Northern Kenya is a wild frontier country inhabited by some of the toughest and most interesting people in Africa. Spartanish, tall and regal, these nomads belong to a mythical race of African ancient warriors who migrated south in the late 10th century, or from the lower Nile valley in about the 15th century.
The Samburu are part of a migration of four language groups that included the Maa peoples (Nilo-Saharan language family), who first settled in the Laikipia and Loita highlands north of Mount Kenya.
The Samburu people have over the years stuck tenaciously to their culture and are among the most culturally rich of Kenyan communities today. Their daily life activities are as fascinating as their elaborate traditions.
As semi-nomadic pastoralists, the Samburu are closely related to the Maasai, both revering cattle and relying on them as their source of livelihood. They also own vast herds of goats; sheep and camels, moving regularly in search of fresh pasture, and rely heavily on the rains for their existence.
The distinctive aspect between the Samburu and Maasai community is the nature of their lifestyle. The Samburu lead almost exclusive nomadic lifestyle, rarely settling in a particular area for prolonged period of time.
For the Samburu, bodily decorations are highly prized. The use of red ochre, especially by young men and women following initiation, is nearly universal.
Men cover themselves in red ochre and have their hair twirled into long thin braids rubbed with (red ochre and) fat. Strands of beads around the neck, chest, wrist, and waist are worn as one of the indicators to signal the social status of a warrior.
At circumcision, the Samburu, who are known for the striking red-patterned cloths they wear, wear black cloths, which is culturally appropriate for this occasion. For the closely related Maasai, this color shift is from red to dark blue (shades can range from purple to charcoal gray). Because the circumcision of males marks their transition from boys to warrior, and that of females from girls to being eligible for marriage, it is understood as a time of danger.
The young circumcised men between the ages of 8 and 15 become warani (warriors) who are charged with tending livestock and securing access to pasture.
Warriors not only wore their hair in long plaits down their back, but they often added strands of grass that they braided with their hair to make it appear even longer. With their hair and shoulders covered in red ochre, wearing long knives at their waist, carrying two spears in their hand, and taking on an attitude of aloofness, they make a striking appearance to all who encounter them.
Women are divided into 2 categories. Young and unmarried girls wear plain, red-coloured, heavy necklaces, while married women adorn a series of colourful, heavy pieces with a simple pattern variety on top with white and red beads, and a pair of earrings with ancient beaded and elaborate aluminum rings.
From an early age young girls begin to acquire beaded collars that make clear to all who see them that they are not yet married. They wear many strands of loose beads rather than the flat collars favoured by their neighbours the Maasai.
The beads are gifts from admirers, and by the age of fifteen or sixteen the girls should have collected enough to invite a proposal of marriage. It is held by Samburu men that women do not have enough beads until the necklaces support their chin.
Over time the designs and patterns of the beadwork have changed to coincide with current trends and styles. By the 1970s, the Samburu began wearing beaded bracelets, which they called a watch, that widened at the center into a series of circular design. A more easily understood form of personal adornment that communicates status is found in male earrings.
The shaving of hair also typically marks a change in status. Its part of the initiation ceremony that denotes the passage to elderhood. Traditionally women, who are shaven headed, stay back in the manyatta, fetching firewood and water, tending the children, and milking the animals, which they do with great proficiency. Seemingly, they keep only what they need, as excessive possessions are perceived as a hindrance.
Located on the northern frontier, Samburu is an arid, semi-desert where deespite the dryness, game is plentiful and includes the unusual gerenuk or giraffe-antelope, the beisa oryx and Grevy’s zebra. It is also home to a large number of elephant, and Somali ostrich, and is a bird watcher’s delight
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