Jul 08

Samburu Culture

by in Africa, Kenya

There are only 20,000 of the Samburu people living in Northern Kenya.  They are distant cousins of the Maasai and they are nomadic herders.  Since they live in a remote area their culture has remained mostly untouched.  They believe that cameras capture their soul so photography is strictly forbidden unless they work at the lodge or beading center.  We were staying at an amazing lodge that is basically the only place within a million acres.  The only other people out here were the Samburu, so we had plenty of time to learn about them from our guides Mark, Malakay, Salat and Justin who is technically our armed park ranger.

First of all, it’s hot here. It’s even drier. There’s little water, and that bit of water is hard to get. The inhabitants have to resort to the back-breaking method of wells. During the 6 month dry season the water table drops. This means that the locals have to continuously dig lower and lower to keep up with the sinking water table.


There are certain locations where many “singing wells” are dug. Each well belongs to only one family. While the (possibly naked) locals dig, they call to their goats in groups, or to their cows, and sing. The cow song is usually about the cow’s personality. That cow might be the most beautiful, it could be a very smart cow that warns when danger is imminent, it could be the cow that gives the most milk, or it could be something entirely different about the cow.

The song usually has a beat of duh-duh-duh-duh…dun-dun.

The animals are so smart that they follow the song to the correct well and only drink there.

While the person is singing, he will be scooping up water and pouring it into a trough from which the animals will then drink.

What happens if the well gets too deep for one person to man it? Multiple people will work it. The first part of the hole will have a platform to the side for stepping up and down, and the second person will be below it. The lowest person will scoop up water and pass it up. Occasionally the pail will accumulate more mud then dirt and it will have to be emptied out and passed back down.

In some places there are wells up to EIGHT people deep.

The sand and clay mixture makes the walls of the well very sturdy and hard, thankfully. In places where the ground is too sandy, people dig a massive downward cone instead of a hole, that way if the walls collapse it is only a few showers of sand.

Samburu villages are very interesting. Around the village there is a fence made of thorny acacia branches. The Samburu are a nomadic people. They stay in one place only as long as there is water. When they make a new village, the most senior family builds their house facing one of the two sacred mountains (one is in the north of the valley, the other is in the south). Then, the second most senior family builds to their left, ending with the least senior family right next to the most senior or in the middle of a spiral. Seniority is determined by (affluence? experience? age?). (The picture above is from the remains of an abandoned village; we could not take pictures at the real village).

Once a boy is circumcised he becomes a warrior. An entire group of boys all go through this process at the same time in a really big and important village ceremony.  Boys can be as young as ten or as old as nineteen when this happens.  Regardless of the difference in actual ages, the group is called an “age set” and is given a special name by the elders.  The age set name represents the overwhelming characteristic of the group and is only ever used once.  The age set is also assigned a specific color combination which follows them for life.  You can tell which age set a man belongs to by the color beads he is wearing.  A warrior has to defend the herds for 12 years. After 12 years he returns home and is then allowed to marry. Seven days after he marries, he becomes a junior elder. Men may take multiple wives, but every wife must have her own hut and each hut must have its own entrance in the main village gate. Your relatives and friends can only use your gate.

Around and in the village are many, many goats. A goat is milked twice a day; in the morning and in the night. Each goat produces about one mug of milk each milking. Baby goats are let out one at a time. The baby takes one of the teats; the person milks the other one. While you’re milking you have to hold the goat’s right leg in between your knees, and you might have to have someone hold the goat’s head.

There are also sheep. How do you tell the difference? A sheep’s tail droops down, and a goat’s tail is perky and held high.

Baby goats and lambs are kept in small little hut-like things with openings that are barred with wooden planks. The adults are kept in bigger pens.

Almost every day a goat or sheep is killed by a leopard.

The goat pregnancy time is 5 months. With at LEAST 300 nanny goats producing babies, the locals are able to live with the “one death a day” toll.

Girls usually herd the livestock. Boys sometimes wait around until a leopard shows up just so they can try and fight it, but if the leopard kills the goat and runs away, you have to explain you’re missing goat to your parents, and you don’t want to have to do that. Boys therefore take care of the more able to defend themselves cow herds.

Around the village there are many guard dogs. We were explicitly warned to not even greet the dogs. These guys are supposed to fight of wild animals. They’re not exactly lap dogs.

Each family is responsible for guarding their part of the gate.

Huts are made of sticks and then the roof and walls are plastered with cow dung. The sun bakes the dung hard like a rock and there is absolutely no smell. Inside, there are two sleeping compartments with a tiny cooking section in between. The biggest section is for the father (if he is sleeping in your hut tonight.) and the children. The small section is for the mother.

The diet is the same as the Maasai’s. (Milk, Blood, Meat)

Both the Maasai and the Samburu do not eat fish, on the premise that fish are too close to snakes. They think this because neither have limbs and both have scales; the snake is bad because it represents the Devil.

 The only thing that children eat until they are five years old is milk. They get it right from the teat of the goat.

Mark told us that sometimes Elders pass the time by playing real “Mancala”.

Mark also took us to a market where the locals would go once a week (Wednesday) to purchase supplies.

Around the market there are several kinds of people.

There are the Warriors. Fierce and battle ready, their hair is powdered red with ochre powder, and is contained in black bonnets that hang down their back. Most have two parallel rows of about 50 small scars above their waist and on the left AND right sides. The scars are made with metal hooks. They wear nothing but a waist to mid shin kilt with colorful patterns. On their heads are elaborate headdresses with a Mohawk of flowers with feathers in the center of the flower head. Also on their chests are X’s of beads and a beaded collar. They wear sandals made of old tires, or “1’000 milers”, and carry sticks and clubs.

There are the Women. Dresses of every color except brown, grey and black are everywhere. Green, purple, blue, red, pink, yellow, white, orange… It’s truly outstanding. The women’s collars are massive pieces of equipment that cover everything from the neck to the belly button. The collars are intricately beaded in patterns the intrigue and colors that rival that of the market itself. Many women have their lower jaw and their entire neck covered in red ochre paste. All women have their two middle teeth on their lower jaw broken out. The landscape is very dry, so if they get scurvy and then lockjaw, they will be able to be fed through the hole. I even saw one or two women whose faces were covered with a drapery mask of white beads. They (and everyone else in the market) wear 1,000 milers.  The unmarried women wear necklaces of pure red beads that are given to them by admirers.  The married women wear necklaces with white and every other color of bead all mixed together.

There are the Old Men. These men are dressed in their best. They wear vests, pants, beaten up bowler hats and other semi-formal apparel. They loiter around, selling and buying livestock, and talking to their friends.

There are the Warrior Rangers. These guys are indistinguishable from the warriors unless you know exactly who they are. We were introduced to one of them. The locals are apprehensive of the men in the green ranger uniforms. If you put the men into traditional garb, everyone takes no notice and doesn’t realize that a ranger is there. Then, the ranger can catch any illegal activity such as poaching and smuggling.

Then there’s Us. We are the pale tourists. Not hard to spot us.  There is almost no-one else like us and everyone turns and stares.

Another day we visited a beading center that is organized by Katie at the Sarara lodge.  Katie showed us how the ladies use beads to make the jewelry worn by the tribe.  The tradition of using beads and shells goes all the way back to Venetian traders who wanted to buy slaves and incense.  Mom and Katherine made jewelry for hours.  I went outside with Mark and we made a wooden bow and arrows with blunted tips to stun birds just like the Samburu boys have for their initiation ceremonies.  Mark explained that during the three months after the ceremony, the boys have to stay away from the village, but if they see any girls they are allowed to shoot their ankles with the blunted arrows unless the girl gives them a bead. 

Mark and another guide named Robert then shared some traditions and stories with us while we were camping.

Since the Samburu are nomadic, they bury their dead wherever they are at the moment and leave them there when they leave. Therefore, if a Samburu comes across a relative’s grave, he must use his left hand and place a sacred leaf on top of the grave, say “rest in peace” and if they have their goats, they should milk a goat on the grave. If they don’t do this, the ancestor will get angry. “They didn’t even stop to say hello?!” Then the descendant’s livestock may start to die until he appeases his ancestor.

The Samburu also say “R.I.P.” and place a sacred leaf on the grave of an elephant, believing that elephants are the closest relatives to man. We saw an elephant skull with the sacred leaf plant growing out of it.

They believe this because………

“A long time ago, Elephant worked in the home of the Woman. One day he was very hungry, but he was told to go and gather firewood. Elephant went off and came back with a big log.

Woman said, ‘No, no, no! I cannot use this for firewood! Go and get the right kind!’

Elephant was very hungry, ‘No I want to go eat meat!’ but he went off to find better firewood anyway.

He came back with a bunch of twigs and grass, ‘Is this the right firewood?’

 The Woman was very annoyed, ‘Elephant you are crazy! Don’t you know that this is useless?!’

Elephant became angry, ‘I’m going to go eat meat’ he said.

Then God replied, ‘No you’re not!’

To which Elephant promptly replied, ‘Yes I am!’

When Elephant started to walk away, God pulled his nose. Now Elephant had a big trunk, and he couldn’t eat meat.

God said, ‘I am banishing you to forever live in the Bush!’

So Elephant went to the Woman’s house and gathered his two belongings, two cow-skins which he slept upon. He put them and either side of his head and they stuck there. Now whenever you see him, the first thing he does is shake his head, saying, ‘get these off of me!’”

We heard another story as well:  “How the Rabbit Got His Red Ears”.  In this story, the sun and the moon have a fight and the sun calls all the animals together and everyone comes except the rabbit.  The sun says that it is lonely and needs a friend and it wants a second sun.  The animals think this is a really bad idea because then it will be too hot, but nobody wants to tell the sun.  Instead they say that such an important decision can only be made when the rabbit is found.  The sun waits for them to find the rabbit.  When they do the rabbit says “Go back and tell the sun you could never find me!”  When they do, the sun says “I know only the clever rabbit could have told you to say that and I am going to burn him!”  The sun searched everywhere, but the rabbit kept hiding in his hole.  Finally the sun saw just the two ears of the rabbit sticking out of the hole and the sun gave a good burning to the rabbit’s ears!  Since then the rabbit has always had red ears when the sun is up.

We enjoyed making new friends with the Samburu and learning about their culture!


3 Responses to “Samburu Culture”

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    Posted on 17. Jul, 2011 at 9:44 pm #
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      Posted on 18. Jul, 2011 at 12:16 am #
  2. From Charlie:

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    Posted on 18. Jul, 2011 at 8:26 am #