NATURAL LOVE: An elderly ethnic Samburu woman fromKenya kisses her grandchild during the naming ceremony.
The Samburu are a proud warrior-race of cattle-owning pastoralists, a section of the Maa-speaking people amongst whom the Maasai are the best known. Their dialect is spoken in a more rapid manner than that of the Maasai, but includes many words that are common to both.
Indeed, the name Samburu was given to them by other tribes, and directly translates as Butterflies. Until this time they knew themselves as the Loikop. The name Samburu was most likely gained in reference to the impression of delicacy created by their personal adornments.
The name ‘Samburu’ is also of Maasai origin, ‘Samburr’ being the traditional leather bag specific to them which is used for carrying meat and honey on their backs.
They dwell in the Highlands of Northern Kenya, but their land was never a part of the White Highlands previously inhabited by European settlers and ranchers. It lay in the remote and much more arid Northern Frontier for which a special travel document was required, a requirement that extended for a few years even after Kenya attained its independent status.
Previously no-one other than Government Officials could travel within any part of the NFD and due to this the Samburu tribe was virtually isolated and largely unaware of the momentous changes taking place within the rest of the country. Even today, Samburuland remains remote and unspoilt, having escaped the negative impact of mass tourism.
Proud of their culture and traditions, the Samburu still cherish and retain the customs and ceremonies of their forbears, unlike most other tribes in Kenya who have been influenced by Western civilization.
The ancient history and exact origin of the Samburu people is difficult to trace beyond a period of about one hundred years. Events recorded orally soon become interwoven with mythology, merging into one. Some believe their origin could be in the Sudan, but others, within Egypt, the descendants of a lost battalion of Roman soldiers. True Maasai tribesmen call them ‘The Butterfly People’, an off-shoot of the main tribe that remained behind whilst others pushed further South.
Fiercely pastoral, the Samburu people are totally committed to their stock, almost to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Their cattle are their life; their wealth; their livelihood and the symbol of status and success within the tribe. Since, like the true Maasai, they believe that all cattle rightfully belong to them, cattle raiding of other tribes has always been a major preoccupation of the warriors.
As soon as a male of the tribe has been circumcised, he joins an age-set comprised of all the young men so initiated within a period of about fourteen years and he will maintain a close affinity with these peers until death. Girls do not have any age-set grouping, passing instead through two stages of life, namely girlhood and womanhood. The men on the other hand pass through three, boyhood from birth to adolescence before entering an age-set, moranhood, from circumcision to marriage when they are warriors and elder-hood, from marriage until death. Samburu society is polygamous.
The family lives and shares the same manyatta and it is the women who are entirely responsible for the home. The most significant event in a boy’s life is his elevation from childhood to manhood as a result of circumcision. This takes place when he is between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. Each generation of age-sets lasts on average fourteen years.
The moran, or warriors, are the most striking members of Samburu society and are inevitably attractive to young girls. They enjoy a convivial and relatively undemanding life with permissive sex for roughly 14 years. Most of them will at one time or another have many lovers who demonstrate affection with lavish gifts of beads.
The moran are flamboyant in their dress and very vain, frequently applying abstract designs in orange to their faces and red ochre to their heads, necks and shoulders and spending hours braiding each others’ long ochred hair. There is little doubt that moranhood is considered the best period of a man’s life. Fearless and arrogant, he is in his prime during this period, free to do largely exactly as he likes.
Girls train for motherhood at an early age by helping with the household chores, and caring for their siblings. When adolescent girls attend dances organized by the moran of their clan they are acutely aware of the importance of looking their best at such gatherings.
They paste ochre onto their shaven heads, darken their eyebrows with charcoal, and paint intricate designs on their faces. She is then likely to earn praise from a moran, probably becoming a mistress to him and enjoying his protection. This relationship is forged by mutual physical and sexual attraction, although each knows that their relationship has no future. Since both come from the same clan, marriage is forbidden.
Over the years the moran will heap beads upon his lover or bead girl as a symbol of his love and whilst the girls may feel passionately about a certain man, they are taught from an early age that these feelings are irrelevant, for they will never be able to wed someone of their own choosing. Girls are taught that the marriage bond is not based on physical attraction or emotion, but instead that it is a long term sound investment forged by her family.
The Samburu believe that God (Nkai) is the source of all protection from the hazards of their existence. But God also inflicts punishment if an elder curses a junior for some show of disrespect. The elder’s anger is seen as an appeal to God, and it is God who decides if the curse is justified. Faced with misfortune and following some show of disrespect towards an older man, the victim should approach his senior and offer reparation in return for his blessing. This calms the elder's anger and restores God’s protection.
Samburu religion traditionally focuses on their multi-faceted divinity (Nkai). Nkai (a feminine noun), plays an active role in the lives of contemporary Samburu. It is not uncommon for children and young people, especially women, to report visions of Nkai.
Some of these children prophesy for some period of time and a few gain a reputation for prophecy throughout their lives. Besides these spontaneous prophets, Samburu have ritual diviners called 'loibonok' who divine the causes of individual illnesses and misfortune, and guide warriors. Although ritual life focuses especially on cattle, other livestock such as goats, sheep, camels, and even donkeys figure into Samburu ceremonies.
In recent decades missionaries have had success in converting more Samburu to predominantly Catholic, but also Protestant forms of Christianity. Nevertheless, the majority of Samburu continue to observe most traditional ritual practices.
BY: Kweku Darko Ankrah