The Samburu People
The Samburu are a proud warrior-race of cattle-owning
pastoralists, a section of the Maa-speaking people amongst whom the
Maasai are the best known. Their dialect is spoken in a more rapid
manner than that of the Maasai, but includes many words that are common
The name ‘Samburu’ is also of Maasai origin, ‘Samburr’ being
the traditional leather bag specific to them which is used for carrying
meat and honey on their backs.
They dwell in the Highlands of Northern Kenya, but their land was
never a part of the White Highlands previously inhabited by European
settlers and ranchers. It lay in the remote and much more arid Northern
Frontier for which a special travel document was required, a requirement
that extended for a few years even after Kenya attained its independent
status. Previously no-one other than Government Officials could travel
within any part of the NFD and due to this the Samburu tribe was
virtually isolated and largely unaware of the momentous changes taking
place within the rest of the country. Even today, Samburuland remains
remote and unspoilt, having escaped the negative impact of mass tourism.
Proud of their culture and traditions, the Samburu still cherish and
retain the customs and ceremonies of their forbears, unlike most other
tribes in Kenya who have been influenced by Western civilization.
The ancient history and exact origin of the Samburu people is
difficult to trace beyond a period of about one hundred years. Events
recorded orally soon become interwoven with mythology, merging into one.
Some believe their origin could be in the Sudan, but others, within
Egypt, the descendants of a lost battalion of Roman soldiers. True
Maasai tribesmen call them ‘The Butterfly People’, an off-shoot of
the main tribe that remained behind whilst others pushed further South.
Fiercely pastoral, the Samburu people are totally committed to their
stock, almost to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Their cattle
are their life; their wealth; their livelihood and the symbol of status
and success within the tribe. Since, like the true Maasai, they believe
that all cattle rightfully belong to them, cattle raiding of other
tribes has always been a major preoccupation of the warriors.
As soon as a male of the tribe has been circumcised, he joins an
age-set comprised of all the young men so initiated within a period of
about fourteen years and he will maintain a close affinity with these
peers until death. Girls do not have any age-set grouping, passing
instead through two stages of life, namely girlhood and womanhood. The
men on the other hand pass through three, boyhood from birth to
adolescence before entering an age-set, moranhood, from circumcision to
marriage when they are warriors and elderhood, from marriage until
death. Samburu society is polygamous.
The family lives and shares the same manyatta and it is the
women who are entirely responsible for the home. The most significant
event in a boy’s life is his elevation from childhood to manhood
as a result of circumcision. This takes place when he is between the
ages of fourteen and twenty-five. Each generation of age-sets lasts on
average fourteen years.
The moran, or warriors, are the most striking members of Samburu
society and are inevitably attractive to young girls. They enjoy a
convivial and relatively undemanding life with permissive sex for
roughly 14 years. Most of them will at one time or another have many
lovers who demonstrate affection with lavish gifts of beads. The moran
are flamboyant in their dress and very vain, frequently applying
abstract designs in orange to their faces and red ochre to their heads,
necks and shoulders and spending hours braiding each others’ long
ochred hair. There is little doubt that moranhood is considered
the best period of a man’s life. Fearless and arrogant, he is in his
prime during this period, free to do largely exactly as he likes.
Girls train for motherhood at an early age by helping with the
household chores, and caring for their siblings. When adolescent girls
attend dances organized by the moran of their clan they are acutely
aware of the importance of looking their best at such gatherings. They
paste ochre onto their shaven heads, darken their eyebrows with
charcoal, and paint intricate designs on their faces. She is then likely
to earn praise from a moran, probably becoming a mistress to him and
enjoying his protection. This relationship is forged by mutual physical
and sexual attraction, although each knows that their relationship has
no future. Since both come from the same clan, marriage is forbidden.
Over the years the moran will heap beads upon his lover or bead girl as
a symbol of his love and whilst the girls may feel passionately about a
certain man, they are taught from an early age that these feelings are
irrelevant, for they will never be able to wed someone of their own
choosing. Girls are taught that the marriage bond is not based on
physical attraction or emotion, but instead that it is a long term sound
investment forged by her family.