Kasao was born into the Samburu tribe in a part of northern Kenya also called Samburu, a semi-arid part of the country where the nights are cold and the days are hot. As a result, the Samburu tribe are nomadic, moving every few months with their livestock to seek new pastures.
The village he was born into was temporary. It consisted of about 20 huts made of sticks bound together with sisal, leaves and cow dung. Animal skins (cows and goats) were used as bedding and to cover the hole in the roof to let the smoke from the fire out.
“The door is always open in the hut because a Samburu has to sleep with one eye open so he can protect his livestock,” says Kasao with a smile.
The women build the huts and therefore own them. It’s the men’s job to look after the livestock. The longest the Samburu would stay in one village is a year; the average time, before they more on is a few months.
As a child, Kasao looked after the young animals with the other children. His father had three wives so there were 23 children in the family. It was at his uncle’s suggestion that he was sent to school at the age of 12.
“My uncle told my father that it was a good idea to send some of the children to school. So it was decided that I and my stepbrother Pogisa would go to boarding school,” says Kasao. “Also, I was not so good at looking after the animals. My father said that I was not a good shepherd.”
Kasao’s father took himself and his brother to the Catholic Mission School where they were to be boarders.
“The school was about 80km away,” says Kasao. “We walked for four days to get there. My father took some goats with us so he could sell them and buy us bedding, school books and uniforms for our new life. And also to pay the small amount of money it would cost for us to attend the school.”
The teachers in the school spoke Swahili and English. As Kasao only spoke Maa, for the first three months, he didn’t understand anything.
“There were about 120 children of different ages in the classroom,” he says, “but the hardest part was learning to survive. There was no water so every morning, first thing, you would have to get up and go down to the river to get water for the day ahead. If you were late for meals, you often wouldn’t get any food and at night time, if you were last into the room, you wouldn’t be able to find a space to put your mattress. It was a constant battle for survival.”
After three months, the term ended and Kasao and his stepbrother were sent back on their own to their village.
“You must remember, this wasn’t easy,” he says. “Samburu are nomadic so it took us several days, meeting people and asking others along the way.”
Back in the village, the other children would tease them about being at school, simply unable to understand the whole concept.
“I didn’t hate it,” Kasao says, “it was my father’s decision that I should go. In my second year, I started to understand Swahili that made a difference. There was a little girl, who was about seven who sat beside me in class. Here was this child who could speak Swahili and English and Maa, she understood everything and could communicate. That made me very determined to master the language. And if you did well in class, you got rewarded – sometimes by getting a book or a pencil. I did well and got those rewards.”
Growing up in Samburu, the relationship that the tribe had with the wildlife around them was very important.
“Samburu believe that God gives them animals like goats and cows to live,” he says. “The other animals - like leopard, lion, giraffe, zebra - live alongside us and need to be watched carefully. Sometimes they can be a danger to our livestock but mostly they are good indicators as to how things are on the land. If they are dying because of lack of water or grazing, it affects us. We do not eat game meat, it’s a respectful relationship.”
Kasao stayed in the mission school for eight years, until he was 20.
“After that, I got a job as a clerk with the government in Nairobi,” says Kasao. “I didn’t like the city, it scared me. The amount of people scared me. I grew up in the bush where there are very few people.”
He had a friend who had a small camp in Tsavo East and he went to work there.
“There I was happy. I was back in the environment I knew and loved. Surrounded by animals.”
Kasao Learat, who is the husband of Siobhan Byrne Learat, the founder and owner of Adams & Butler, is an Elder of the Samburu tribe in north Kenya. Kasao is a member of the Kenya Professional Safari Guide Association and worked as a driver/tour guide and manager for various safari companies and safari lodges in Kenya. During this time he was able to use his skills in areas such as game drives and walks, animal control and wildlife census, leopard baiting, wildlife welfare, and managing orphan animals and sick animals.Kasao then became head of the Tsavo East Anti-Poaching Unit in Kenya, funded (Funded by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust). The Anti-Poaching Unit arrested 60+ poachers while he was there and as a result, he was awarded Honorary Lifetime Wardenship of KWS for Tsavo East in recognition of his achievements as Manager.
“I was happy to get the honour but the thing about the poachers is that they are desperate. They use poisoned arrows and snares to kill the animals and are often just struggling to feed their families,” he says. “Nothing is going to change until they have another way of making a living. Until the issues are addressed. It’s also awful to come across an animal that’s caught in a trap, it’s a very cruel way of killing an animal.”Our veterinary unit would often just have to kill the animal to put them out of their misery.”
He has also worked with the well-known wildlife documentary film-maker, Reinhard Radke, maker of the film The Serengeti, working a Field Assistant on two of his films for National Geographic, Lions in the Mara and Cheetah: Fatal Instinct. Kasao is fluent in English, Samburu, Kiswahili and Maa and in his spare time, enjoys reading, camping and hiking.Today, Kasao runs the ground operations for Adams & Butler and in 2016 he is planning to lead two safaris to Kenya and Tanzania with the wildlife documentary film-maker, Reinhard Radke, someone who’s he’s worked with before on documentaries for National Geographic.
“I’m very excited about these trips. The groups will have a fantastic experience. Reinhard is a biologist and I know the bush inside out. And we work very well together!”