The Samburu Tribe

The Samburu tribe is closely related to the Masai, and is often confused by westerners due to their similar dress. Like the Masai, they are part of the Nilotic family of tribes.

They are a distinct tribe, also living in the north-central regions of Kenya in the Rift Valley. They refer to themselves as the Lokop. The population of the tribe is small, estimated around 150,000 people.

History of the Samburu Tribe

The origins of the Samburu are in the Sudan, and when they first arrived in Kenya, they split from the Masai who continued to migrate further south.

During the British colonial period, the Samburu were often left alone by the settlers as their land was not particularly desirable to the European ranchers.

Samburu Culture

They are a pastoral tribe, living a nomadic life as they travel through their territory in search of fresh pasture for their valuable herds of goats and cattle. Their entire society and culture revolves around their cattle, particularly because milk makes up a large part of the Samburu diet. Wealth is measured by herd size.

Like the Masai and the Turkana, the Samburu tribe is among the most traditional of all African tribes. They mainly still live the same way they always have, and don't feel any need to change their customs.

A Samburu village is made up of 5 to 8 families living together in somewhat temporary huts. They move frequently with their herds. The men are responsible for the safety and protection of the village and the cattle, whereas the women manage the children and all other household work.

Samburu language is in the Maa group of languages, and it is very similar to the language of the Masai. The Samburu tend to speak much faster than the Masai.

Traditional Dress

The style of dress of the Samburu is similar to the Masai, and foreigners often confuse the two people. Samburu who live in the cities usually dress in Western style, but most of the tribe are still rural and dress in their traditional way. They dress simply with wrapped skirts of red fabric and an abundance of beaded jewellery.

Both men and women dress similarly, and both sometimes decorate their bodies and hair with red ochre.

The Samburu Family

Children are initiated into adulthood with ritual circumcision, and other coming-of-age rituals create a society of age-sets. Boys eventually become morans, or warriors though this role is not as important as it once was. During their warrior years, men will live apart from the women of the village. They will not marry until they have moved to the next age-set of junior elder.

Their marriages are frequently polygamous, with a man being permitted to have more than one wife. Since he must pay a bride price in cattle for each wife, only a man of some wealth can afford many wives. Each wife will have her own house for herself and her children.

Samburu Religion and Beliefs

The Samburu tribe have had cultural conflicts with the Somali people, and so regard the Muslim religion with great suspicion. There have been some converts to Christianity, but their traditional beliefs are still very much intact.

They believe in a distant creator god called Nkai or Ngai, who lives in the mountain peaks. Prayers are spoken directly to Nkai, and diviners cast spells for fertility and rains.

Related pages:

Tribes in Kenya - Main page
List of Kenya tribes with short descriptions

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