“Samburus are also referred to as butterfly people. This is because we wear bright colors which help us live in the bush and live with the wild animals.” said Chris Leletur as he begins his lecture. True to his intro, he wore a brightly coloured shuka, loosely wrapped around his body.
There is nothing as beautiful as engaging personally with people during travels. Knowing their history, their struggles gives you a better perspective on life. This was my second visit to the northern county of Samburu, with the Kenya Tourism Board team, where the Samburus, Turkana and many other tribes reside.
There is an aroma of food wafting through the air signaling that dinner is almost ready. I’ve always thought that a talk on culture was one of the boring ways of spending a vacation but for the first time I must say, I was in a conversation that assisted me to understand a tribe better.
The first time I was here I went through the motions as we visited the Samburu village and learnt the details of this rich culture. We were at first welcomed with a dance from the young men singing in a tight circle, flipping their hairs from side to side as they jump-stepped forward. The women, donning colorful multi-beaded necklaces and bracelets followed suits as they urged us on to join in the dance.
Beads for the Samburu men and women, communicate social status. To a Samburu warrior, a beautiful woman is one who has beaded necklaces all the way up to her chin. One can easily tell a woman with many admirers by the number of beads that she possess as different men design the gifts of beads to state their interests. By the time they are between age 7-8, these young girls begin to collect their necklaces, since most of them get married from the ages of fourteen to sixteen. Bright beads in colours of red, white, yellow and orange are stringed up on wires.
Armed with my own set of necklaces, I tried to jump like they did and shook off my reserved nature to move with the flow of the tune. The Samburu love to sing and dance, but traditionally used no instruments, not even drums. They have dances for various occasions of life.
They made a joke about me finding Mr. Right in the middle of the dance. I wish I did, but on second thoughts, it’s better the way things are.
Next, we were taken round and got to observe the Samburu manyattas – their dwelling place. It is the women who construct these circular shaped houses with mud and dung pasted on domed roofs resting on strong timber frames. The floor was covered in a cow’s skin to sleep on. A typical Samburu village comprises of several manyattas which are owned by a group of five to 10 families.
The Samburu people are nomadic in nature and it is the role of men to rear large herds of camels, cows, sheep and goats which they openly graze on their communal land. The herdsmen together with their cattle, stay in one area as long as there is still pasture and water but will move to another area once it is exhausted. Samburu women sustain themselves economically by selling the beads which we bought to support their livelihood.
This is the reason why they build temporary manyattas. It is rare to find a permanent construction despite the fact that ‘civilization’ in the name of education and proper health care has reached this part of the country.
Consequently because of this movement, their wealth is in their animals and jewellery. Their diet too, comprises mostly of milk and blood from their cows. I was enthralled by the experience of being in a Samburu manyatta when I managed to get into one, and it felt like I was transported into another century where life was simple without modern complications.
We visited the sites where the council of elders meets to discuss the affairs of the village. They are still active and are an effective way of enforcing law and order in the community.
I was shocked to find out that there is punishment if a man is found in the manyatta of another man’s wife because of the severity of the punishment and how lightly people treat such things in Nairobi.
So in this second visit, as Chris, a true son of the Samburus explained in detail the origins of his tribe, my understanding about this tribe deepened. He described how the Samburu people moved from Sudan and settled north of Mount Kenya and south of Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley province of Kenya.
The Samburu are similar to the Maasai and they both belong to the Maa speaking group of people. However, despite the fact that they share a vocabulary, the Samburu speak faster than the Maasai. Together with the Maasai and the Turkana, the Samburu are one of the few tribes that remain authentic to their culture. With their nomadic herding, mud and wattle homesteads, bead making, staple diet, coming-of-age rituals and elders’ council meetings they have retained their traditional way of life.
In the late 1880s, there was an outbreak of smallpox epidemic and also raids by the Boran diminished the samburu population.
Upon their arrival in Kenya in the 15th century, the Samburu parted ways with their Maasai cousins, who moved further south while the Samburu moved north. The Samburu were not very affected by British colonial rule since the British did not find their land particularly attractive. This has been noted as one of the reasons why their culture is still intact up to now.
The perennial Ewaso Nyiro River, is the Samburu’s lifeline. The first time I came to this place, the river and its very brown water – from where it derives its name- was full of life and it dictated the landscape. When it flowed, it attracted an amazing variety of wildlife. This second time, it was dry and young Samburu boys and girls were scooping the sand, trying to reach the water table.