The Samburu are a proud warrior race of cattle-owning pastoralists. They form part of the Maa-speaking people of whom the Maasai are best known.
Their dialect is, however, spoken in a more rapid manner than that of the Maasai but includes many words that are common to both. The name ‘Samburu’ is also of Maasai origin and refers to the traditional leather bag 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 instead lay in the remote and much more arid Northern Frontier District (NFD) for which a special travel document was required. Interestingly, this requirement extended for a few years even after Kenya attained its independence!
Previously, no one other than Government Officials could travel within any part of the NFD, and due to this, the Samburu were virtually isolated and largely unaware of the momentous changes taking place within the rest of the country. Even today, Samburu Land remains remote and unspoilt, having escaped the negative impact of mass tourism.
Proud of their culture and traditions, the Samburu retain their forebears’ customs and ceremonies, unlike many Westernised communities in Kenya.
The ancient history and exact origin of the Samburu people is difficult to trace beyond a period of about 100 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 offshoot of the main community that remained behind whilst others pushed further South. Fiercely devoted to their livestock, the Samburu people prioritize it above all else.
Their cattle are their life. It is a mark of wealth and a source of their livelihood. It is also the symbol of status and success within the community. Since, like the true Maasai, they believe that all cattle rightfully belong to them, cattle raiding of other communities has always been a major preoccupation of the warriors.
After circumcision, a male joins an age set of peers and maintains a close bond with them till 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 14 and 25. Each generation of age sets lasts, on average, for 14 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 Moranis are flamboyant in their dress and very vain. They frequently apply abstract designs in orange to their faces and red ochre to their heads, necks and shoulders. They can spend hours braiding each other’s long ochred hair. Without a doubt, moranhood is the pinnacle of a man’s life. It’s a time when one’s potential is at its peak and every moment is full of excitement and adventure. 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. Girls at clan dances prioritize their appearance.
They paste ochre onto their shaven heads, darken their eyebrows with charcoal, and paint intricate designs on their faces. They are then likely to earn praise from the morans, probably becoming mistresses to them and enjoying their protection.
Although they both know that their relationship has no future, they forge it based on mutual physical and sexual attraction. It’s taboo for members of the same clan to tie the knot because of their blood ties.
Over the years the moran will heap beads upon his lover or bead girl as a symbol of his love. Although girls may have feelings for a man, society teaches them to suppress such emotions. They grow up knowing they will never be able to wed someone of their own choosing.
Her family forges the marriage bond based on long-term sound investment, not physical attraction or emotion, teaching that to them.