Africa Guide
Africa travel since 1996

Samburu People

Introduction

The Samburu are related to the Masai although they live just above the equator where the foothills of Mount Kenya merge into the northern desert and slightly south of Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya.

They are semi-nomadic pastoralists whose lives revolve around their cows, sheep, goats, and camels. Milk is their main stay; sometimes it is mixed with blood. Meat is only eaten on special occasions. Generally they make soups from roots and barks and eat vegetables if living in an area where they can be grown.

Most dress in very traditional clothing of bright red material used like a skirt and multi-beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings, especially when living away from the big cities.

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.

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.

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.

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.  

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