NEWS 2007


The "Boni" are not the "Boni" - and the Aweer (the real name of the "Boni") are not a lost tribe ! Newspapers always get things wrong! Why? For them we are just something exotic to report on.    - Elder in Milimani -

The Standard newspaper, Society Magazine, KENYA:

The 'lost tribes' and the bliss of innocence

By Cathy Ochung

29. April 2007

To arrive at the secluded Milimani village in Boni village, Lamu District is a humbling experience. The residents, known as the Waboni, have never tasted some of modernity’s basics, yet this does not hamper them from enjoying life.

At the end of a two-hour sail from Lamu, Milimani village, home of the Waboni, peeps from behind coconut trees. You can get to the village through Kilifi, but it is a much longer route. Beyond the village, all you see is the Indian Ocean. Eager women wrapped in khangas appear from the huts to welcome visitors, a rare occurrence we come to learn. 

There is no electricity and no TV in the village of about 300 residents. A small portable radio is their source of information and link to the rest of the world. It sits on the lap of a young boy. Once in a while, someone from Lamu brings the dry cells that power it. 

The nearest hospital is 100km away, while a walk to the shops takes a whole day. When this writer displayed a cell phone, young men standing nearby referred to it as kijidude, a Kiswahili word for gadget. 

Ambala Ware Wakati, a homeguard at Boni, and his mark IV rifle. The village is almost crime-free.

Too bad there was no network to show how the gadget works. The majority of the villagers have no idea what a cell phone looks like or what it is used for.

So isolated is Boni village that the residents have no knowledge of major events taking place around them. Although they are Muslims, they are not part of the Maulid festivals in the antique island of Lamu that mark Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. 

Huts in the village are made of local material structured in unique frames. They are mud-walled and the roofs are thatched with makuti. 

Tribe of bad luck

Although the land is dry, the residents grow bananas, cassava and other food crops. The only animal in sight is a chicken foraging for insects. Most of the food is bought from Lamu. Occasionally, the village gets donations of food and clothing from the Red Cross. 

Depending on who you ask, there are different versions of why the Waboni live in isolation. Although a few Waboni live in Lamu, they too live on their own. 

"The Waboni are also known as Wasanya who are feared in the coastal towns as people who bring bad luck to those they interact with," said Sina Neno, a Giriama elder who lives in Lamu. 

But another version has it that since they know the bad luck they bring, the Waboni are only comfortable among their own. Call them forgotten, unwilling to embrace change, isolated or plain ignorant, but the villagers of Boni embrace each day as it comes.

Two tribes known as the Wabajuni and the Waboni live in the village. Both speak the coastal Kiswahili language. Other coastal people refer to them as "the lost tribes of Somalia" because of their Bantu origin – the majority of the Somali are Cushitic. 

Boni neighbours the islands of Manda, Lamu and Pate. If you sail past Boni to the north, you are likely to arrive in Somalia, while a longer trip to the south takes you to Zanzibar. 

It takes two hours to sail to Boni from Lamu Island by dhow, but you have the option of using a speedboat if you choose. It is better to set sail in the morning to avoid stormy waters later in the day when it is more windy. 

No schools

Boni is a place not frequented by many. Speaking in Kiswahili, women lead the way into their village. A group of young boys offload bags of cement from a different boat unperturbed by our arrival. The cement will be used to build two boreholes at Sh2 million. 

Celtel, the mobile phone company whose awaited services might be the only modern communication means here, sponsors the borehole project. The borehole is a welcome gesture, as the villagers previously drew water from the sea. 

Other villagers stare at visitors while seated or standing in groups outside their huts. The village gives a rough idea of what the Coast might have looked like before it was invaded by the Portuguese, Omani Arabs and the British. 

It is Wednesday. While other children would be in school, those at Boni play in the village, doing nothing in particular. They have no school to attend. 

At one end of the village is a deserted building that once served as a nursery school. The only teacher who was available took off one day and never returned. "Our children are getting married without even learning how to write down their names," says Mangai, an elder in the village. 

The most learned person in the village reached Standard 8. Mangai fears that children in the village may never see the inside of a classroom. 

The borehole project and fishing keep most of the men busy, while the women attend to children. The scores of children in the village belie the frequency of maternal deaths. 

"When complications arise during pregnancy, the best we can do is pray. It is safer to stay in your house during childbirth than to trek to the hospital," says Fatma Warr.

The villagers live like a big family and everyone knows the other. In one of the huts, a patient is suffering from hernia. He endures the pain, saying he does not want to go to hospital. It is too far, he says. 

Apart from Somali robbers who frequently attacked the village many years back, stories of intruders are rare. Forty-year-old Ambala Ware Wakati, who has been a home guard for eight years, clutches an old Mark IV rifle. He and 56-year-old Warre Soroba, are two of the seven home guards in the village. 

Barefoot in their tattered police uniforms, they have never set eyes on Internal Security minister John Michuki. Their only worry is that no one pays them for their trouble. 

"Here we are with Government property protecting our people but with not a coin to show for it," says Warre. They do not remember the last time they used the guns, as the village is almost crime-free, but they would like some money for their upkeep.

Children at the isolated village where there is no school.

Both have families of eight children and their job is to keep vigil for any attack. "If taken to Nairobi, we can deal with the criminals we hear are a giving the police a headache. When it comes to handling guns we are next to none," says Ambala. 

As the rest of the country endures campaign violence, elections are the least of the Waboni’s worries. They do not have identity cards, so they will not vote.

"We would like to vote like the rest because we are also Kenyans but only one person in this village has an identity card," says Abu Chiaba, an elder.

Big dreams

A 22-year-old man, pushes through the crowd. "My name is Adi. When a school will be built in my village I will study to become the president of the country so that I can assist my people," he says in Kiswahili. 

I ask him a few questions about the country. "I know Nairobi. It is where there are many thieves that you cannot walk without holding tightly to your belongings," he says. 

He has also heard that there are tall buildings in Nairobi and if he gets there, "my first stop will be at the house where the President (Mwai Kibaki) lives". 

Although he cheekily refers to the President as ‘Kabaki’, he cannot describe him as he has not seen his picture. Although he wants to be Kenya’s next president, he has never voted and he has never ventured out of his village. 

After speaking to us, he slips away from the crowd, relieved that he has made his dreams known. 

Seated outside a hut is 14-year-old Yai. Like Adi, she has never been to school. She appears withdrawn and answers questions with the help of her mother. She does not know what she would like to do in future, but she hopes to go to school. 

As a token of appreciation to the visitors, the women dance to Erma and Bere tunes, songs that symbolise happy times.