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Michael Cram

Fall 2013
The Samburu: An Ethnographic Overview
Samburu is the name of the district of north-central Kenya that contains a
tribe of indigenous peoples that are a popular subject in western media, and are
oftentimes portrayed in many roles. Though their portrayal is often inaccurate by
many standards, their presences and pervasiveness in western media is a facet
that cannot be ignored. The fact remains that for a people so closely related to
and portrayed in western media, it is inexcusable to have a gratuitous amount of
misinformation surrounding their culture as a whole, moreso when considering
the extent of anthropological information that is available on the Samburu in the
modern age. In fact, the Samburu themselves consider their public name to be
asynchronous with their self-ascribed name which is okop,or, wners of the
land(James). The title of Samburu is not without reason however, as it is of
Maasai origin, a close but still quite distinct tribe. The name is derived from the
Maasai word of amburr,which is the term used to describe the common leather
bag the Samburu (Straight).
The Samburu, despite their self-declared name alongside their Maa inspired
title, are also called the Samburu because of the general location of their people.
Specifically, they mainly reside in the Samburu district of north-central Kenya, an
area that is also by today's standards, still quite remote due to political issues
and government regulations. Years have passed since a permit was required to
enter the area, though the area is now a national reserve, these regulations

seldom trouble the Samburu. The physical landscape of the Samburu area is
actually quite diverse, including many highly varying geological formations in
relatively close proximity. Its high altitude areas are home to forests and brush,
capable of supporting the Samburu cattle easily and likely a contributing factor to
their nomadic pastoral lifestyle. In addition to the forestry and brush, the
Samburu also travel in the lowland desert and plains areas of the district, giving
the tribe access to acacia, a valuable wild food source.
The Samburu subsistence method is very interesting in that it is a
combination of nomadic tendencies, as well as pastoralism. The reason behind
their dual subsistence lies in their ties to modern society and the effects modern
politics have had upon their tribesmen. Traditionally speaking, the Samburu were
purely pastoralist, surviving solely off the product of their own herds of cattle and
goats. However, due to a combination of high population growth as well as legal
policy taking root, their herd size and population ratios shrunk to the point of
insufficiency (Straight). As a result, the Samburu began to move within their own
territory, living off wild food gathered by fellow tribesmen, as well as traded
goods and herd animals. In addition, other members of the Samburu have also
attempted agriculture as a means of subsistence, but due to the nature of the
tribe's geographic location, as well as the lack of time between this development
and now, one cannot determine how effective agriculture is for the tribe.
Interestingly enough though, some of the tribe's young men have reported to
going into the Kenyan capital Nairobi to seek jobs or peddle spears and trinkets
(James). This job-taking may or may not have had a significant impact on the
tribe's subsistence, but what is certain is that it opened the tribe up to the

western world through direct exposure.

Despite difficulties surviving modern problems, the Samburu have
traditionally relied wholeheartedly on their herding and animal husbandry as a
means of survival. Their diet and their housing displays this reliance perfectly.
Traditionally, the Samburu have survived on their animal products and a
significant contribution of wild foods gathered by tribeswomen. Milk from the
animals were a staple of the diet, as well as a very valuable economic resource.
Milk could be drank fresh, but it was common to let it ferment and 'ripen,' after
which it would be regarded as more valuable and of higher quality (Holtzman).
Actual meat slaughtered from the herd would only be consumed on special
religious occasions or during ceremonial practices. Some tribesmen with large
herds would be able to eat small stock, such as goat, on a more regular basis, but
traditionally cow meat would be rarely consumed. Contrary to popular belief
though is the inclusion of blood from both living and slaughtered stock in the
Samburu diet. The Samburu traditionally have thirteen different ways to prepare
blood, and certainly enough methods to form an entire meal out of animal blood
(Holtzman). From a contemporary standpoint, the Samburu's food and diet has
not changed too significantly, as it still contains very little actual meat and still
quite a large amount of milk. What has changed however, is the Samburu
reliance on modern forms of subsistence such as maize porridge and sweet milk
tea. Because of the erratic nature of their diet, their nomadic tendencies
supported their previous and traditional means of subsistence quite well. With
modern political regulations however, their nomadic lifestyle is now more of a
result of desperation than preference (Fletcher).

Because of the nature of Samburu livestock and subsistence, the prevailing

tribal political structure is a gerontocracy, in which the oldest in the tribe are
regarded as those with the most leeway in both political and spiritual matters.
This belief stems from the old having divine protection by their deity in the form
of 'elder curses' that the juniors may receive upon disrespecting an elder in the
tribe. These transgressions can be rectified by paying reparations to the insulted
party, or by consulting a local shaman. Additionally, the Samburu have a tradition
in which warriors and herders alike convene with the tribal shaman, or 'loibonok'
to divine the causes of many misfortunes perceived by the tribespeople.
Alongside these dedicated elder figures, there is also Samburu tradition to
frequently report visions of their religious deity, Nkai, a feminine divine being
whom they revere. These visions frequently are reported by children, but some
tribesmembers continue to report sightings and become dedicated prophets in
some cases (Spencer). Aside from their god, the Samburu also worship many
figures of livestock such as cows or goats in their ritual practices.
The tribal marriage structure mirrors the pastoral tendencies held by the
tribesmen in the form of polygamy, in which a man may have many wives. The
physical structure of the villages often revolves around each woman having her
own house, constructed with the help of the previous brides of the man. The
collection of these houses is called a 'Manyatta' by the Samburu, and is used to
not only protect the livestock, but also to establish the primary settlement of the
group. These settlements, when reaching about 20 total families housed, is then
referred to as a 'lorora' or 'ritual settlement' (Spencer). Though such settlements
exist, the typical manyatta will house about five or six families.

Aside from wives and age being status symbols in the Samburu lifestyle,
the tribesmen are also gauged by the number of cattle they own. The more cattle
the man can herd and support, the wealthier he is regarded, and the more
significant his position. Despite the use of women and cattle as markers of
wealth, the Samburu have a very robust and centralized decision-making
structure. While the men of the tribe discuss important tribal decisions, the
women encircle the discussion and interject with their opinions. This method of
status and decision making is actually a very significant issue when concerning
the political regulations that are bearing down upon the tribe.
Though the Samburu posses many traditional rituals and political
structures, their attire has since changed. Traditionally speaking, the Samburu
men and women were resigned to wearing strips of cloth and leather accessories
ranging from necklaces to bags. Males would often wear a pink or black strip of
cloth, tied around their waists to form a simple skirt or kilt. The men would also
adorn themselves with anklets, bracelets, and necklaces in manners similar to
the Maasai people. Their hair would be worn in long braids, only cut once they
become tribal elders. Some men would color their hair using red ochre, a plant
based dye. The Samburu women would use two strips of blue or purple cloth, the
first wrapped over the chest, the second wrapped around the waist not unlike the
male members of the tribe. Unlike the male members, the Samburu women
shave their hair regularly and wear bracelets and necklaces. In recent times, due
to the dual effects of political regulations and increased traffic to the area,
western traditions have been adopted by the Samburu. Though initially deemed
n manlyby the locals, the concept of pants was eventually freed of its stigma

thanks to repeated exposure. In addition, some of the Samburu women have

adopted tank tops in place of their chest cloths. Despite these changes in attire,
the Samburu still however insist on the use and wear of traditional tribal garb
unless required to by official business (Spencer).
The inclusion of the Samburu in modern affairs is not simply the result of
modern society taking the people unto its system willingly, but a dual effort of
western explorers and political agendas targeting the Samburu as a whole. Much
like many other tribes of the area, the political struggles resulting from
government regulations cause the Samburu to not only suffer physically, but
culturally as well. While the tribe does stick to it's primary roots as best it can,
western ideologies, both good and bad, are present and are picked up by the
tribesmen. In addition to the changing cultural opinions of the tribe as a result of
political intervention, the idea of wealth and the sedentary lifestyle is also a
matter that is somewhat forced upon the Samburu, who regard it as an
unsustainable prospect because of their views on wealth and prosperity.
Conversely, the opinions of the Samburu towards western societies varies greatly.
While many modern societies encroach on the tribespeople of the Samburu area,
the perceptions wrought from western media and representation are seldom
flattering or accurate. Very often, the Samburu are presented as the Maasai or
used as tools for advertisement, made even more ludicrous by the actual
mistranslation of their words (James). Alongside the misinformation and the
mistranslation of the people, even reputable western media is subject to
mislabeling the Samburu and giving them inhuman and incorrect rituals, derived
from popular media instead of fact (James).

To be fair however, the nature of the political atmosphere surrounding the

tribal peoples, and the Samburu in particular, makes it difficult for a cursory
expedition into the area for many large corporations and media outlets. Add that
to the fact that anthropological accuracy is seldom a present facet in a largely
ethno-centric modern society, and the Samburu's treatment is not a distant nor
esoteric thought.It cannot be expected of many western societies to even know
who the Samburu people are, much less their cultural background. Despite efforts
made by the few, the tribe itself is at risk of being consumed by the societies
around it. Whether this is a good or bad thing is not an issue, but the knowledge
of the culture of the people being integrated into modern society may be
discarded as a result. To be able to identify the culture of a people in a society is
a key aspect of anthropology as a whole, and while modern society can seldom
find time to respect this, it can still be achieved.

Works Cited
Fletcher, Martin. "Kenyans battle for resources with guns and swords." NBC News.
N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.
Holtzman, Jon. Uncertain tastes: memory, ambivalence, and the politics of eating
in Samburu, northern Kenya. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
James, Wendy. The qualities of time: anthropological approaches. Oxford: Berg,
2005. Print.
Spencer, Paul. The Samburu; a study of gerontocracy in a Nomadic tribe..
Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1965. Print.
Straight, Bilinda. Miracles and extraordinary experience in northern Kenya.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Print.