Samburu men lighting a fire
|Regions with significant populations|
|north central Kenya|
|African Traditional Religion|
|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.
They live north of the equator in Samburu District, an area roughly 21,000 square kilometres (8,108 sq mi). Its landscape is one of great diversity and beauty. It includes landscapes ranging from forest at high altitudes, to open plains to desert or near desert. The main highland area is the Leroghi plateau (known in Samburu as Ldonyo, the Mountain), at about 1,600–2,400 metres (5,200–7,900 ft) above sea level. The lowlands (Lpurkel)are hot and dry, with acacia scrub the primary vegetation.
Before and a few years after independence the area north of the equator was called the Northern Frontier District (NFD). Samburu district was once a large part of the NFD. Only government officials were allowed to enter and it was closed to foreigners of both European and African descent. A special permit issued by the administration was required to enter the NFD. Even today Samburu is relatively remote, although highland areas can be reached fairly easily by public transport. Many areas of the lowlands remain without good roads or public services.
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.
The Samburu are part of the Maa speaking people as are the Maasai. About 95% of the words of both languages are the same. The name 'Samburu' is also of Maasai origin and is derived from the word 'Samburr' which is a leather bag used by the Samburu to carry a variety of things. It is unclear when Samburu became a distinct ethnic identity. As is common in many places around the world, ethnic identities became fixed and defined at the point of colonial contact. 19th century European travellers often referred to Samburu as "Burkineji" (people of the white goats), and there are many interconnections with other neighboring ethnic groups.
Traditionally the Samburu economy was purely pastoral, striving to survive off the products of their herds of cows, goats, and for some, camels. However, the combination of a significant growth in population over the past 60 years and a decline in their cattle holdings has forced them to seek other supplemental forms of livelihood. Some have attempted to grow crops, while many young men have migrated for at least short periods to cities to seek wage work. Many work in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, as watchmen, while it is also popular to go to Kenya's coastal resorts where some work; others sell spears and beaded ornaments.
Samburu practice polygynous marriage, and a man may have multiple wives. A Samburu settlement is known as a nkang (Maa) or manyatta (Kiswahili). It may consist of only one family, composed of a man and his wife/wives. Each woman has her own house, which she builds with the help of other women out of local materials, such as sticks, mud and cow dung. Large ritual settlements, known as lorora may consist of 20 or more families. However, settlements tend towards housing two or three families, with perhaps 5-6 houses built in a rough circle with an open space in the centre. The circle of houses is surrounded by an acacia thorn bush fence and the center of the village has the animal pens away from predators.
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.
As Europeans introduced Western style clothing it was initially shunned by Samburu. As recently as the 1990s, wearing pants was considered by most to be a rather unmanly abandonment of cultural traditions, which would be done only when travel outside of home areas or some official business (e.g. with government offices) made it appropriate. However, as Western style education has increased, and interaction with non-Samburu has become increasingly common, it no longer bears the same stigma, although clothing deemed "traditional" by Samburu is still the norm, and would be expected to be worn in many everyday and ceremonial contexts.
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. Although ritual life focuses especially on cattle, other livestock such as goats, sheep, camels, and even donkeys figure into Samburu ceremonies.
In recent decades missionaries have had success in converting more Samburu to predominantly Catholic, but also Protestant forms of Christianity. Nevertheless, the majority of Samburu continue to observe most traditional ritual practices.
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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- Lesas, David Ltadale, 2014, member of the Lmasula clan of the Samburu.
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- 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
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- Nigel Pavitt, "Samburu", ISBN 1-85626-429-7