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Beyond my sketch pad

THE lorry took off, leaving me and my gear in a sea of dust. When the air cleared I found myself alone on the outskirts of the village of Kalcha in north central Kenya. This is the home of the Gabbra, one of the southernmost tribes of camel herders.

I squinted into the sun and spotted a group of mud huts shaded by an occasional acacia tree. Time ceased. It could have been a thousand years ago.

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I blinked myself awake and remembered that I had come to sketch this indigenous tribe still living in harmony with its surroundings, migrating with its herds in 20,000 square miles of desolation. I knew there must be more to the parched plains, the volcanic rubble, and palm-fringed desert than met my eye upon arrival. I soon began to find out.

As I picked up sticks to stake my tent, a group of men approached from the village. I greeted them with a confidence I did not feel. They told me that it was dangerous to tent out here alone. They indicated that I must move my tent closer to their homes so that they would feel safer for me. A total stranger was immediately brought into their extended family community. I was no longer alone.

My daily safari took me along a path to the heart of this community during the dry season - to a permanent water source. ''Unakwenda wapi?'' (''Where are you going?'') a new friend would shout as I started forth with my sketchbook and pens each morning. ''Ninakwenda kisima'' (''I'm going to the spring''), I would answer in my halting Swahili.

Children's voices called out, ''Mzuri!'' (Swahili for ''good'') in greeting, not knowing what they were saying, for they speak only Gabbra. One child, Bati, followed me, herding a flock of goats. An hour after our first jaunt to the spring together she took off her beaded necklace and placed it over my head. She frequently appeared with her goats, and would squat down beside me and teach me a few Gabbra words or games. Once she taught me how to make a basket out of palm fronds. She seemed delighted to pose for me.

The Gabbra tend to have a tall, delicate build, fine features, wavy hair, and a proud and noble attitude. The scene they bring to the spring is from another century. Camel caravans arrive, heavy laden with large woven baskets, led by women draped in sun-faded fabric accentuated by aluminum jewelry.

How could I feel comfortable recording them in my sketchbook? One morning I found the answer.

A young woman arrived at the spring with only one camel. Dropping the two baskets and packing gear, she turned and vanished into the herds of goats and camels that were milling about the spring. When she was out of sight I quickly filled her two water baskets with water. When she returned and found them full, her eyes and smile spoke clearly. She showed no objection when I picked up my sketch pad. Every day I found others needing help with their baskets, unloading or loading burdens and capturing runaway camels. I ended up with a sketchbook full in return.

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I learned much about the nomadic way of life while living among these gentle pastoralists. Seasonal migration, shifting from wet-season hillsides of the Huri hills to dry-season plains, prevents overgrazing. Threat of drought is continual.

Survival, the primal issue, depends upon rainfall. It was a critical time of drought, yet the Gabbra always had time to visit with a ''mzungu'' (foreigner).

One morning a new head popped into my tent. The man laughed in amazement to see that my house was smaller than his. Bati pushed by him with two brooms to sweep out the dust accumulated from the unending wind. After sweeping my tent, she reached outside for the basket she had made as a parting gift. She sensed the end of my stay had come, and invited me to her home for tea.

Bati lived with her family in a simple circular hut with fabric separating the fire circle in front and two beds made of lashed sticks in the back. While sitting on one of the beds drinking my scalding tea, I heard a rhythmic voice singing, ''Aie aie aie.'' Peeking through a tiny hole in the mud wall I saw Bati's uncle seated on a skin on the ground. He was imitating the Gabbra's dance which takes place nightly under the full moon - but this time with his infant son, tapping his feet gently on the skin and then lifting him high into the air. This sight and sound is with me still, beyond the confines of a sketch pad.

On my departure I looked back at the Huri hills, the surrealistic cones which the Gabbra value so highly during the rare wet seasons for their thick high grasses. The government of Kenya is investigating these hills, which could perhaps produce more for a country in great need of improved agricultural yields. Have we learned enough from these Gabbra about semiarid pastoral subsistence before it is eliminated?

As my feet led me away, down the dusty path, I wondered what is to become of the Gabbra and their way of living. What they had taught me in those few weeks had changed me permanently - and I realized I had only just arrived.

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