Samburu People, Culture and Destination.


Samburu are a Nilotic people of Northern Central Kenya that are related to but distinct from the Maasai. Samburu are Semi-nomadic pastrolists who hard mainly Cattles, Sheep, Goats and Camels. According to the other 41 tribes in Kenya, the Samburu means Butterfly People. They live North of the Equator in Samburu District.



Samburu despite all the Western Culture that invades in the Country is among the few tribes that still keep their culture.



The Samburu believe in God(Nkai). They believe that Nkai is the Source of protection from the hazards of their existence. They also believe that Nkai dwells in places like Mountains, Caves and some other Sources of Nature.

They believe that God is Omnipresent,and they respect every creature believing that God is present in them. They believe that God works with some special people and forces of nature to communicate with them.

They have ritual Diviners called “Loibonok”, who divine the causes of personal illnesses and misfortunes. They offer Sacrifices which is performed by the Elders to their God. They use their animals for the sacrifices.

Despite the conversion of the Missionaries to the people of Samburu as predominantly Catholics, and other protestant Christianity, the majority of the Samburu still observe most of their rituals.

Social organization

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.[2]


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.


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.


Samburu practice polygynous marriage, and a man may have multiple wives. A Samburu settlement is known as a nkang (Maa) or manyatta (Kiswahili). It may consist of only one family, composed of a man and his wife/wives. Each woman has her own house, which she builds with the help of other women out of local materials, such as sticks, mud and cow dung. Large ritual settlements, known as lorora may consist of 20 or more families. However, settlements tend towards housing two or three families, with perhaps 5-6 houses built in a rough circle with an open space in the centre. The circle of houses is surrounded by an acacia thorn bush fence and the center of the village has the animal pens away from predators.

Food and Society

Traditionally Samburu relied almost solely on their herds, although trade with their neighbors and use of wild foods were also important.[5][6][7] Before the colonial period, cow, goat, and sheep milk was the daily staple. Oral and documentary evidence suggests that small stock were significant to the diet and economy at least from the eighteenth century forward. In the twenty-first century, cattle and small stock continue to be essential to the Samburu economy and social system. Milk is still a valued part of Samburu contemporary diet when available, and may be drunk either fresh, or fermented; “ripened” milk is often considered superior. Meat from cattle is eaten mainly on ceremonial occasions, or when a cow happens to die. Meat from small stock is eaten more commonly, though still not on a regular basis. Today Samburu rely increasingly on purchased agricultural products—with money acquired mainly from livestock sales—and most commonly maize meal is made into a porridge.[8] Tea is also very common, taken with large quantities of sugar and (when possible) much milk, and is actually a staple of contemporary Samburu diet.[9] Blood is both taken from living animals, and collected from slaughtered ones. There are at least 13 ways that blood can be prepared, and may form a whole meal. Some Samburu these days have turned to agriculture, with varying results.

In Western popular culture

Samburu have been widely portrayed in popular culture, ranging from Hollywood movies, major television commercials, and mainstream journalism. Such portrayals make good use of Samburu’s colorful cultural traditions, but sometimes at the expense of accuracy. One of the earlier film appearances by Samburu was in the 1953 John Ford classic Mogambo, in which they served as background for stars such as Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner.[13]

In the 1990s, 300 Samburu traveled to South Africa to play opposite Kevin Bacon in the basketball comedy The Air Up There, in which Samburu are portrayed as a group called “The Wonaabe” whose prince is a potential hoops star who would propel Bacon to a college head coaching job. Samburu extras were used to portray members of the closely related, but better known, Maasai ethnic group as in the film The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.[14] The 2005 film The White Masai—about a Swiss woman falling in love with a Samburu man—similarly conflates the two ethnic groups, mainly because the authors and directors believed that no one would have heard of Samburu.

Dancing Samburu were included in a MasterCard commercial. Samburu runners were famously misportrayed in a late 1980s Nike commercial, in which a Samburu murran’s words were translated into English as the Nike slogan “Just Do It.” This was corrected by anthropologist Lee Cronk, who seeing the commercial alerted Nike and the media that the Samburu murran was saying “I don’t want these. Give me big shoes.” Nike, in explaining the error, admitted to having improvised the dialogue and stated “we thought nobody in America would know what he said.”[15]

A similar lack of understanding of traditions and cultural dynamics is sometimes exhibited in misrepresentations by mainstream media who write articles in popular news outlets after only a short time among Samburu. For instance, CNN portrayed the Samburu practice of young men giving a large number of beads to a young woman as tantamount to rape, and erroneously stated that no research exists on the tradition[16] despite the fact that anthropological portrayals based on long-term studies show it to be largely akin to the U.S. practice of “going steady.”[17][18] In a 2009 article MSNBC took readers on a tour through imaginary places purported to be in Samburu District, while asserting that ethnic conflict between Samburu and the neighboring Pokot was the result of both sides starving because they had more cattle than the rangelands could support, although the reporter did not indicate how having too many cattle could make people starve.[19]