Understanding the Samburu People of Kenya
Recently I revisited the Samburu People living nearby Maralal, in Northern-Central Kenya. They are known to have come from South Sudan and some even believe the Israelites. They are cousins to the better known Maasai People of Southern Kenya who separated from them around 500 years ago; they share the same language of Maa but speak faster than the Maasai.
The British colonial rule did not affect the Samburu culture as much as other areas in Kenya, their land was seen as rather unattractive and as a consequence they are one of the few groups in Kenya that are still culturally authentic. However as with any traditional society, the modern world is starting to creep in, I wanted to find out more about their culture and whether they were accepting a fast developing Kenya.
With the help of friend and Samburu born tour guide Nicholas Dida, I was able to spend a day interviewing two elder men, two married women and a warrior man. There was singing, dancing, children playing and a general air of happiness and excitement. They have beautifully simple lives, living in nkang (mud huts), grazing cattle and farming small amounts of crops. The men traditionally have long braided hair and both men and women are covered in ochre, they wear bright clothing and the married women adorn themselves with brightly beaded jewellery.
What I have learnt from these people was very interesting and I feel there are four areas I want to highlight in this article; religion; medicine and hospital treatment; circumcision and marriage; education and way of life.
Religion for the Samburu people presently is mainly Catholic, but before colonialism they had one God named Nkai. It was very difficult to get any knowledge about Nkai and this is the reason why…
When asking the married women and the warrior about which religion they follow, they all stated they were very much Catholic. They claimed that the younger generation had almost no connection to the traditional religion as churches and bibles were now the accepted form of worship in the community. The Elders were not much more helpful, one told me he grew up worshipping Nkai when churches in the area were rare, he briefly described a tradition of praying for the children before they left the house for school and again when they returned. However he went on to say that now he mainly followed Christianity as a religion. None of the elders can write therefore worshipping Nkai is a religion taught only by word of mouth and I wonder if soon it will be forgotten when this elder generation dies out.
However there are obviously some strong ties that I was unable to unravel because when talking to the Samburu about medical treatment and hospitals, it was completely the opposite of their changed religious views; I was told by all five interviewees that going to a western hospital was unheard of. Being treated by the local Shaman was the only approach; they believed the treatment was faster, more successful and no doubt cheaper. They had such faith in God’s will that they would rather die in their own homes than ever visit a western hospital, even if the Shaman was unable to heal them. This is actually something I understand happens in a lot of rural Kenya, where faith is extremely strong and money in short demand.
Circumcision and marriage are the topics some people reading this, might find problematic accepting and this links closely with education and women that will be described after. All boys are circumcised around the age of 15, this ceremony is to symbolise they have become warriors or men; once a male is circumcised he stays in a woven hut for 30 days drinking only blood, however it is unusual to get married at this age, instead it’s normally 20 years and above. After the circumcision he is expected to lead the semi-nomadic lifestyle searching for green pastures for his cattle.
For a female it’s very different. Once a girl is arranged to be married she needs to be prepared for womanhood, this means female circumcision. I was informed that the 20 year old warrior I was interviewing had recently been married; his wife was only 10 years old and this was considered not out of the norm. One of the married females explained that the circumcision ceremony was a very painful memory; she had indeed lost a lot of blood and felt weaker as a result. She was convinced her body had never replaced the lost blood even though this event had happened over 10 years ago. She went on to explain that she would not want her daughters to be circumcised, however I got the impression that it would really depend on her husband and the warrior who wished to marry them.
Samburu guide Nicholas Dida has told me more than once that views on female circumcision were changing and that he would happily marry a non-circumcised woman. However I get the impression the Samburu that don’t live near the towns, have a more traditional view about this topic. Marriage for these girls can be very young, due to the dowry, (paying of cattle) which a warrior gives to the family of the girl in order to secure a marriage. The warrior explained that when you fell in love with a girl you had to act fast, so nobody else could marry her, even if she was only 10 years old. He then continued to say he would have to wait, even five years until she was able to reproduce. This young girl had a lot of responsibility once married; not only household chores and looking after the goats and any other children, but she alone had to build her own house. The elders and warriors all believed this was an important tradition but I had the feeling these were not quite the same opinions of some of the women.
This brings me to education and a way of life. The Elders were never educated in schools, they were taught their day to day skills by parents and peers. This means that almost all Elders are illiterate, some which might not even speak Kiswahili the national language of Kenya. The Elders agreed that the learning of Swahili in the younger generations had been a good thing and had opened up communication with others in Kenya.
Presently the boys went to schools, but I figured as soon as they were circumcised or even before they were leading a semi nomadic life in the bush. Strangely I was told that most boys didn’t even enjoy school, which from what I see in Kenya is the opposite to most children’s views about the chance of school.
The girls however are a different story, one where the views of elders are still followed; girls may be lucky to go to two years of school, some not at all. It is deemed more important for a girl to become a homemaker and get married than go to school. It all comes down to the dowry, most fathers and elders want the cattle more than wanting their females to read or write.
One of the young married women surprisingly spoke a little English, she informed me she had got to Grade 2 at school and that she very much wanted her daughters to go to school. However she did not seem very certain the community would allow that to happen. She loved her lifestyle but now her children were old enough to look after each other, she had wanted to get a job to help support her husband. She was only able to get backbreaking and very low paid work in the form of stone breaking. If her daughters got some form of qualification then they would have the opportunity of better jobs.
Also discussed by the group was the number of Samburu men who had left for work in the city. I think it was not so common but was definitely on the increase. There was talk about how technology has enabled greater knowledge and curiosity, I couldn’t decide if it was seen as a good or bad thing. I had noticed a few times in conversation that cattle was not the only thing that was important to the community as in truly traditional times, money had also started to be a form of wealth. All I needed to do was look at my friend Nicholas Dida, who is not semi nomadic, has been educated, speaks brilliant English and uses his tour guiding skills to make a living.
This is the area I feel is changing the most within the society of the Samburu and I hope soon the girls will get more chances at education. It’s a very fine line between embracing the new and not losing the lifestyle that you can see all Samburu truly love. The answer that surprised me the most was to the question, “what do you see yourself as primarily, a Samburu or a Kenyan?” The answer every time was KENYAN. But one man piped up, “It doesn’t matter even if I live in America, I will always proudly be a Samburu.”
For all that I have written I still think this area of Kenya is one I love the most. I love the people, the colourful garments and the fact they do still have their traditional culture which they show proudly. People who visit Kenya often don’t even know what a Samburu is and yet all know about the Maasai. If you come to Kenya, think about visiting the Samburu and even further North, the people of Turkana. This is what I feel is REAL Kenya.
Tour Guide Nicholas Dida: helpful, friendly and an amazing source of information.
Mobile Number: (+254) 0713421517
(You can also find him on Facebook and Couchsurfing.)