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 tribe was 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 still cherish and retain the customs and ceremonies of their forebears, unlike most other tribes in Kenya who have been influenced by Western civilisation.
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 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. It is a mark of wealth and a source of their livelihood. It is also 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 14 years and he will maintain a close affinity with these peers until death. Girls do not have any age-set grouping, passing instead through 2 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 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 organised 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. They are then likely to earn praise from the morans, probably becoming mistresses to them and enjoying their 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. Whilst the girls may have feelings towards a certain man, they are taught that these feelings are irrelevant. They grow up knowing they will never be able to wed someone of their own choosing.
They are also taught that the marriage bond is not based on physical attraction or emotion. It is instead a long term sound investment forged by her family.