Friday, September 19, 2014

The Samburu Tribe of Kenya

We visited a Samburu tribe in northern Kenya which was located between Buffalo Springs National Reserve and Shaba National Reserve. Only a small portion of our group paid the $20.00 per person to visit the tribe, a visit arranged by our driver, Stephen. I got the impression that not many people visit the Samburu tribe, unlike the Masai (or Maasai) tribe in Tanzania which was part of our tour itinerary and I think is part of many tour itineraries.

According to the 2009 census, there were 38.9 million people living in Kenya. Most of those people belong to one of 42 tribes, each tribe having its own unique culture, but with intertwining cultural practices because of similarities in language, environment and physical proximity to each other. There are 69 languages spoken in Kenya, but the languages can mostly be broken down into three categories. The Bantu speaking people, primarily farmers, are the majority in Kenya and are found along the coast, in the central highlands and in the west. The Bantu language originated in West Africa (Niger/Congo). The predominant Bantu tribes are the Kikuyu – 20% (of the total population), Kamba – 10%, Kisi – 6%, Mijikenda – 5%, Luhya – 14%, and Meru – 4%. Nilotes speakers are the second largest group in Kenya and are found in the Great Rift Valley and Lake Victoria region. The Nilotes are herdsmen and have reputations as warriors and cattle-rustlers. They speak Nilo-Saharan languages and originally came to Kenya by way of South Sudan. The most prominent tribes are the Luo – 10%, Masai – 2.1%, Turkana – 2.5%, Kelanin – 13% and Samburu (there are about 142,300 Samburu people which would make them about .37% of the population). The Cushite speaking people are pastoralists and nomads in northeast Kenya. They speak Afro-Asiatic languages and originally came from Ethiopia and Somalia. They are mostly herdsmen and Muslim and are found primarily along the border with Somalia.  They are only about 2% of the population of Kenya. Despite the wide variety of languages, both Swahili and English are the official languages and are what allow cross-cultural communication. Swahili is particularly known among the young Samburu and both Swahili and English are taught in school. However, there is a low level of literacy and education among the Samburu.

The Samburu tribe is found in north-central Kenya and is closely related to the Masai tribe. The Samburu language is called Samburu and about 95% of what they say would be understood by the Masai, although the Samburu speak more rapidly than the Masai. The Samburu people are traditionally pastoral, living off their herds of cows and goats. A few also have camels. When they arrived in the 15th century, the Masai moved south and the Samburu moved north. The Samburu were not impacted much by British rule because the British were not attracted to the arid lands they inhabited. The Samburu, the Masai and the Turkana tribes are among the few African tribes that have remained culturally authentic  by clinging to their traditional way of life.

The Samburu practice polygynous marriage, which allows a man to have multiple wives. At least in the village we visited, a man has to pay 10 cows to the father of the woman he wants to marry. One man told us proudly that when his two young daughters got married, he would get 20 cows and intimated that 20 cows would make him rich. The Samburu acknowledged that most men could not currently afford to pay that bride-price and the result was that many of the young people just slept together, and avoided marriage. We were told that the first wife was an arranged marriage, but after that, a man could pick out his own wives, so long as he can afford them. Girls as young as 12 years of age get married, sometimes to men that are much older than them.

A settlement usually consists of five to ten families and they will live in an area for about five weeks and then move on to obtain new pastures for their cattle. Wealth is measured by the size of the herd. Adult men care for the grazing cattle. Women milk the cows, obtain water and gather firewood. Each woman has her own hut which she builds with the help of other women out of materials that are available, such as mud, sticks and cow dung. We also saw them using cardboard from boxes and plastic. The settlement consists of huts built in a rough circle with open space in the center containing animal pens to keep the animals away from predators. The circle of huts is surrounded by a fence made of acacia thorn bushes which is built by the men. Their main food is maize (corn), milk and blood, much like the Masai. The blood is drawn by piercing the vein of a cow with a spear or knife. The wound is then resealed with hot ashes. They only eat meat on special occasions and during ceremonies such as the birth of a child, initiation (circumcision) and marriage. 
The acacia thorn outer fence surrounds the huts within. 
A child in orange stands at the entrance to the village. 
Several huts, the entrance in the center and our vehicle to the far right.
A closer view of two huts. Note the traditional materials, but also the cardboard and plastic. 
A hut for goats surrounded by a much stronger acacia fence. 
A beautiful little black and white goat inside the hut. 
The thick acacia fence surrounding the animal compound.
The animal enclosure from the outside.
Going inside a hut.
The huts were much better covered on top and were sectioned into a cooking area and a sleeping area. The floors were mostly dirt, but were covered in places by mats. They slept on mats on the ground. Dung and mud were used to fill gaps in the sticks which provided the structure for the hut.
I found myself getting very warm and claustrophobic inside and wanting to get out. 
The mud/dung sides only go so high, then the roof is slatted sticks covered by cardboard, plastic, thatching, etc. 
The style of dress of the Samburu is very similar to the Masai and foreigners often confuse the two tribes. They dress simply with brightly colored fabric called shukas, which they wrap loosely around their bodies. Men often wear red and black cloth, while women wear two pieces of purple or blue cloth, one piece wrapped around the waist and one wrapped over the chest. In the past decade or so, traditional clothing styles have started to change. Men may wear a dark green or blue plaid cloth and often wear shorts underneath. Women now often wear cloth with animal or floral patterns in deep colors and often wear tank tops and plaid skirts. Both sexes also wear beaded jewelry in the form of necklaces, bracelets and anklets and sometimes decorate their bodies and hair with red ochre. Warriors or morans keep their long hair in braids and dress in more colorful attire than other members of the tribe. When they become elders, they shave off their braids. Women keep their hair shaved. Samburu who live in the city usually dress Western style, but most of them are still rural and dress traditionally. 
Samburu women at the entrance of the acacia thorn fence dressed in their colorful clothing and beads. 
The Samburu women mixed with our women and taught them a dance. 
Note the short hair, but also the more modern prints on their clothing.
This Samburu woman was educated outside of the village, but came back to the village to support her people. Note the highlights in her hair and her longer hair is gathered to the back of her head in a bun. She talked of her desires for change among her people, including her desire to see female circumcision abandoned. 
A Samburu man in a traditional wrap in traditional colors.
This man was the son of the chief and was the main spokesman. He spoke in good English and advocated strongly for polygany and female circumcision. 
A chicken roaming the compound.
A dog in the compound.
An open hut for an unknown purpose.
Marriage is a series of rituals. I’ve read that gifts by the bridegroom include two goatskins, two copper earrings, a container for milk, and a sheep, but that appears to be in addition to the bride-price paid in cows. We were told in this particular tribe that the bride-price was ten cows. The marriage is official when a bull enters a hut guarded by the bride’s mother and is killed.

Child-bearing is very important. One fertility ritual has them placing a mud figure in front of a woman’s hut. A week later a feast is given by the husband who invites the neighbors to eat a slaughtered bull. A little fat is spread over the woman’s belly and they say, “May God give you a child.” A woman that is not able to bear children is ridiculed. 
The children in "school" were off to the side. I assume the hut near them was the school house.
The children were very cute, but also very dirty. Many were barefoot. 

Their society is focused on cattle and warfare and they have had a harder time assimilating into modern culture than many other tribes, including the Masai. Boys early on learn to herd cattle and goats, to hunt and to defend their flocks. Girls learn to get water and wood and cook. Both sexes are initiated into adulthood. Boys are trained for about five years to become a junior warrior or moran, then they go through a naming ceremony and serve as senior morans for six years. During their warrior years, men live apart from the women of the village. After completion of their training, they are free to marry and join the married men after they have been circumcised. Women must have female circumcision or clitoridectomy before they are married. This is now illegal under Kenyan law but we were told by the Samburu that female circumcision is still practiced. 
They are very adept at starting fire without matches. We watched a demonstration of them creating a fire using wood sticks and dung (the dung was the fuel to catch the flame). 
They love to sing and dance, but traditionally do not use instruments or drums. Most dances involve men and women dancing in separate circles with particular moves for each sex. The men particularly enjoy dance jumping and high jumping from a standing position. We saw them do this and also participated with them in doing so.   
A Samburu man jumping very high in a dance the men all participated in.
They try to supplement their "tourist" money with the sale of necklaces and woodcarvings. 

Traditionally, the Samburu believe that God, Nkai, is the source of their protection. Nkai dwells in the mountains, large trees, caverns and water springs. Nkai, a feminine noun, plays an active role in their lives. Individuals, especially women and children, have visions of Nkai and some of them prophesy. They pray to Nkai in public gatherings, but they also use the term nkai for spirits related to trees, rocks and springs. They also believe in an evil spirit called milika. They have shamans, loibonok, who divine the causes of illness and misfortune and guide warriors. The majority of the Samburu observe traditional ritual practices, but some have converted to other religions, such as Catholicism and Protestantism. It is estimated that about 8 or 9% of the Samburu are Christian, and about one-third of those are evangelical Christians. We had several Samburu tell us that they are Catholic and show us crosses around their necks. I assume the Catholic church turns a blind eye to the polygany because it is so prevalent among the tribes of Africa. 


  1. My understanding is that the Samburu tribe is a branch of the Masai. Based on our very limited experience, they seemed like the poor country cousins. I was impressed by the young woman who came to help with the tour, but I got the sense that she is a rarity--someone both well educated but still committed to the tribe. As their older children are sent away to school, I wonder if change will come more quickly to the tribe. It was a shock to find that female circumcision is still practiced in spite of legislation against it and in a group that seems to have regular contact with the outside world. How that and polygamy is reconciled with Catholicism is a mystery, but perhaps the transition to different beliefs and practices has at least begun.

  2. What a challenging life these people live. As Judy says, the circumcision and polygamy are a surprise. I love the pictures of the children.

  3. That looks like a very harsh way of life.