The History of the Samburu People

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The history and culture of the Samburu people can offer us much insight into the history and societies of Africa. The Samburu are semi- nomadic herders and live in the northern central location of modern day Kenya and closely related to the better known Maasai, they speak a mutually dialect of Maa.

Their society is structured by an age-set system, the most remarkable characteristic of the Samburu society is the tradition of ‘moran-hood’.  For of 7-14 years after their initiation, young men live as murran, known in English as bachelor-warriors, who do not marry and normally keep away from domestic life. This is a custom that has been related to polygyny (where a man has more than one wife or sexual partners) by Samburu elders.

Samburu households are typically composed of an elder (a man), one or more wives, and their children. Women are principally seen as food providers who are responsible for give nourishment to the elders and children. However, in recent years, numerous Samburu women have started to brew beer and liquor for sale to the Samburu men – as well as their own husbands (Holtzman, p.1041). The selling of this beer is mostly run by women who have substantial freedom in this business.

Archaeological evidence has, in Turkana, unearthed several stone burial cairns that postdate the Stone Age. Some of these are contemporary, a number of these belong to the Samburu and others to different ethnic groups. However, there are some that are credited to more ancient people of the region long before the arrival of the Samburu. Before the expansion of the Turkana tribe in the 19th century, parts of the southern Turkana District were inhabited by the Samburu. Oral evidence suggests that the Samburu lived in the Lothagam area around 1800, before they were forced back by the Turkana before 1888 (Robbins, p.366).

The Samburu believe in a Supreme Being, known as Nkai. Male elders named loibon, lead blessings and community rituals. Supernatural forces can be controlled and manipulated by the aid of powerful magical substances, poisons called nkuru-pore, which consists of powders made from the burnt remains of certain animals and plants (Fratkin, p.320).

The past 30 years have seen large changes for the Samburu and other ethnic groups in their locality – wars, a severe decline in the herding economy and significant poverty and Along with significant increases in human population-has rendered pastoralism in adequate to meet basic Samburu economic needs. This has forced many Samburu to supplement pastoralism with pursuits such as migratory wage labour and small-scale agriculture.

In spite of the recent negative impacts on the Samburu way of life, the history of the Samburu people and their way of life is rich and can offer us great insight into African cultures and African history itself.


Fratkin, Elliot (1991) The “Loibon” as Socercer: A Samburu “Loibon” among the Ariaal Rendille 1973-87, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Edinburgh University press.

Holtzman, Jon (2001) The Food of the Elders, the “Ration” of Women: Brewing, Gender and Domestic Processes among the Samburu of Northern Kenya, American Anthropologist, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropologist Association.

Robbins, Lawrence H. (1972) Archaeology in the Turkana District, Science –New Series, American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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