A subset of the Maasai, the Samburu tribe are semi-nomadic pastoralists in north-central Kenya. We had an opportunity to have a private tour of a small village while we were in with the Elewana Collection in the Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy. The tribal people were generally very friendly, and the visit, while fascinating was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
The Samburu tribe culture is a traditionalist lifestyle, encompassing religious beliefs and rituals and tribal clothing all largely unchanged by Western influences. They speak a dialect of the Maa language, a Nilo-Saharan language.
The Samburu are a gerontocracy which means the elders rule the tribe. The power of the elders includes arranging marriages and presiding over circumcision ceremonies.
In the Samburu tribe, life revolves around their livestock. Wealth and stature are based on the number of cows they own. Herds consist of cows and sometimes sheep, goats, and camels. Daily diet consists mainly of milk and sometimes blood from their cows. Surprisingly, meat is only consumed on holidays or if a cow should randomly die. Their diet is also augmented with vegetables and roots that are made into a soup.
The traditional dress of the Samburu tribe is picturesque and imposes a romantic image of African authenticity. Both sexes wear bright colors. Men favor solid orange, red, or pink cloth called shukka as well as checkered or plaid cloth called kanga, which is wrapped around their waist. A rungu (lightweight club) used as a weapon and for protection is tucked into the waist.
Entry into womanhood and manhood is marked with a circumcision ceremony. Men and women are only able to get married once they have been circumcised, as prior to that they are still considered as children.
The Samburu tribe lives in small villages called manyattas of 20 – 30 people, usually consisting of several families. Homestead huts are constructed using mud, hides, and grass mats strung up with poles. The huts are easy to be taken down when the nomadic tribes decide to move to another location.
Once a boy has been circumcised he is now considered a Moran (warrior). They have a prolonged adolescent status in that they still cannot marry until age thirty.
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.
Adamu (Jumping Dance)
You likely have seen versions of this on television. Adamu, means “to jump up and down in a dance.” Adamu is commonly referred to as the “jumping dance” and is the traditional Maasai and Samburu morani (warriors) dance. It is one in a series of rituals that make up the Eunoto, the ceremony in which the junior warriors graduate to the ranks of manhood.
Adamu is an impressive dance, not only for its pulsating energy but also for its deceptively simple appearance. The adamu appears to be basic but carries deeper meaning as a sort of mating dance and way for the young men to demonstrate strength in the hopes of attracting a bride.
For the performance of adumu, the morani form a circle and begin singing loudly. Eventually, one or two of them enter inside it and try to jump as high as smooth as possible. Their bodies should remain ramrod straight and their feet should not touch the ground. The higher the jump, the more respect, and admiration and desire he gets from women so naturally peer pressure makes the ritual competitive.
Boys stay at home with parents until the teenage years, when they are inducted into the first stages of manhood via the emuratta. This ceremony centers around a public, ritualized circumcision, one of the requirements of which is that the youngster not even flinch! Boys who successfully endure the emuratta are officially promoted to the status of junior warriors.
The morani warriors live together away from the main village for up to ten years in an emanyatta (warrior’s camp) where they learn protection, raising animals, and other obligations.
The Eunoto not only marks a change in a warrior’s status from junior warrior to senior warrior but also makes him eligible for marriage. It lasts ten days and represents a boy’s transition into adulthood, after which he can choose a wife. One outward symbol is coloring their hair using red ochre.
Traditional roles of Samburu women are to gather vegetables and roots for cooking, collect drinking water and firewood, rear the children, maintain the home, and other domestic chores.
Dancing is a significant part of the Samburu culture for both men and women. When we arrived at the village, we were greeted by the Samburu women who sang and clapped their hands. An elderly Samburu woman pulled me into the lively group to join them, and I did my best to imitate their movements and voice inflections.
Here’s a really fun 10-second video of the Samburu women singing and dancing!
For centuries, the Samburu have not used any instruments to accompany their dancing and singing.
Women also join in the warrior’s adamu dance. As young as 13, they are circumcised and permitted to be married, and they dance alongside the circle of warriors (who are generally around 30 years old) to show their interest.
Like the men, the women wear spectacularly colored clothing, adorned with lots of jewelry. Heavy layers of precisely-round beaded necklaces, bangles, and ankle bracelets. Their heads are shaved bald or closely cropped. Other tribes have long admired the beauty of the Samburu people, called them samburu meaning “butterfly.”
Like the Maasai, Samburu women are famous for their exquisite hand-beaded jewelry and accessories. Both women and men are decked out with lots of beaded necklaces, anklets, earrings and bracelets. Each piece of jewelry worn represents the status of the wearer.
The term “beading” in Kenya has nothing to do with the making of jewelry, above.
According to the KIOS foundation:
“According to the beading tradition, the warriors (Morans) are allowed to have a temporary marital relationship with a very young girl from the same clan as the warrior. The moran buys red beads for the girl after getting the mandate from the family of the girl. The main objective of the beading is to prepare the young girl for marriage in the future. Since the moran and his beaded girl are relatives, and the girl is uncircumcised, both marriage and pregnancy are forbidden. In case of a pregnancy, the pregnancy has to be terminated through cruel abortion by elderly women. If the beaded girl gives birth, the child has to be killed through herbs poisoning, since the child is perceived to be an outcast.
Beading practice as well as female genital mutilation and early child marriages are against fundamental freedoms and human rights. Beading not only leads to physical and mental violence, but also leads to school drop outs for girls.”
Read the full KIOS article about this horrific practice here.
Editor’s Note: I have no idea if this particular tribe practices beading; I’m hoping that since this village is supported by the Loisaba Conservancy and the Elewana Collection that they do not.
Female Genital Mutilation, called FGM, is defined as any and all procedures that involve “altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons.” It can include removal of the clitoris, removal of the labia minora, narrowing the vaginal opening, and other mutilations, to the United Nations. Forced FCM is brutal, painful, and a violation of human rights.
Although female genital mutilation has been outlawed in Kenya since 2001, a majority of girls of semi-nomadic tribes like Samburu still undergo this painful and damaging ritual. Traditionally, young girls are required to undergo the gruesome procedure before marriage, before the age of 15. FGM is medically unnecessary and can cause serious physical and mental health problems.
The Samburu tribe community fears stigma and superstitions regarding “uncut” females:
- Men would not marry an uncut woman because she would not be allowed to join in important cultural celebrations
- Unmutilated girls but are not allowed to have children
- Their children would be considered illegitimate
- The father of a child of an uncut woman will die
- Uncut women cannot speak to an elder
- They are forbidden from picking vegetables or collecting water for fear they will kill crops or dry up rivers
- They will bring misfortune to the tribe
While Kenya has seen a sharp decline in the internationally condemned ritual, it remains entrenched among many of the Samburu tribes. According to the Kenya Demographic Household Survey of 2014, some 86 percent of Samburu women between the ages of 15 and 49, have been mutilated.
Education is key to debunking myths and ignorance and eliminating this inhumane disfigurement practice. Efforts are being made to teach the pastoral tribes about how FGM causes serious medical problems, including excessive bleeding, urinary tract infections, and complications during childbirth.
The Samburu Woman Trust organization is working to prevent the practice of beading, childhood marriages, and female genital mutilation in Kenya.
Editor’s Note: I have no idea if this particular tribe practices FGM; I’m hoping that since this village is supported by the Loisaba Conservancy and the Elewana Collection that they do not.
As an American woman with long blonde hair, the children followed me around and gathered around me, as a kind of curiosity. I’m no stranger to this – I’d experienced the same fascination from children in rural areas in India and South America.
Hands-down, the most fun part of the visit was when I pulled out my selfie-stick and showed them their faces on the screen! It instantly produced smiles and some became instant hams!
Editor’s Note: The Loisaba Conservancy and the Elewana Collection support local indiginous communities by establishing schools, ongoing education, partnering against poaching, and other programs.
The Samburu believe in a creator God named Nkai. All prayers, rituals, and sacrifices are celebrated as a tribute to him. Diviners often acted as intermediaries between other mortals and Nkai. Today, while many Samburu people still adhere to their traditional religion, some have adopted the Christian or Islamic faith.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for wonderful places to stay in Kenya that offer private visits to Samburu Villages, we recommend Starbeds and Loisaba Tented Camp in the Loisaba Conservancy and Lewa Tented Camp in the Lewa Conservancy.
Be aware, though, that many others have also experienced this visit, and it had the feel of a commercial venture. As we parked our jeep, we were greeted by the singing women, then shepherded to another area of the village to watch the adamu jump dance. A morani warrior showed us around the village, including taking us inside one of the huts, and told us about the Samburu customs
Finally, we had free time to wander the village and purchase hand-beaded goods made by the women which were laid out on blankets. After selecting quite a few items and paying with U.S. dollars, the women were quite territorial about their handwork. For around 10 minutes they proceeded to bicker about who made what piece of jewelry, demanded their fair payment. I won’t lie, that was not pleasant to witness.
All-in-all, while I did not regret the visit (even though some of it felt staged), it was an eye-opening glimpse into the life and customs of a Samburu tribe. Only upon returning home and doing the research for this article did I become aware of the horrific things that the women have to endure. I can’t help but feel negligent that I did not do more research beforehand. It was heart-wrenching to write this — beyond any doubt the hardest story I’ve ever had to write because Luggage and Lipstick endeavors to be a light-hearted fun travel inspiration site.
And yet, I’ll never risk the trust of my readers; I’ll always bring forth the truth.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of the Elewana Collection during her stay in Loisaba, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.
Comment by Suzanne Fluhr
Suzanne Fluhr December 5, 2019 at 8:41 am
When I was a practicing lawyer, one of my cases was representing a Malian woman in an asylum claim. She was the mother of 3 US citizen daughters. Relatives,including her mother, warned that her girls would be subject to FGM were they to return to Mali. My client had undergone the ritual as a young girl. The immigration judge denied the asylum claim, identifying FGM as a “welcome cultural rite”
and stating that if my client didnt want this done to her daughters, she could hide out with them in a remote northern area of the country until they were 18 and then they could return to the US alone. We appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals where after the case was briefed, the government decided to grant my client’s asylum application—no doubt wanting to avoid the court issuing a precedent setting decision. I lost a lot of sleep during this case.
Comment by luggageandlipstick
luggageandlipstick December 6, 2019 at 9:39 am
Wow. What a story, Suzanne. I felt such a combination of horror, anger, and sorrow doing this research, I can only imagine the gamut of emotions that you experienced as her lawyer. Congratulations on your victory. I’m proud to know you, my friend.
Comment by Lisa
Lisa December 8, 2019 at 4:50 am
Wow. It is really hard to describe the emotion from your post. Thank you for this post. It’s so important to understand different cultures for both the good and bad.
Comment by Jeff & Crystal Bryant
Jeff & Crystal Bryant December 9, 2019 at 1:19 pm
Patti, you did an excellent job at relaying the ritual customs of the Samburu tribe. In our modern world, we are always aghast when we hear of these type of performances, but you show it still can occur in third world countries. Let’s hope that time will bring these practices to a halt.
Comment by Juliann - Browsing the Atlas
Juliann - Browsing the Atlas December 9, 2019 at 1:47 pm
Wow! What an experience. I would love to spend a day getting a glimpse of the Samburu Tribe and learn more about their culture. Like you, I am horrified by the FGM and “beading.” I always hesitate to judge other cultures’ customs because I do not feel that everyone should confirm to what another culture (namely Americans) deem correct. But as you pointed out, FGM and “beading” are physically and mentally harmful. I’m glad that there are local organizations in Africa that are trying to educate citizens and protect these children from potentially dangerous practices. Aside from that, their culture, dress, and dance looks beautiful. Staged or not, I’d love to see it for myself. Thanks for sharing all this!
Comment by Carol Colborn
Carol Colborn December 16, 2019 at 8:25 am
It was gut-wrenchibg to read this. I probably would not go to a village that practices FGM and other sexist practices. You are so right to bring forth the truth.