The Samburu Tribe of Kenya

A young Samburu woman dressed in traditional colorful attire steering its herd of goats to find pastures around Marsabit, Eastern Province, Kenya

Santiago Urquijo / Getty Images

The Samburu live just north of the equator in the Rift Valley province of Northern Kenya. The Samburu are closely related to the Maasai of East Africa. They speak a similar language, derived from Maa, which is called Samburu.

The Samburu are semi-nomadic pastoralists. Cattle, as well as sheep, goats, and camels, are of utmost importance to the Samburu culture and way of life. The Samburu are extremely dependent on their animals for survival. Their diet consists mostly of milk and sometimes blood from their cows. The blood is collected by making a tiny nick in the jugular of the cow, and draining the blood into a cup. The wound is then quickly sealed with hot ash. Meat is only consumed on special occasions. The Samburu diet is also supplemented with roots, vegetables and tubers dug up and made into a soup.

Warrior from Samburu tribe performing traditional jumping dance, Kenya, Africa

Traditional Samburu Culture

The Rift Valley province in Kenya is a dry, somewhat barren land, and the Samburu have to relocate to ensure their cattle can feed. Every 5-6 weeks the group will move to find fresh grazing grounds. Their huts are built of mud, hide and grass mats strung over poles. A thorny fence is built around the huts for protection from wild animals. These settlements are called manyattas. The huts are constructed so they are easily dismantled and portable when the Samburu move to a new location.

The Samburu usually live in groups of five to ten families. Traditionally men look after the cattle and they are also responsible for the safety of the tribe. As warriors, they defend the tribe from attack by both man and animals. They also go on raiding parties to try and take cattle from rival Samburu clans. Samburu boys learn to tend cattle from a young age and are also taught to hunt. An initiation ceremony to mark their entry into manhood is accompanied by circumcision.

Samburu women are in charge of gathering roots and vegetables, tending to children and collecting water. They are also in charge of maintaining their homes. Samburu girls generally help their mothers with their domestic chores. Entry into womanhood is also marked with a circumcision ceremony.

Samburu traditional dress is a striking red cloth wrapped around like a skirt (called Shukkas) and a white sash. This is enhanced with many colorful beaded necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Both men and women wear jewelry although only the women make it. The Samburu also paint their faces using striking patterns to accentuate their facial features. Neighboring tribes, admiring the beauty of the Samburu people, called them Samburu which in fact means "butterfly." The Samburu referred to themselves as the Loikop.

Dancing is very important in the Samburu culture. Dances are similar to that of the Maasai with men dancing in a circle and jumping very high from a standing position. The Samburu have traditionally not used any instruments to accompany their singing and dancing. Men and women do not dance in the same circles, but they do coordinate their dances. Likewise, for village meetings, men will sit in an inner circle to discuss matters and make decisions. Women sit around the outside and interject with their opinions.

The Samburu Today

As with many traditional tribes, the Samburu are under pressure from their government to settle into permanent villages. They have been extremely reluctant to do so since obviously permanent settlement would disrupt their entire way of life. The area they live in is very arid and it's difficult to grow crops to sustain a permanent site. This basically means the Samburu will become dependent on others for their survival. Since status and wealth in Samburu culture is synonymous with the number of cattle one owns, a sedentary agricultural lifestyle is not in the least attractive.

Samburu families who have been forced to settle will often send their adult men to the cities to work as guards. This is a form of employment that has evolved naturally because of their strong reputation as warriors.

Elephant Looking at Dining Table in Samburu

Visiting the Samburu 

The Samburu live in a very beautiful, sparsely populated part of Kenya with abundant wildlife. Much of the land is now protected and community development initiatives have extended to eco-friendly lodges jointly run by the Samburu. As a visitor, the best way to get to know the Samburu is to stay at a community run lodge or enjoy a walking or camel safari with Samburu guides. While many safaris offer the option of visiting a Samburu village, the experience is often less than authentic. The links below attempt to give the visitor (and the Samburu) a more meaningful exchange.

  • Sarara Tented Camp: Sarara Camp is a luxury tented camp, built from local materials. It overlooks a waterhole which attracts a variety of game and flocks of birds. Local Samburu help run the camp and the community benefits directly through the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust which manages the land.
  • Koija Starbeds Lodge: Stay at this wonderful eco-friendly lodge managed by the local community. Walking safaris can be arranged as well as visits to traditional Samburu and Maasai communities.
  • Il Ngwesi Lodge: An award-winning eco-lodge owned and run by the local community. It is constructed with materials from the local area and comprises six individual cottages, which all have adjoining open-air showers. You can explore the area on foot, on a camel or in a traditional safari vehicle.
  • Maralal Camel Safari: Maralal lies at the heart of Samburu land and this 7-day camel safari is led by Samburu warriors. This is not a luxury safari, but you will be taken good care of. A support vehicle carries luggage and supplies.
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