The Samburu: Indigenous People of East Africa

Samburu tribespeople looking directly into the camera

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The Maasai may be the most iconic Kenyan tribe, and the one most frequently encountered by tourists to East Africa. However, those that travel to the north-central region of the country will also have the chance to meet the Samburu people. The Samburu are a sub-tribe of the Maasai, and speak their own dialect of the Maa language. They are known for their traditionalist lifestyle, which includes religious beliefs, rituals, and tribal clothing all largely unchanged by Western influences.

Semi-Nomadic Pastoralists

Like the Maasai, the Samburu are semi-nomadic pastoralists. This means that their way of life revolves around their cattle (as well as sheep, goats, and camels). The traditional Samburu diet consists mostly of milk and sometimes blood from their cows. The blood is collected by making a tiny nick in the cow's jugular, 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.

The north-central region in which the Samburu live is a dry, somewhat barren land, and villages have to relocate regularly to ensure their cattle can feed. Every five to six 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 that they are easily dismantled and portable when the Samburu move to a new location.

Family Roles in Samburu Culture

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 people 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 responsible for maintaining their homes. Samburu girls generally help their mothers with their domestic chores. Before marriage, young women are also subjected to female circumcision.

Warrior from Samburu tribe performing traditional jumping dance, Kenya, Africa
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Traditional Dress and Dancing

Samburu traditional dress consists of a striking red cloth wrapped around like a skirt (called a shukka) 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 meaning "butterfly." The Samburu refer to themselves as the loikop, which is generally thought to translate as "owners of the land."

Dancing is very important in Samburu culture. Dances are similar to those of the Maasai with men dancing in a circle and jumping very high from a standing position. The Samburu usually do not use 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 means that sedentary Samburu will become dependent on others for their survival. 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 known for its 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 to enjoy a walking or camel safari led by 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 Conservancy, 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, all with 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.

This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on November 18 2019.