The Samburu are a Nilotic people of north-central Kenya. They are a sub tribe of the Maasai. The Samburu are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd mainly cattle but also keep sheep, goats and camels. The name they use for themselves is Lokop or Loikop, a term which may have a variety of meanings which Samburu themselves do not agree on. Many assert that it refers to them as "owners of the land" ("lo" refers to ownership, "nkop" is land) though others present a very different interpretation of the term. The Samburu speak the Samburu dialect of the Maa language, which is a Nilo-Saharan language. There are many game parks in the area, one of the most well known is Samburu National Reserve.The Samburu is the third largest in the Maa community of Kenya and Tanzania,after the Kisonko(Isikirari)of Tanzania and Purko of Kenya and Tanzania.
The Samburu people live slightly south of Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya. They have traditionally herded cattle, goats and sheep in and an arid region with sparse vegetation. A nomadic life-style is essential for their survival since attempts to settle down in permanent locations have reduced their self-sufficiency and ability to maintain their traditional values and practices.
The Samburu developed from one of the later Nilotic migrations from the Sudan, as part of the Plains Nilotic movement. The broader grouping of the Maa-speaking people continued moving south, possibly under the pressure of the Borana expansion into their plains. Maa-speaking peoples have lived and fought from Mt. Elgon to Malindi and down the Rift Valley into Tanzania.
The Samburu are in an early settlement area of the Maa group. Those who moved on south, however (called Maasai), have retained a more purely nomadic lifestyle until recently when they have also begun farming. The expanding Turkana ran into the Samburu around 1700 when they began expanding north and east.
Natural disasters and insensitive government mandates have plagued the Samburu. Droughts reduce the amount of available pasture and the number of cattle is reduced through natural, though at times abnormal, selection with resulting reduction of the wealth, status and stature of family groups.
If individuals are forced to sell their cattle or lose them through natural causes, they lose their means of self-sufficiency. They are then reduced to welfare help provided by national and religious organizations. A few development projects have provided new means of establishing settlements based on agriculture as well as hunting and gathering.
This implies a sedentary agricultural life-style as well as a loss of status among the Samburu, who have traditionally held their nomadic life-style to be superior. Thus economics and survival are directly affecting the Samburu. Changes in lifestyle have come as Samburu have traveled to other parts of Kenya. Samburu, like Maasai and Turkana, work in the cities as guards.
The Chamus (Njemps) people speak the Samburu language and are often counted as Samburu people. They are reported to be 12% Christian, while the Samburu are considered as 8-9% Christian. Evangelical estimates are lower, about 3% Christian for Samburu and 2.2% Christian for Chamus. The Samburu have traditionally been allies of the Rendille, who are about 5% Christian and are related to the Somali.
The language of the Samburu people is also called Samburu. It is a Maa language very close to the Maasai dialects. Linguists have debated the distinction between the Samburu and Maasai languages for decades.
In normal conversation one who speaks one of these languages can understand the other language 95 percent of the time. But a joint Bible translation was found to be ineffective to cover both groups. Preferred word usage and some grammatical difficulties required a separate translation for Samburu and Maasai.
The Samburu tongue is also related to Turkana and Karamojong, and more distantly to Pokot and the Kalenjin languages.
The Chamus (Njemps) people speak the Samburu language and are often counted as Samburu people. They are reported to be 12% Christian, while the Samburu are considered as 8-9% Christian. The Ariaal group of Rendille have been greatly affected by the Samburu and now speak the Samburu language. The Ariaal number 102,000, making a total of 249,300 mother-tongue speakers of the Samburu language.
Swahili is used extensively, particularly among younger people. Swahili is the language of education and English is taught in schools. There is still a low level of literacy and education, however, among the Samburu.
The Samburu are a gerontocracy. The power of elders is linked to the belief in their curse, underpinning their monopoly over arranging marriages and taking on further wives. This is at the expense of unmarried younger men, whose development up to the age of thirty is in a state of social suspension, prolonging their adolescent status. The paradox of Samburu gerontocracy is that popular attention focuses on the glamour and deviant activities of these footloose bachelors, which extend to a form of gang feuding between clans, widespread suspicions of covert adultery with the wives of older men, and theft of their stock.
Men wear a cloth which is often pink or black and is wrapped around their waist in a manner similar to a Scottish Kilt. They adorn themselves with necklaces, bracelets and anklets, like other sub tribes of the Maasai community. Members of the moran age grade (i.e. "warriors") typically wear their hair in long braids, which they shave off when they become elders. It may be colored using red ochre. Their bodies are sometimes decorated with ochre, as well. Women wear two pieces of blue or purple cloth, one piece wrapped around the waist, the second wrapped over the chest. Women keep their hair shaved and wear numerous necklaces and bracelets. In the past decade, traditional clothing styles have changed. Some men may wear the 1980s-90s style of red tartan cloth or they may wear a dark green/blue plaid cloth around their waists called 'kikoi', often with shorts underneath. Marani (Lmuran) (warriors) wear a cloth that may be floral or pastel. Some women still wear two pieces of blue or red cloth, but it has become fashionable to wear cloths with animal or floral patterns in deep colors. Women may also often wear small tank tops with their cloths, and plaid skirts have also become common.
Traditionally Samburu relied almost solely on their herds, although trade with their neighbors and use of wild foods were also important. Before the colonial period, cow, goat, and sheep milk was the daily staple. Oral and documentary evidence suggests that small stock were significant to the diet and economy at least from the eighteenth century forward. In the twenty-first century, cattle and small stock continue to be essential to the Samburu economy and social system. Milk is still a valued part of Samburu contemporary diet when available, and may be drunk either fresh, or fermented; "ripened" milk is often considered superior. Meat from cattle is eaten mainly on ceremonial occasions, or when a cow happens to die. Meat from small stock is eaten more commonly, though still not on a regular basis. Today Samburu rely increasingly on purchased agricultural products—with money acquired mainly from livestock sales—and most commonly maize meal is made into a porridge. Tea is also very common, taken with large quantities of sugar and (when possible) much milk, and is actually a staple of contemporary Samburu diet. Blood is both taken from living animals, and collected from slaughtered ones. There are at least 13 ways that blood can be prepared, and may form a whole meal. Some Samburu these days have turned to agriculture, with varying results.
The Samburu practice male (foreskin) and female (clitoris) genital mutilation. Boys get circumcised in their teenage year, girls before marriage. Unmutilated girls are forced to have sex if they are part of "Beading" but are not allowed to have children.
The Samburu believe that God (Nkai) is the source of all protection from the hazards of their existence. But God also inflicts punishment if an elder curses a junior for some show of disrespect. The elder’s anger is seen as an appeal to God, and it is God who decides if the curse is justified. Faced with misfortune and following some show of disrespect towards an older man, the victim should approach his senior and offer reparation in return for his blessing. This calms the elder's anger and restores God’s protection. It is however uncommon for an elder to curse a junior. Curses are reserved for cases of extreme disrespect.
Samburu religion traditionally focuses on their multi-faceted divinity (Nkai). Nkai (a feminine noun), plays an active role in the lives of contemporary Samburu. It is not uncommon for children and young people, especially women, to report visions of Nkai. Some of these children prophesy for some period of time and a few gain a reputation for prophecy throughout their lives. Besides these spontaneous prophets, Samburu have ritual diviners, or Shamans, called 'loibonok' who divine the causes of individual illnesses and misfortune, and guide warriors.
Generally between five and ten families set up encampments for five weeks and then move on to new pastures. Adult men care for the grazing cattle which are the major source of livelihood. Women are in charge of maintaining the portable huts, milking cows, obtaining water and gathering firewood. Their houses are of plastered mud or hides and grass mats stretched over a frame of poles. A fence of thorns surrounds each family's cattle yard and huts.
Marriage is a unique series of elaborate ritual. Great importance is given to the preparation of gifts by the bridegroom (two goatskins, two copper earrings, a container for milk, a sheep) and of gifts for the ceremony. The marriage is concluded when a bull enters a hut guarded by the bride's mother, and is killed.
Fertility is a very high value for the Samburu. A childless woman will be ridiculed, even by children. Samburu boys may throw cow dung against the hut of a woman thought to be sterile. A fertility ritual involves placing a mud figure in front of the woman's house. One week later, a feast will be given in which the husband invites neighbors to eat a slaughtered bull with him. As a little fat is spread over the woman's belly, they will say: "May God give you a child!"
Their society has for long been so organized around cattle and warfare (for defense and for raiding others) that they find it hard to change to a more limited lifestyle. The purported benefits of modern life are often undesirable to the Samburu. They remain much more traditional in life and attitude than their Maasai cousins.
Duties of boys and girls are clearly delineated. Boys herd cattle and goats and learn to hunt, defending the flocks. Girls fetch water and wood and cook. Both boys and girls go through an initiation into adulthood, which involves training in adult responsibilities and circumcision for boys and clitoridectomy for girls.
Initiation is done in age grades of about five years, with the new "class" of boys becoming warriors, or morans. (il-murran). The moran status involves two stages, junior and senior. After serving five years as junior morans, the group go through a naming ceremony, becoming senior morans for six years. After these eleven years, the senior moran are free to marry and join the married men (junior elders).
Samburu are very independent and egalitarian. Community decisions are normally made by men (senior elders or both senior and junior elders but not morani), often under a tree designated as a "council" meeting site. Women may sit in an outer circle and usually will not speak directly in the open council, but may convey a comment or concern through a male relative. However, women may have their own "council" discussions and then carry the results of such discussions to men for consideration in the men's council.
The Samburu love to sing and dance, but traditionally used no instruments, even drums. They have dances for various occasions of life. The men dance jumping, and high jumping from a standing position is a great sport. Most dances involve the men and women dancing in their separate circles with particular moves for each sex, but coordinating the movements of the two groups.
The Samburu have been in a somewhat defensive position with surrounding peoples moving around them. They have had clashes with some of the migrating or nomadic peoples. They have maintained a military and cultural alliance with the Rendille, largely in response to pressures from the expanding Oromo (Borana) since the 16th century. The Ariaal Rendille have even adopted the Samburu language. They do not have such an aggressive military character as the Maasai proper.
They were associated with the Laikipiak (Oloikop) Maasai, also called Kwavi, who followed a lifestyle with light agriculture. They have added camels to their culture, further differentiating them from the Maasai. In recent decades, they have had mostly peaceful relations with their neighbors, who include Maasai, Somali, Borana, Turkana and Gabbra as well as Rendille.
The Samburu got separated from the other Maa speakers due to the migration of Maasai farther south and of other ethnic various groups around them. The Samburu have been somewhat outside the stream of national politics also. They have had less development than some others in Kenya.
Change is beginning to occur as group ranching schemes have developed and education has become available. Many Samburu warriors enlisted in the British forces during World War II. Likewise Samburu serve in the Kenya armed forces and police.