Although less well known than their Southerly Maasai relations, with whom they share a language, the Samburu have an equally intricate and fascinating culture. Ranging across the great Northern plains and ranges south of Lake Turkana, the Samburu are a people both proud and protective of their culture and the ancestral lands to which it binds them.
Traditional Samburu settlements were positioned in locations of great geographic beauty, often overlooking spectacular viewpoints. The aesthetic appreciation of beauty is a major part of Samburu beliefs, and this shows itself in a great attention to physical appearance and adornment.
Indeed, the name Samburu was given to them by other tribes, and directly translates as Butterflies. Until this time they knew themselves as the Loikop.
The name Samburu was most likely gained in reference to the impression of delicacy created by their personal adornments. Unlike Maasai Morani (warriors) who slather their entire body and hair in red ochre, the Samburu Morani decorate their faces and upper bodies with intricate patterns, emphasize their eyelines and arrange their hair into elaborate plaits with a distinctive "visor"over their forehead. They also wear their Shukkas wrapped around their waist with a distinctive white sash.
This delicacy and beauty is a deceptive contrast to their fearsome reputation for hunting and fighting prowess. Warriorhood and initiation is the backbone of the Samburu society. Age-sets of youths initiated together maintain lifelong bonds. Through a custom known as Olpiroi (firestick) one generation of morans becomes responsible for the moral and cultural education of the next. Thus a firestick is literally handed down through the ages, setting up a system of age -hierarchy and respect for tradition that bolsters the entire society.
The Samburu share some customary ties with Maasai. The chants and dances of the Samburu are similar to those of the Maasai. As in Maasai communities, the blessing of cattle, preparation for war and victory in a hunt are causes for celebration. The central musical motif of these dances is a deep resounding male vocal, a rhythmic chanting not unlike the territorial call of a lion. Warriors dance with a series of spectacular vertical leaps, encouraged by the cries of other warriors.
Samburu beading is essentially similar in design and style to Maasai beadwork. It is produced by the women, to be worn by both sexes.
Samburu, women, however, do not wear the distinctive large flat necklaces of the Maasai. Instead, they are from a young age given single loop bead necklaces by admirers, chiefly young Morans. These gifts are given frequently and generously by young Samburu men, and the necklaces soon merge to form a thick collar.
The Samburu believe that by the age of 15 or 16, a girl should have enough beads to support her chin. This is considered a sign of having reached marriageable age.
The Samburu are traditionally far ranging nomads. The Samburu move with their herds of cattle, sheep and goats in search of pasture and water. More recently, the Samburu have began herding camels and using them as pack animals. The art of camel husbandry was probably acquired from their close relationship with the Rendille and Turkana peoples of the North.
Milk and blood are the staple diets, though animals are slaughtered at specific ceremonial periods, with specific cuts of meat and organs distributed by position of social hierarchy. Cattle are traditionally bled while alive by opening the jugular with an arrow or knife, and resealing the wound with hot ashes. Even at slaughter, blood is collected and mixed with milk to be drunk. Agriculture and any form of settled farming are generally looked down upon by the Samburu.
The Samburu have formed an unlikely cultural bond with another tribe of desert nomads, the Rendille. for further information on the Rendille and their relationship with the Samburu, see Related Links.
Most safaris and treks through this region will pass through Samburu lands. It is well worth spending some time learning more about the Samburu and their culture.
The best way to do this is to take a camel or walking safari with a local Samburu guide, or to stay in a lodge or camp managed by a Samburu community.