The diminutive old man sits under the shade of bushes on the rucksack offered to him by me. He wears nothing but a kikoi skirt and a lifetime’s worth of weathered skin. As he sits his toes curl amongst the roots of this green tenured patch of the otherwise semi-arid biome and his healthy eye (the other whitened) dances from face to face as he tells his tales of how he hunted elephants the way his people have since the dawn of history.
He talks of crafting enormous bows that even the strongest of men cannot pull without practicing. He tells of poison tipped arrows and knowledge of the bush that is now drying up amongst his very people who have been revered as masters of the wilderness. He tells of the calls of certain birds that will lead to a lucky elephant hunt, how when he sees a mass of footprints he can identify an individual animal and which details he can decipher details about it.
He talks of the line of sight the elephants lack, the direction of the wind dictating what it can smell and where to place his shot. He talks of the times he was arrested and imprisoned, he laughingly recalls close shaves with charging bulls and matriarchs, he talks as if the elephants were people more than a mere "animal" referencing peculiarities of character. With each word he speaks reverently of the totem animal of his folk. His intimate relationship with the species and the land is apparent.
He is a Watha, as such was born a hunter and he has been deemed a criminal for all that...
The Watha people of the Galana area (Tsavo, Kenya) are the last generation of their ethnicity to continue traditional cultural practices which differentiate them from their neighbours.
Relatively little has been documented about the Watha, yet to those who have heard of them they hold a near mythical status as mystic masters of the deep and wild places. Their tribe is referred to by many different names from different groups adding to their obscurity and mystery.
Through this film we would like to privilege viewers by showing the world their unique culture, record their ways and tell their story for posterity in the short time left before they homogenise into greater society and their history is irretrievably lost forever.
Who are the Watha
The Watha are not recognised officially as an Ethnic group by the Kenyan government, but their traditional role in intertribal economics was established centuries ago.
Their history as a people has many surprising twists and turns and yet with remarkable adaptability they have persisted, preserved and defined themselves. Now disenfranchised from their lands and their specialist way of life outside the law they struggle to uphold their identity. Having trodden so lightly on the ever providing earth for so long they have left little tangible sign other than legend making it all too easy for their culture to slip away under the pressing weight of "progress".
Culture of the Elephant and People of the bow
Watha bushcraft and hunting skills are recanted by those who have witnessed them with wonder and reverence. Tales of their tracking ability and prowess with their enormous bows offer an enchanting view of a people who fully recognise their human potential in the wilderness. Interestingly as hunters they chose to specialise in the taking of elephant and rhino, hence the use of such powerful bows.
Their language has many terms, for elephant in various stages of development, along with other words for peculiarities such as tusk shape, size, habits, age and temperament.
Their traditional way of life centred on the elephant, but change is upon them...
The most significant threat to the Watha culture and way of life in recent history came with the introduction of game laws under imperial colonial government.
As hunter-gatherers when these laws were introduced, by virtue of being born into such a culture the staple way of life for a Watha was criminalised.
Overnight in 1948 all Watha men had defaulted to the status of "poacher" in the eyes of the law.
Their story in the area runs deep and their history as a people deeper still. The government recognises them as indigenous peoples of the area and therefore they cannot be forcibly relocated.
Today the Watha of Galana live on government ranch land and until very recently under the following stipulations:
They cannot build permanent dwellings, they cannot carve out permanent farm plots (shamba).
For decades the Watha's official status on the government ranch land where they live was that of "squatters"
Squatters in a small patch of a much larger area where they have resided since time immemorial. Many of the present names of places and landmarks within the area are derived from the Watha language.
Some things have begun to change for the better under the new laws of the new national constitution, however many precedents in individual cases are yet to be set and the interpretation of the new constitution remains ambiguous until then.
When Tsavo National Park came into existence as a result of the colonial wildlife conservation plan, many Watha were moved out of the area. Unlicensed hunting was of course not conducive to the purpose of the park (then as now, it was not even contemplated that wild living humans could have a natural niche in an ecosystem).
The consequence for many Watha was that their niche in the long established local inter-tribal economy was dissolved leading to a loss of status in the eyes of their neighbours. When the Watha were unable to ply their trade as hunters exchanging or selling skins, horns and ivory.
These displaced, disenfranchised people came to be recognised by different names by different tribes. In fact few people, but the Watha themselves refer to them as Watha and the government still fails to officially recognise them as an ethnic group.
During national census they are counted amongst the numbers of neighbouring people often with who they do not share even close ethnic ties such as with the Giriama who are of bantu extraction where the Watha are a cushitic people. Nearly all the terms that the neighbouring tribes came to use for the Watha had a pejorative if not outright derogatory meaning and it is by these names that most people know them: N'Dorobo, WaSanye, WaLiangulu and Boni. Boni simply means "cattleless" a Somali term for the lowest of castes.
Amongst the Kenyan white population Waliangulu is the name that conjures the most accurate image of these people. This is the name used by the white hunters, Wardens and Rangers of Tsavo East. Watha were employed as trackers, guides and gun bearers by professional hunting outfitters and were the bane of Tsavo East National Park wardens for their poaching proficiency. Amongst the European Kenyan community for those who know the name "Waliangulu" its association is with legendary masters of bushcraft.
They were the last Generation of their tribe to practice hunting and gathering as a way of life.
Overnight, in 1948 all Watha men had defaulted to the status of "poacher" in the eyes of the law.
Of the official Government recognised list of tribes in Kenya the Watha are not included, hence the Watha are excluded in national census and have no legally recognised claims.
The Watha's official status on the government ranch land where they live: "squatters"
Play the video below to see the environment the Watha have mastered
Traditional dancing at a Watha wedding.
Mock charges, heaving breath, flapping ears.
The men channel the potency of their totem animal.