The Samburu Pencil Maker
The African dawn was now ripe and about to fall open as the Samburu pencil maker took his early morning walk amongst the acacia trees in the arid savannah. He was searching, as he did every morning, for the most elegant twigs with which to craft his artisan pencils.
Not far away, little Nandta’s mother was seated next to her outside the boma, explaining how the tribe first received cattle. Nandta was fidgety – curious: where was the pencil maker?
“In the beginning, the earth and the sky were one. At that time Moongoo, the Creator, lived amongst the men, women and children of the tribe. It was then, that He bestowed His wisdom upon the venerable elders of the tribe. He asked that the venerable elders of the tribe pass down the wisdom of the ages from father to son, and from mother to daughter. Then, when His work was done amongst the tribe, Moongoo seperated the earth and the sky and ascended up to the heavens so that He may look over the land which He had left in their hands. But before He ascended, He bestowed cattle as a divine gift. This is why cattle are sacred to the Samburu and must only be slaughtered on special occasions.”
Thus began young Nandta’s morning instruction. The sun was rising as her mother continued to speak. In the distance, they heard the trumpeting trunks of the waking elephants. The blood-red African sky drained. A clear, lucent blue remained. That is when her mother paused and asked Nandta to gaze with her toward the far horizon where the lake Maringo silently slept.
Presently, the blue sky and the green water turned a bright, fluttering and flamboyant pink. Hundreds of flamingoes arose to the greet the day. Nandta’s mother turned to her daughter:
“Stop fidgeting!” her mother said to her, trying hard not to smile.
“I want to write these stories down! For that I need a pencil; I need to go see pencil maker!”
“You cannot see him unless you learn to sit patiently. Have I told you the price of the pencil?”
“Yes, yes, it is that I have to listen to a story from him first.”
“That is correct. To listen to his story you need to be quiet and not fidget and talk so much… you are not ready. Listening to the pencil maker’s story prepares you for many things.”
The pencil maker crafted beautiful pencils.
He chose the most elegant twigs from the acacia tree and he carved them and bore a hole for the thick dark charcoal. It was a labor of love. He could not give a pencil away without telling a story, because the pencil had to have a soul at birth. Before it began life as a pencil, it had to have a story. And the receiver of the new pencil was also receiver of this story.
Nandta’s mother’s morning instruction was done, and so Nandta stood next to her boma and she observed the pencil maker at work. She leaned upon the hut and watched him. The pencil maker knew she was watching him but pretended not to notice. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Nandta’s mother walking over to her with much conviction in her stride.
“Alright then Nandta, you can go to the pencil maker. You may go receive your first pencil.”
The dawn broke once more this morning as Nandta’s face suddenly shone brightly with joy – she skipped along over to the pencil maker and sat down across from him quietly.
The Samburu Pencil Maker knew many things.
He knew of the Elder Wisdom and peacemaking practice of his tribe.
He knew of the tribes practices of goat and cattle herding and grazing; on survival methods in the extreme weather conditions from torrential rains to driest drought; on the medicinal and healing properties of plants and herbs; on the behavioral patterns of insects, birds, wildflowers, roots, bulbs, shrubs, trees…
… On forestry, botany, zoology, biology, ecology, agrostology, agronomy, helminthology, entomology, ethnology, ethology, palaeoecology. Today’s story was on the flora and fuana.
Quietly, without a word, the pencil maker nodded his head toward the dusty grass clumps nearby, from which he and Nandta could observe an impala grazing beneath the wide, generous shade of an acacia tree.
The impala was eating the small acacia seed pods.
The pencil maker spoke in a gentle whisper to Nandta.
“That impala over there is eating the seed pods of the acacia. What do you think of this?”
“It is not good,” said Nandta very disapprovingly.
“Not good for whom, the impala or the seed pods?”
“The seed pods.”
“But the impala likes to eat the seed pods. They are very tasty and nutritious for him.”
“Yes, but the seed pods have to be left alone so that they can grow into trees. How can they? That impala is gobbling up the seeds!!”
“But has your mother not discussed with you that Moongoo designed the earth so that what is good for one is also good for the other? That there is balance and efficiency in all creation?”
“Yes, pencil maker.”
“Then if something is ‘good’ for the impala how can it be ‘not good’ for the seed pods of the acacia tree?”
“I don’t know. Can I see my new pencil now? Can I have it yet? Is the story over?”
“You are quite fidgety young Nandta. And no, the story is not over and so no, you may not have your pencil yet.”
Nandta’s mother stood next to her boma, watching… She shouted over to the pencil maker:
“Send her back, pencil maker! Send Nandta back if she fidgets too much! She’s not ready…”
The pencil maker laughed and laughed and shook his head in feigned indignation.
“Young lady, you are quite a spirit. I think you may even become a pencil maker one day…”
“Who me? Never! And anyway, there are no women pencil makers. Only men are traditionally the pencil makers in our tribe. Women will never make pencils. It has never been done.”
“Well, that is all changing, Nandta. Even your mother is attending the local school with the other wives one day a week. They are learning to read and write. Slowly, it is changing.”
It was true. More and more of the women of the tribe were learning to read and to write. They were now attending the local school. And Nandta was enjoying watching the pencil maker craft new pencils for their school classrooms. She was fascinated by the way he so meticulously chose the sturdy twigs and drained the gooey gummy glistening glue from the acacia tree.
“Yes, yes… maybe I will become a woman pencil maker when I grow up!” exclaimed Nandta.
“You cannot be a pencil maker with only half a story. You need to have the other half first.”
And so the pencil maker explained the rest of the story about the impala and the seed pods:
The outer coverings of the seed pods are both tasty and nutritious for the impala.
But the inner seed remains intact and travels through the digestive system of the animal.
There, it is softened and tenderized by the acidity of the impala’s digestive juices. Once the seed has passed completely through the digestive tract of the impala, it is in the perfect condition to germinate into a healthy and robust acacia tree. Infact, the passage through the impala’s digestive tract is essential for the germination of the acacia tree seed. Seeds left uneaten by the impala are unable to germinate on their own. An ecologically precise design.
“And now, young lady,” said the pencil maker after completing the story, “Here is your pencil.”
That was all many years ago.
Now, Nandta herself was a mother and she was now the pencil maker of the tribe. One day, a little boy came to see Nandta. His mother said he was ready to receive his very first pencil.
Nandta and the little boy sat quietly. Nandta listened closely.
She always listened to the still air, or the undulating and billowing winds, or the dry and dusty gusts, or the heavy puddly rains splattering on the red earth, because each brought new visions and old stories with them – an unexpected insight, or familiar lesson in a new form. She wondered what today’s story would unfold. What surprise was in store for them both.
Presently, she and the little boy heard the soft plodding rhythm of light and sprightly hooves in the near distance. Puffs of dusty clouds were sputtering and spattering into the dry air.
It was an impala, happily chewing upon seed pods amongst nearby clumps of grass. The little boy was also watching.
She hushed her voice to a gentle whisper and leaned over to the little boy. The little boy sat very still and listened intently to Nandta the Pencil Maker. He thought about the pencil he would receive once he listened through to the end of the story:
“That impala over there is eating the seed pods of the acacia tree. What do you think of this?”