The Samburu tribe is one of the more dominating tribes of north-central Kenya. The Samburu developed from one of the later Nilotic migrations from the Sudan, as part of their plains Nilotic movement. They are related to the Maasai, share a few traditions, but are overall pretty distinct from each other. I got a chance to meet them in their society, talk to them, interact with them and understand their culture when I was at the Samburu National Reserve in North Kenya.
The Samburu are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd mainly cattle, but also keep sheep, goats and camels. They live north of the equator and live in very diverse and beautiful landscapes that spans high altitude forests, open plains, semi-arid grass and bush land to complete desert.
The elders occupy a very important place in the Samburu society and all the power rests with them. They have a polygamous system where the elders decide who can marry and have how many wives. This kind of control helps keep trouble at rest or at least that is the belief.
In the Samburu society, the men take care of security and cattle-herding, while the women take care of things like building houses, collecting firewood and food from forest, cooking food, taking care of young and in doing craftsmanship. In their own terms, a Samburu woman is much more hard-working than a Samburu man.
Since the Samburus’ practice polygynous marriage, their settlements or manyattas mirror this setup. Each manyatta might have 4 or 5 families and within each family, there might be multiple wives who live in their own house, which they build on their own using sticks, mud, dung and plastic (for waterproofing).
The entire manyatta is surrounded by a acacia thorn bush fence to prevent the people and their cattle from predators. The cattle are again surrounded by a second layer of thorn fence in the center of each manyatta. One or two Samburu men would keep watch every night and protect the entire village.
Traditionally, the Samburu people have completely survived off the products of their herds. However, decline in cattle numbers, less rains and increased tourism has meant the Samburu people have gotten more into the tourism industry working with various wildlife resorts, the forest department and related companies. Some of them have also gone out to large cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa to find other sources of employment.
The Samburu people speak the Samburu language, which is a Nilo-Saharan language. Their language is more or less similar to Maa (the language that the Maasai speak). The Samburu tongue is also related to Turkana and Karamojong and more distantly to Pokot and the Kalenjin languages.
Today, a lot of them speak Swahili and English to make utmost use of the opportunities to make money. Slowly, but steadily, schools are being developed for a cluster of villages to ensure that the Samburu kids get quality education in both Swahili and English.
The standard food of the Samburu is milk from their cattle, blood taken from their cattle without killing them and wild foods. During festivals and certain times of celebration, they kill some of their cattle and eat their meat. Today, they consume some agricultural products like maize too. Tea with milk and sugar is their staple diet.
The Samburu clothing is something that I found real interesting. Both men and women wear extremely bright colours. This may be because they want to add some life to the otherwise barren landscape or to make their dark skin glow. They adorn themselves with necklaces, bracelets and anklets.
The warrior men cover their head in red ochre. The elders (both men and women) were clean shaven. The women wear numerous necklaces and bracelets and these ornaments are made from colorful beads (used to be colorful seeds a long time back). It is said that the more beads or necklaces are there on a women, the more beautiful she is considered. Another point on the same line of thought is that, women were more necklaces as they get richer. Therefore, the number of beads or necklaces indicate status in society, richness level and beauty.
During my visits, most of the men wore red cloths either around their waist or over their shoulder. Women, on the other hand wore floral and pastel designs. Though, with increased tourism and westernization, the Samburu people are also slowly taking to western attire.
The Samburu love to sing and dance, but traditionally use no instruments. They have dances for various occasions of life. The men dance jumping and high jumping from a standing position is a great sport. Most dances involve the men and the women dancing in their separate circles with particular moves for each sex, but coordinating the movements of the two groups. A lot of their dances include elaborate movements of their
If you do get to visit them, you will come across this statement: Do you wish to marry one of our Samburu girls? All you have to do is give the chief of the village 2 cows. That is how weddings happen in the Samburu culture.
Girls get married pretty early. Sometimes before they turn 18. Both boys and girls go through an initiation into adulthood, which involves training in adult responsibilities and circumcision for boys and clitoridectomy for girls. Ouch!!
The Samburu people are very homely and kind and it hurts me to see them struggle. So if you do visit them, be your generous self. Any donation, however small will help this community give good education and food to its kids while keeping its traditions intact.