Like the Maasai, the Samburu are nomadic pastoralists, moving from one place to another following patterns of rainfall in search of fresh pasture and water for their cattle, camels, goats and sheep.
The Samburus are considered even more traditional and remote than their Maasai kin, and have maintained the authenticity of their culture by sticking to their ancient traditions and defying modern trends.
History of the Samburu
Samburu history is intertwined with that of Kenya’s other Nilotic tribes. Samburus are known to have originated from Sudan, settling north of Mount Kenya and south of Lake Turkana in Kenya’s Rift Valley area. Upon their arrival in Kenya in the 15th century, the Samburu parted ways with their Maasai cousins, who moved further south while the Samburu moved north. The Samburu were not very affected by British colonial rule since the British did not find their land particularly attractive.
Samburu language and culture
The Samburu tribe speaks the Maa language, as do the Maasai. However, although they share a vocabulary, the Samburu speak more rapidly than the Maasai. Together with the Maasai and Turkana tribes, the Samburu are among the few African tribes who have remained culturally authentic by clinging to their traditional way of life.
The Samburu dress is so similar to the Maasai that it is hard to distinguish between the two tribes. Both Samburu men and women dress in brightly colored traditional shukas, which they wrap loosely around their bodies. Samburu men also dye their hair with red ochre, while the women adorn themselves in beautiful, multi-beaded necklaces and other traditional jewelry. Samburu warriors, or morans, keep their long hair in braids and dress in more colorful attire than other members of the tribe.
Circumcision for both boys and girls is one of the most important rituals among the Samburu. For boys, circumcision marks the initiation into moran (warrior) life; for girls, it signifies becoming a woman. Once circumcised, a girl/woman can be given away in an arranged marriage to start her own family. Sadly, this practice has seen girls as young as 12 years old get married to men old enough to be their grandfathers.
In recent times, however, concerted efforts by the Kenyan government and non-governmental organizations have remarkably reduced the number of cases where Samburu and Pokot females are circumcised and forced into an early marriage. This has enabled many girls to attain an education.
The nomadic lifestyle of the Samburu people
Like Kenya’s other pastoralist tribes, the Samburu people rear large herds of cows, sheep, goats and camels, which they openly graze on their communal land. Samburu herdsmen and their animals stay in one grazing area for as long as there is adequate pasture and water, then move on to new pastures once the current pasture has been exhausted. Every time they move, they build temporarily manyattas – mud-walled, grass-thatched huts – to live in, and fence their cattle yards with thorn. A typical Samburu village normally includes several manyattas belonging to a group of five to 10 families.
Samburu beliefs, faith and religion
Traditionally, the Samburu believed in one supreme god – Nkai or Ngai – who was thought to reside in the mountains. Diviners often acted as intermediaries between other mortals and Nkai. Today, while many Samburu people still adhere to their traditional religion, some have adopted the Christian or Islamic faith.
The food of the Samburus
Maize (corn), milk and blood is Samburu’s main food. The blood is drawn by piercing the vein of a cow with a spear or knife, after which the wound is resealed with hot ashes. They don’t slaughter their animals very often. The Samburu tribe only eats meat on special occasions and during ceremonies such as the birth of a child, initiation and marriage.