The Samburu People

The Samburu tribe is part of the Maasai group, who number over 250,000 in Kenya and Tanzania. The Samburu, along with the Maasai proper are semi-nomadic pastoralists who move seasonally with their cattle, along with a few sheep and goats. Boys take the animals out to graze during the day, and herd them back inside their homesteads (manyattas) at night. Cattle are wealth to the Samburu, and are never eaten or sold. They are used for buying wives.

All Maasai groups are Plains Nilotes, who migrated from the south-western fringe of the Ethiopian Highlands to the east of the Great Rift Valley between Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro. In the seventeenth century the Maasai proper migrated southwards, and the Samburu eastwards. They All speak Maa, a Nilotic language.

The Samburu mostly now live in Samburu District, some 8,000 square miles in Northern Kenya between the equator, and three degrees North, to the south-west of Lake Turkana and the north of the Wuaso Ng'iro river.

The eighteenth century saw increasing power and expansion of the Maasai groups. As a rule they were not conquerors. But the Maasai group has a covenant with their God that grants them dominion over all the cattle of the earth, and this brought them into conflict with other tribes over cattle (and women) that they liberated.

A small proportion of the Maasai group is agriculturalist. In the nineteenth century a civil war broke out among the Maasai groups, and the Samburu allied to the Maasai proper fought a battle with the Laikipia (the "bad" agricultural Maasai) and won. Laikipia is a Maasai word meaning "those who murder their own tribe". The Samburu call themselves "Loopok" (the survivors). The vanquished Laikipia were buried under mounds of stone, because their bodies did not "deserve" to be recycled through predators and scavengers as is the normal practice. The large cairns from this battle are still to be seen within an hour of Maralal Safari Lodge.

The Nineteenth Century was disasterous. As well as civil war, it brought rinderpest (a bovine disease), smallpox, cholera, and famine, as well as rapid incursions from the south by the (now dominant) Bantu tribes, and from the north by fierce Galla fleeing Emperor Menelik's Abyssinian army. These were closely followed by the Europeans.

Samburu society has time for humanity. Samburu cannot meet without exchanging greetings. These are not like the ritual greetings of westerners. Each will say who he is, where is from, where he is going, and what he is going to do. They will enquire of each other's children and animals, and what news there is of rain. There are no secrets among the Samburu. Everyone knows everyone's business.

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More Information

The Warriors
The Elders
The Women