A journey into vanishing world of the hunter, gatherer

Letilet’s Tales: The Vanishing World of a Hunter-Gatherer is a self-published book produced by Susie Allan and Letilet Ole Yenko.
It is the story of a young Maasai man who is half Maasai and half El Torobo, the El Torobo being a small offshoot of Maasai who don’t have cattle of their own, so they became hunter-gatherers like Letilet’s father.

“El Torobo isn’t an actual tribe,” explained Susie Allan who spent eight years researching and interviewing Letilet, the young man she met near his home in the Loita Hills while she was running the Ol Seki Mara Safari Camp inside the Koiyaki Group Ranch just north of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

In the preface to her book, Mrs Allan explains that getting to know Letilet led her to realise that his El Torobo (or Dorobo)ommunity had a rich indigenous culture but one that was unlikely to last long given the rapidity with which modernity has come to Kenya and already begun to change the wider community of Maasai.

So she embarked on a far-reaching research project that involved her spending hours, days and years interviewing and observing Letilet, his family and friends. Much like a scholarly cultural anthropologist, she’d listen and learn from him about multiple facets of El Torobo and Maasai traditions and everyday life.

From their ceremonies, rituals and time-honoured beliefs to their methods of making everything— from arrows, ‘spears, bee-hives and bows to playing enk-eshui, the traditional Maasai wooden board game—Mrs Allan was clearly keen to learn about Letilet’s El Torobo culture, especially as she knew through her own archival research that in the past, scholars had often lumped El Torobo together with the wider community of Maasai, leaving the El Torobo relatively under-researched.

That knowledge made both Letilet and Mrs Allan feel their book would have special significance since theirs might be the last time anyone had the chance to carefully document El Torobo songs, stories, ceremonies and traditions as they could be gone in a generation or even less.

Yet Letilet’s Tales is by no means an academic tome. It is filled with colourful high-resolution photographs provided by a large battery of professional and amateur photographers, including Maia Kenworthy who made a YouTube movie based on Letilet’s Tales, the 340 page book.

The colour photos are effective in illustrating not only Letilet’s and the El Torobo’s lifestyle. They also illumine the landscape and living fauna and flora that Letilet coexists with every day.

But it is in the last third of their book that photographs are especially helpful as they document in colourful detail the botanical facts about most of the trees, shrubs and plants that populate the Maasai Mara where the nomadic Letilet spent most of his youth.

Allan already had a fascination for indigenous plants before she met Letilet. But it was through him (who’ had never had formal schooling) that she discovered his encyclopaedic knowledge of plants, particularly their medicinal uses which he’d learned from his mother who had been a popular healer for most of her life.