Who is Gareth Roriston and what is my motivation for ensuring this film is made?
It was while I was working in the capacity of Acting Warden for the privately owned Galana Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya that I had my initial introduction to the Watha community of Galana. This had resulted from a venture into their village, with armed law enforcement, on the trail of a notorious poacher of elephants. I was able to meet and speak with the father of the notorious poacher. The father, Bhadiva, is described as ‘the elder’ on the homepage.
During this intelligence-gathering sortie, I learned much about Badiva’s personal story and how it reflects the recent history of the Watha people. Talk of the lives of strangers seldom, if ever, holds my interest, but this man’s story was extraordinary and I was captivated. I found that by speaking with Badvia, I was able to gather a great deal of information about the Watha people and their way of life. As a result of our talking, I was able to gain his trust and then suggest to him that whenever possible, I engage him, and one of his sons, in employment as Game Scouts and trackers. I knew that this would enable me to gain a greater understanding of the Watha and glean what skills and information I could from learning more about their traditions and way of life for both professional reasons and personal interest.
Bringing such high-ranking members of the Watha community on board certainly helped establish a positive relationship with the conservancy and members of the community. We did this in the hope of introducing the Watha of Galana to the importance and positive benefits of wildlife conservation. During this period, the people I became most acquainted with were, Guyo and Benson, the twin sons of Badiva (The village elder).
Guyo, had been fortunate in having his education sponsored by the owners of a nearby safari lodge at a time when his father was employed by them. Today, Guyo, is the self-appointed "Community Representative" and has spent time researching the culture of his people through both written academic sources and the oral tradition. In the course of his duties as Community Representative, he has visited scattered and diluted remnants of other Watha communities across Kenya.
Some eighteen months after our first meeting, I was delighted when Guyo invited me to his wedding celebration. This was a great honour. I had read, heard and experienced how the elephant was/is central to Watha culture. I had been told that it was represented in dance at various celebrations. It was at Guyo’s wedding that I was fortunate in witnessing a real Watha dance for the very first time.
The Watha's religious beliefs are a mix of traditional Animism and elements of Islam. Watching the festivities, I realised the power the elephant had as a totem over these people. It is a curious comparison, that the people who live in places such as this, the spirit is as tangible as the screen from which you are now reading this. Spirituality and spirits can be seen, heard and touched. The ‘Spirit’ can be felt coursing through you. It is as real as anything you physically have at your fingertips. Unlike in educated, industrialised corners, it is not a fictitious element or abstract quality that requires solemn ceremony to invoke. It is played out daily, even to the accompaniment of children's smiles and music.
As a man with professional training in elephant behaviour, and with hundreds of hours spent walking in elephant country; the depth of understanding the dancers showed for the elephant was unquestionable.
It would be somewhat presumptuous, and out of context, to compare my technical knowledge of the elephant, and relatively limited experience, against the collective lifetimes of generations of Watha. It was from humble observation that I could see specifics in the dance that told of the intimate understanding the Watha people have with the elephant. The twitching of the head whilst rocking back and forth as seen in an agitated elephant; the scuffing of the earth by the dancers with their toes as they shuffle back and forth preparing to charge in the same way as an elephant’s feet scuffs the earth as it prepares to charge; the abrupt halt and arm/ear flapping of a mock charge; the swaggering walking gate, reminiscent of a bull in musth. All of these behaviours were played out in order by the dancers with expert mimicry and rhythm.
As the celebrations continued more members of the community turned up. A PA system, TV and DVD player were set up and popular music pumped out as eyes fixed on the music videos. As I watched, the local Giriama folk and some of the younger Watha began to ‘boogie’ on one side of the village whilst the rest of the Watha played out their traditional dances on the other. It occurred to me that, sadly, I may be watching the last generation of Watha to continue these practices.
I feel very privileged to have been able to join the Watha in their celebrations and to have experienced their ancient traditions. In that moment I first felt the desire to tell their story, to capture this culture on film and share it before it is gone forever, To simply show the world a people, a culture, their history and their contemporary struggles, as they truly are
It is possible that as few as 3000 Watha people remain in Kenya with only 350 of those continuing to live in pure Watha communities. Soon, this indigenous hunter gather tribe will in all probability, homogenise with the larger Kenyan society. When this happens, knowledge of the Watha way of life and its traditions will fade into myth, as has undoubtedly happened to so many cultures that have trodden so lightly upon the earth.