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|Regions with significant populations|
|north central Kenya|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Maasai, Turkana, Kalenjin, other Nilotic peoples|
The Samburu are a Nilotic people of north-central Kenya that are related to but distinct from 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 Samburu, 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 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 the Maasai. 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.
Food and society
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 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.
In Western popular culture
Samburu have been widely portrayed in popular culture, ranging from Hollywood movies, major television commercials, and mainstream journalism. Such portrayals make good use of Samburu’s colorful cultural traditions, but sometimes at the expense of accuracy. One of the earlier film appearances by Samburu was in the 1953 John Ford classic Mogambo, in which they served as background for stars such as Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner.
In the 1990s, 300 Samburu traveled to South Africa to play opposite Kevin Bacon in the basketball comedy The Air Up There, in which Samburu are portrayed as a group called “The Winabi” whose prince is a potential hoops star who would propel Bacon to a college head coaching job. Samburu extras were used to portray members of the closely related, but better known, Maasai ethnic group as in the film The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. The 2005 film The White Masai—about a Swiss woman falling in love with a Samburu man—similarly conflates the two ethnic groups, mainly because the authors and directors believed that no one would have heard of Samburu.
Dancing Samburu were included in a MasterCard commercial. Samburu runners were famously portrayed in a late 1980s Nike commercial, in which a Samburu man's words were translated into English as the Nike slogan “Just Do It.” This was corrected by anthropologist Lee Cronk, who seeing the commercial alerted Nike and the media that the Samburu man was saying “I don’t want these. Give me big shoes.” Nike, in explaining the error, admitted to having improvised the dialogue and stated “we thought nobody in America would know what he said."
A similar lack of understanding of traditions and cultural dynamics is sometimes exhibited in misrepresentations by mainstream media who write articles in popular news outlets after only a short time among Samburu. For instance, CNN portrayed the Samburu practice of young men giving a large number of beads to a young woman as tantamount to rape, and erroneously stated that no research exists on the tradition despite the fact that anthropological portrayals based on long-term studies show it to be largely akin to the U.S. practice of “going steady.” In a 2009 article MSNBC took readers on a tour through imaginary places purported to be in Samburu District, while asserting that ethnic conflict between Samburu and the neighboring Pokot was the result of both sides starving because they had more cattle than the rangelands could support, although the reporter did not indicate how having too many cattle could make people starve.
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- Natural Justice: Lawyers for Communities and the Environment (South Africa)
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- Plural of moran, as written by the Samburu people. Lesas, David Ltadale, 2014, Member of the Lmasula clan of the Samburu.
- Straight, Bilinda. 2005. Cutting Time: Beads, Sex, and Songs in the Making of Samburu Memory. Pp. 267-283 In The Qualities of Time: Temporal Dimensions of Social Form and Human Experience. Wendy James and David Mills (eds.). ASA Monograph Series, Berg. 
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- Spencer, Paul, 2003, Time, Space, and the Unknown: Maasai Configurations of Power and Providence. Routledge, London. (pp.67-97, “Providence and the Cosmology of Misfortune.”)
- Lesas, David Ltadale, 2014, member of the Lmasula clan of the Samburu.
- Straight, Bilinda. 2007. Miracles and Extraordinary Experience in Northern Kenya. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
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- Askew, Kelly 2004. "Striking Samburu and a Mad Cow: Adventures in Anthropollywood." Pp.31-68 in Off Stage/On Display: Intimacy and Ethnography in the Age of Public Culture, edited by Andrew Shryock. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- If The Shoe Doesn't Fit. New York Times, February 15, 1989 http://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/15/opinion/topics-of-the-times-if-the-shoe-doesn-t-fit.html
- "Activist battles Kenyan tradition of rape 'beading'". cnn.com.
- Nigel Pavitt, "Samburu", ISBN 1-85626-429-7