of a cow.

'That cow was like of my blood'

Back down from the mountain, in the school courtyard, Paris explains that this cow's name was Sorai.

"She was black," he says. "With big horns, and a bellow as loud as a bull's."

He loved how powerful she was — how she'd shove the other cows out of her way to get a drink.

Paris was personally responsible for more than a dozen cows. But Sorai was his favorite.

So when a drought hit and the other cows started to weaken and die – "three of them on the same day," he notes – Paris worked as hard as he could to make sure Sorai, at least, would make it through.

He'd dig pits in the dirt to get her groundwater; climb up trees and hack off branches so she could eat the leaves.

Morans pull groundwater from a pit for their waiting cows. Digging a makeshift well like this is often the only way morans can get their cattle a drink during the dry season.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Morans pull groundwater from a pit for their waiting cows. Digging a makeshift well like this is often the only way morans can get their cattle a drink during the dry season.

But climate change has altered the old cycle of dry and rainy seasons in Kenya. This drought went on for three years.

And on the very day the rains finally started, says Paris, Sorai suddenly took ill.

That evening, she let out a moan and crumpled to the ground. Dead.

Paris says he let out a yell of agony.

"That cow was like of my own blood. I wanted to die myself."

The other morans came running, holding Paris as he thrashed and sobbed.

"This is how it is," he says they told him. "Cows die."

But Paris didn't see it that way.

"If Sorai died," he says he remembers thinking, "All of these cows are going to end up dying."

This way of life — it's not working anymore.

The skull of Sorai, Paris's favorite cow. He kept her alive through three years of drought. But on the day the rains finally came, she fell ill and died.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
The skull of Sorai, Paris's favorite cow. He kept her alive through three years of drought. But on the day the rains finally came, she fell ill and died.

'I'm becoming a different person'

In that moment, Paris says he decided to reach for an alternate path – one he'd gotten just a glimpse of on the mountain, largely thanks to an older moran who used to live at the campsite.

This moran was the only person Paris had ever met who had gotten some schooling. And, says Paris, "He gave me one of his textbooks."

He adds, "That moran brought me my destiny."

While the other boys played the spear and hoop game, Paris would sit under a tree poring over the book. Then he'd trace the lessons in the dirt – letters, numbers and drawings of animals.

He grabs a twig to sketch his favorite. It's an elephant, with some shading on the legs to make it look more three-dimensional.

Paris has taught himself to draw. Above, he sketches in the sand at school.
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Paris has taught himself to draw. Above, he sketches in the sand at school.

Paris says the older moran had also told him about the elementary school in the lowland settlement of Lkisin – how it had a dormitory for kids who live too far to walk each day. So, after Sorai's death, Paris trekked down the mountain to his father's house and asked for permission to see if the school would accept him.

His father agreed that, with their herd so diminished, the idea made sense. Even though he wasn't sure how they'd pay for the costs. Apart from raising livestock there aren't a lot of ways for a Samburu man without schooling to earn money in this area. Like most Samburu herders, Paris's father lives in a hut built from sticks and tarp on a patch of land with no running water and no electricity.

But later that day Paris's father gave him some good news: He'd visited a government official who lives nearby and convinced that man to give a grant that would allow them to buy Paris at least some supplies – including $7 for the school uniform.

Paris's father, Loituku Lekuuk, stands outside his home. At first he didn't think he could afford to send Paris to school. But he was able to get money from a government official to cover the cost of at least some of the supplies — including $7 for the school uniform.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Paris's father, Loituku Lekuuk, stands outside his home. At first he didn't think he could afford to send Paris to school. But he was able to get money from a government official to cover the cost of at least some of the supplies — including $7 for the school uniform.

One final step remained. At his family's hut, Paris opened a metal box where he keeps his possessions. He began taking off the traditional ornaments he'd been wearing. One by one, placing them inside.

He ticks off their Samburu names. "Marna" – the bracelets stacked along his forearms. "Nkeriin" – the strands of beads criss-crossing his bare chest. "Nkaiweli" — a chain looped over each ear so that it hangs just above his chin. And on.

This was the regalia Paris had been given the day he was made a moran. As he removed each item, Paris says he thought to himself, "These are of no use to me now. I'm becoming a different person."

The third-grade teacher, Florence Lerapayo, teaches a math lesson. She says when Paris first arrived in her classroom he seemed uneasy and adrift.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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The third-grade teacher, Florence Lerapayo, teaches a math lesson. She says when Paris first arrived in her classroom he seemed uneasy and adrift.

'He was not talking at all'

Or was he?

Paris's teacher, Florence Lerapayo, has only had him in her classroom for a few weeks. "But from their faces you learn how they are," she says. "Their facial expressions say a lot." Her first impression of Paris: A boy adrift.

"He was not talking at all," says Lerapayo. And he seemed uneasy surrounded by the little kids. Which didn't surprise her. Morans are supposed to keep themselves apart. "They are not allowed to play with younger children," she says.

Paris's take? He says within days he had a realization. He didn't want to take on this new life alone. "I want my moran brothers here with me," he says.

So Paris has started recruiting them.

Paris works on his math homework. He says within days of starting school he had a realization: "I want my moran brothers here <em>with </em>me."
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Paris works on his math homework. He says within days of starting school he had a realization: "I want my moran brothers here with me."

On a weekend trip to the market to buy some laundry soap, he bumped into a lanky 14-year-old named Loshaki Lekiliyo.

They hadn't seen each other in years. But as fellow morans, they felt bound by that instant sense of kinship. And Loshaki says he told Paris he was working on his own plan to get into a school – one in a different settlement. But it was taking forever to gather enough money for notebooks and pencils. Loshaki says Paris said to him, "Come to my school and we can share that stuff!"

That same day, Paris reached out to another moran – an outgoing 15-year-old named Saidimu Lolokile, who had sometimes herded goats at a spot not far from Paris's old campsite.

Paris (right) walks to class with fellow morans Saidimu Lolokile (left) and Loshaki Lekiliyo (center). Soon after Paris started at the elementary school, he convinced the others to join him. Now the three boys are inseparable.
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Paris (right) walks to class with fellow morans Saidimu Lolokile (left) and Loshaki Lekiliyo (center). Soon after Paris started at the elementary school, he convinced the others to join him. Now the three boys are inseparable.

Up on the mountain, says Saidimu, their moran bond meant "sticking together as we moved across the wild areas, where there's danger from animals and bandits."

Now the three boys are helping each other navigate new perils.

'I don't eat in front of ladies'

Like lunch time.

The boys step into the cafeteria. The room is packed.

Lunchtime at the school's cafeteria.
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Lunchtime at the school's cafeteria.

While most Samburu families in this area still keep their oldest boys on the traditional moran track, more and more parents are choosing to send their youngest children to school, including many of their girls.

Loshaki turns to Paris. "I don't eat in front of ladies," he says. "I can't eat here."

It's strictly forbidden for a moran to let a girl see him eating. Paris wouldn't mind doing it at school. He thinks it's time to change some of the traditions. Like child marriage. One of his half-sisters was married at age 11 to a man in his 30s. When the day comes, Paris wants to marry a woman who's an adult — who has been to school herself.

Morans must always eat together. And it's strictly forbidden for them to do so within sight of girls. So Saidimu, Loshaki and Paris take their lunch in a hiding spot behind the cafeteria building.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Morans must always eat together. And it's strictly forbidden for them to do so within sight of girls. So Saidimu, Loshaki and Paris take their lunch in a hiding spot behind the cafeteria building.

But he can also understand why Loshaki is so anxious right now. "Come on," says Paris, showing Loshaki and Saidimu a side door that leads directly into the kitchen, and then out to a hidden stoop. "Let's get our food here so the girls will never see us."

'You haven't finished yet?!'

And it's not just Paris looking out for Loshaki and Saidimu. They are also there for him.

Like when it's time for the kids to wash their uniforms – which they do outside the dorm, by hand.

Paris needs to borrow a plastic basin to fill with water. He still can't afford his own.

Loshaki (center) washes his clothes in a basin borrowed from one of the other students. Like Paris, he could not afford to buy his own.
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Loshaki (center) washes his clothes in a basin borrowed from one of the other students. Like Paris, he could not afford to buy his own.

"Is this yours?" he asks a kid, pointing to a blue one. "Can I just put these two shirts in? No?"

It's humiliating to have to beg such little kids for theirs.

He tries another boy: "You haven't finished yet?!"

If this kid had run into Paris back when he was decked out in his moran warrior gear, the kid would have been in awe of him.

"Nope," says the little boy, without even looking up. "Still washing."

But then Loshaki arrives, lugging a metal pail filled to the brim. He's come to bring Paris some water ... and solidarity.

Saidimu keeps Paris company as he mends his clothes in the dormitory. They no long wear their moran regalia. But they have not discarded their fraternal moran bond. They're just refashioning it for this new era.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Saidimu keeps Paris company as he mends his clothes in the dormitory. They no long wear their moran regalia. But they have not discarded their fraternal moran bond. They're just refashioning it for this new era.

As Paris finally gets to sudsing, Loshaki purses his lips in mock disapproval at some kids who are giggling at them. "What's wrong with you boys!" he says.

Paris relaxes and shakes his head. "To think it was practically yesterday," he says to Loshaki – half-sighing, half-laughing – "that we took off our moran ornaments."

But it's clear what they never discarded was their fraternal moran bond. They're just refashioning it for this new era.

'Not even fully in the world'

The reason the boys can even contemplate this leap largely comes down to an 84-year-old Samburu elder named Francis Lengees. Back in the late 1970s, when there were still no schools in the area, Lengees rallied his fellow herders to build their own – cutting the timber on the mountain themselves to construct the very first structures for the school that Paris now attends.

Samburu elder Francis Lengees stands near his home. In the late 1970s, he and fellow herders helped build the first structures for the primary school that Paris and his two moran "brothers" now attend.
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NPR
Samburu elder Francis Lengees stands near his home. In the late 1970s, he and fellow herders helped build the first structures for the primary school that Paris and his two moran "brothers" now attend.

Today the region is dotted with schools. And if climate change is the push prompting local families to question whether the traditional moran path is still viable for their children, these schools are the pull – their presence drawing ever more Samburu to aspire to careers as teachers, government workers, small business owners, nurses and doctors.

Does Lengees have qualms about the cultural shift he helped unleash?

I stop by his home to ask – and find him sitting with two buddies from his own moran days. They get together every morning, within sight of the tree where they were circumcised together six decades ago.

It was a time when each one had a herd of not dozens but hundreds of cattle. They look back on their moran-hood together fondly.

Solomon Lengees, the 6-year-old grandson of Samburu elder Francis Lengees, helps lead the family's goats out of their pen.
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Solomon Lengees, the 6-year-old grandson of Samburu elder Francis Lengees, helps lead the family's goats out of their pen.

"Ha! I was so happy!" says a 67-year-old named Kinati Letadow. "I would strut like this - flipping my braids at the girls," he says, causing Lengees to laugh heartily.

There were difficult times too – like when a bull charged into Lengees and broke his ribs. But he cherishes even those memories because of how Letadow and the other morans stepped up to take care of him.

"The healer said I should not drink milk, just eat meat," recalls Lengees. It was an expensive prescription. Yet for two years, until he was fully mended, the other morans would take turns slaughtering animals to nourish him.

Lengees (left) and Kinati Letadow. During their youth they were in the same group of morans. Six decades later, they still meet up every morning — within sight of the tree where they were circumcised in their moran initiation rite.
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Lengees (left) and Kinati Letadow. During their youth they were in the same group of morans. Six decades later, they still meet up every morning — within sight of the tree where they were circumcised in their moran initiation rite.

Still, over the years the men have been re-considering many of the customs they took for granted in their youth. This includes even female genital mutilation – which is practiced on daughters as a rite of passage. "We've noticed that it makes our girls weak," says Lengees.

With hindsight, Lengees says he wishes he could have traded his past moran life for an education.

"Look at this phone my children gave me," says Lengees, holding it out. "I only know how to press this button to answer it if someone is calling me. I can't even call out." Being illiterate, he says, "is like being a deaf person. You don't understand the language people are using. It's like you're not even fully in the world."

'Let's go tonight!'

Back at the school, Paris's teacher Florence Lerapayo says she's confident it's not too late for him.

The arrival of the other two morans has transformed him. "He's become the class leader," she marvels. "The one who tells the others, 'Can you keep quiet. Let's learn!'"

Teacher Florence Lerapayo grades the assignments done by the moran boys. She says they have an enormous amount of catching up to do. But she's also confident that it's not too late for them.
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Teacher Florence Lerapayo grades the assignments done by the moran boys. She says they have an enormous amount of catching up to do. But she's also confident that it's not too late for them.

A star student – if not quite a model one ...

It's evening. The boys are sitting on their bunks – back to discussing their favorite topic: food.

Paris thinks the sorghum porridge they get here would taste so much better with some oil to season it.

One of his married sisters lives nearby.

"Maybe we go there – ask her for some," he says.

"Yeah," says Saidimu. "Let's go tonight!"

Saidimu, Loshaki and Paris look on as their much younger third-grade classmates sing a song.
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Saidimu, Loshaki and Paris look on as their much younger third-grade classmates sing a song.

An 11-year-old, who is the dorm prefect, interrupts.

"You can't do that!" he says, giggling incredulously at their boldness.

It's against the rules for good reason. There's no lighting around here — just dirt roads. Elephants are about. It's too dangerous for kids.

Paris and his friends laugh. But not for them. "We're morans!" says Saidimu. "We share in our problems."

Some hours later, as a crescent moon rises above the school, the boys will slip through a fence and out into the night.

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Paris (front) and Saidimu relax on their beds at the dormitory.
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Paris (front) and Saidimu relax on their beds at the dormitory.