Closely related to the Maasai, and in fact speaking the same language, the Samburu occupy an arid area directly north of Mt Kenya. It seems that when the Maasai migrated to the area from Sudan, some headed east (and became the Samburu) while the bulk of them continued south to the area they occupy today.
As is often the case, age-sets are an integral part of the society and the men pass through various stages before becoming a powerful elder at the top of the ladder. Circumcision is practised in both sexes; with the girls it is only done on the day of marriage, which is usually when she is around 16 years old. Men are often in their thirties by the time they pass out of warriorhood and become elders qualified to marry.
The Samburu are a gerontocracy. The power of elders is linked to the belief in their curse, underpinning their monopoly over arranging marriages and taking on further wives. This is at the expense of unmarried younger men, whose development up to the age of thirty is in a state of social suspension, prolonging their adolescent status. The paradox of Samburu gerontocracy is that popular attention focuses on the glamour and deviant activities of these footloose bachelors, which extend to a form of gang feuding between clans, widespread suspicions of covert adultery with the wives of older men, and theft of their stock.
The Samburu are part of the Maa speaking people as are the Maasai. About 95% of the words of both languages are the same. The name ‘Samburu’ is also of Maasai origin and is derived from the word ‘Samburr’ which is a leather bag used by the Samburu to carry a variety of things. It is unclear when Samburu became a distinct ethnic identity. As is common in many places around the world, ethnic identities became fixed and defined at the point of colonial contact. 19th century European travellers often referred to Samburu as “Burkineji” (people of the white goats), and there are many interconnections with other neighboring ethnic groups.
A Samburu pastoralist herding his flock of sheep
Traditionally the Samburu economy was purely pastoral, striving to survive off the products of their herds of cows, goats, and for some, camels. However, the combination of a significant growth in population over the past 60 years and a decline in their cattle holdings has forced them to seek other supplemental forms of livelihood. Some have attempted to grow crops, while many young men have migrated for at least short periods to cities to seek wage work. Many work in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, as watchmen, while it is also popular to go to Kenya’s coastal resorts where some work; others sell spears and beaded ornaments.