The Samburu are a proud warrior-race of cattle-owning pastoralists, a section of the Maa-speaking people amongst whom the Maasai are the best known. Their dialect is spoken in a more rapid manner than that of the Maasai, but includes many words that are common to both.

                                                        The Samburu People

Indeed, the name Samburu was given to them by other tribes, and directly translates as Butterflies. Until this time they knew themselves as the Loikop. The name Samburu was most likely gained in reference to the impression of delicacy created by their personal adornments.
The name ‘Samburu’ is also of Maasai origin, ‘Samburr’ being the traditional leather bag specific to them which is used for carrying meat and honey on their backs.
                               Samburu Tribe Women-Kenya

They dwell in the Highlands of Northern Kenya, but their land was never a part of the White Highlands previously inhabited by European settlers and ranchers. It lay in the remote and much more arid Northern Frontier for which a special travel document was required, a requirement that extended for a few years even after Kenya attained its independent status.
Samburu warrior with beaded ornaments holding a spear - Kenya

Previously no-one other than Government Officials could travel within any part of the NFD and due to this the Samburu tribe was virtually isolated and largely unaware of the momentous changes taking place within the rest of the country. Even today, Samburuland remains remote and unspoilt, having escaped the negative impact of mass tourism.
                            Samburu baby and mother - Kenya

Proud of their culture and traditions, the Samburu still cherish and retain the customs and ceremonies of their forbears, unlike most other tribes in Kenya who have been influenced by Western civilization.
                                                             Samburu women - Kenya

The ancient history and exact origin of the Samburu people is difficult to trace beyond a period of about one hundred years. Events recorded orally soon become interwoven with mythology, merging into one. Some believe their origin could be in the Sudan, but others, within Egypt, the descendants of a lost battalion of Roman soldiers. True Maasai tribesmen call them ‘The Butterfly People’, an off-shoot of the main tribe that remained behind whilst others pushed further South.
                                     The Samburu People

Fiercely pastoral, the Samburu people are totally committed to their stock, almost to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Their cattle are their life; their wealth; their livelihood and the symbol of status and success within the tribe. Since, like the true Maasai, they believe that all cattle rightfully belong to them, cattle raiding of other tribes has always been a major preoccupation of the warriors.
                                                          A young Samburu warrior
As soon as a male of the tribe has been circumcised, he joins an age-set comprised of all the young men so initiated within a period of about fourteen years and he will maintain a close affinity with these peers until death. Girls do not have any age-set grouping, passing instead through two stages of life, namely girlhood and womanhood. The men on the other hand pass through three, boyhood from birth to adolescence before entering an age-set, moranhood, from circumcision to marriage when they are warriors and elder-hood, from marriage until death. Samburu society is polygamous.
     Samburu seduction dance - Kenya.The wedding dance: young men and very young girls dance together to make future couples.

The family lives and shares the same manyatta and it is the women who are entirely responsible for the home. The most significant event in a boy’s life is his elevation from childhood to manhood as a result of circumcision. This takes place when he is between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. Each generation of age-sets lasts on average fourteen years.
                                Samburu warrior, Samburu National Reserve, Kenya

The moran, or warriors, are the most striking members of Samburu society and are inevitably attractive to young girls. They enjoy a convivial and relatively undemanding life with permissive sex for roughly 14 years. Most of them will at one time or another have many lovers who demonstrate affection with lavish gifts of beads.

                                                  Samburu Young Man

 The moran are flamboyant in their dress and very vain, frequently applying abstract designs in orange to their faces and red ochre to their heads, necks and shoulders and spending hours braiding each others’ long ochred hair. There is little doubt that moranhood is considered the best period of a man’s life. Fearless and arrogant, he is in his prime during this period, free to do largely exactly as he likes.
                    Fashionable Samburu tribesmen

Girls train for motherhood at an early age by helping with the household chores, and caring for their siblings. When adolescent girls attend dances organized by the moran of their clan they are acutely aware of the importance of looking their best at such gatherings.
                                     Samburu tribe woman - Kenya

They paste ochre onto their shaven heads, darken their eyebrows with charcoal, and paint intricate designs on their faces. She is then likely to earn praise from a moran, probably becoming a mistress to him and enjoying his protection. This relationship is forged by mutual physical and sexual attraction, although each knows that their relationship has no future. Since both come from the same clan, marriage is forbidden.
                                                                   Samburu future couple 

 Over the years the moran will heap beads upon his lover or bead girl as a symbol of his love and whilst the girls may feel passionately about a certain man, they are taught from an early age that these feelings are irrelevant, for they will never be able to wed someone of their own choosing. Girls are taught that the marriage bond is not based on physical attraction or emotion, but instead that it is a long term sound investment forged by her family.
                                             Samburu Beauty with a tribal Hair-cut

                        Girl from Samburu tribe, dressed for her wedding, northern Kenya

                            Samburu woman carrying her baby on her back

The Samburu believe that God (Nkai) is the source of all protection from the hazards of their existence. But God also inflicts punishment if an elder curses a junior for some show of disrespect. The elder’s anger is seen as an appeal to God, and it is God who decides if the curse is justified. Faced with misfortune and following some show of disrespect towards an older man, the victim should approach his senior and offer reparation in return for his blessing. This calms the elder's anger and restores God’s protection.

                                Samburu People

Samburu religion traditionally focuses on their multi-faceted divinity (Nkai). Nkai (a feminine noun), plays an active role in the lives of contemporary Samburu. It is not uncommon for children and young people, especially women, to report visions of Nkai.
                           Beautiful Samburu girls

Some of these children prophesy for some period of time and a few gain a reputation for prophecy throughout their lives. Besides these spontaneous prophets, Samburu have ritual diviners called 'loibonok' who divine the causes of individual illnesses and misfortune, and guide warriors. Although ritual life focuses especially on cattle, other livestock such as goats, sheep, camels, and even donkeys figure into Samburu ceremonies.
                                Beautiful Smburu girl with her traditional hair-cut

In recent decades missionaries have had success in converting more Samburu to predominantly Catholic, but also Protestant forms of Christianity. Nevertheless, the majority of Samburu continue to observe most traditional ritual practices.

                               Samburu women

                                        Samburu village sale.

                             Samburu  mother and her baby


Vivid colours swirled and danced through the heady East African air as rhythmic chant-like singing reverberated around the dusty circle. To the hypnotic beat of an ancient chant, women bounced and flaunted their vibrant neck collars made of rope upon rope of delicately strung beads while men jumped in a competition of height and stamina. I was simply spellbound. Uneducated as to the history of this spirited and richly coloured performance of a traditional Samburu dance, there was one thing I knew for sure, and that was that someone was really trying to impress someone. And it was working.

                    The Samburu dancers performing their jumping butterfly dance

The Samburu people are not so distant relatives to the Maasai although they live just above the equator where the foothills of Mount Kenya merge into the northern desert and slightly south of Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya in East Africa.

africa dance
© Katherine Keates: Africa Dance: "Girl and Collar of Beads"

This is a warrior-race of cattle-owning pastoralists. The Samburu, proud of their culture and traditions, still cherish and retain the customs and ceremonies of their ancestors, unlike many other tribes in Kenya who have been more influenced by Western civilization. 

            Samburu dancer performing traditional jumping butterfly dance

They are a group that broke away from the main tribe and remained as others pushed further south. The Samburu people are completely dedicated to the raising and nurturing of their livestock, almost to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Their cattle are their life, their wealth, their livelihood and they are profoundly symbolic of status and success within the tribe. To this day, a man still pays a dowry in cattle to the parents of a future bride.
africa dance
© Katherine Keates
Africa Dance
"The Warrior"

In front of the backdrop of the often barren and dusty horizon, the Samburu people bring life and colour to the landscape either out on the plains swathed in their brilliant red cloth or, even more dazzlingly, in their village with their songs and dances. Typically and traditionally, they use no instruments, even drums. They have dances for various occasions of life. But no matter what the occasion, the men primarily dance by jumping, and high vertical jumping from a standing position is like a competitive sport. Most dances involve the men and women dancing in separate circles with specific moves for each sex, while still coordinating the movements of the two groups. The central musical theme of the Samburu dances is a deep reverberating male vocal sound, a rhythmic chanting hauntingly similar to the territorial call of a lion. Warriors move with a series of astonishing vertical leaps, fiercely encouraged by the cries and shouts of other observing warriors while the women bounce, flip and swirl their magnificent collars of beads.

Traditional Samburu settlements are always situated in locations of tremendous geographic beauty, often overlooking spectacular vistas. The aesthetic appreciation of beauty is a major part of Samburu life and their beliefs, and this shows itself most in an incredible attention to physical appearance and adornment.
              An ensemble of the women from the Samburu Tribe located in the Samburu National Park, Kenya.

The name "Samburu" was given to them by other tribes, and directly translates as Butterflies or Butterfly People. This was most likely gained because of the impression of delicacy created by their personal ornamentation. However, this delicacy and beauty is not to be mistaken, as it is merely an illusory contrast to their fearsome reputation for hunting and fighting.

The warriors, known as moran, are the most visually striking members of this unique society and are unquestionably attractive to young girls. They live a rather pleasant and undemanding life with permissive sex for roughly 14 years. Most of them will at one time or another have many lovers who will lavish them with gifts of beads and other trinkets. These young men are flamboyant in their style of dress and are incredibly vain.

They frequently apply abstract designs in orange to their faces and red ochre to their heads, necks and shoulders and spend hours adorning each other. Who could doubt that moranhood is considered the best period of a Samburu man's life.
When adolescent girls attend the dances, which are organized by the moran of their clan, they are deeply aware of the importance of their appearance. They paste red ochre onto their heads, they darken their eyebrows with charcoal, and paint elaborate designs on their faces all the while chattering, teasing and giggling in anticipation of the dance. A small compact mirror or piece of reflective metal is an item of great value to a Samburu, male or female. If the young lady is attractive enough to earn attention from a moran, it is likely that she will become a mistress to him and enjoy his protection. Over the years he will heap beads upon his lover or "bead girl" as a symbol of his affection.
Samburu Dance
Samburu women do not wear the distinctive large flat necklaces of the Maasai. Instead, they are, from a young age, given single loop bead necklaces by young morans. These precious beaded gifts are given regularly and liberally by young Samburu admirers, and it is not long until the necklaces soon merge to form a thick collar of multihued beads.
Samburu Dance
 In the Samburu society, body adornments clearly indicate a person's social or ritual status, and the exchange of such adornments simply defines the social relationship between the giver and the recipient.   And all of this is joyously flaunted in the dances of the 'Butterfly People'.
   Samburu woman`s hand adorned with different traditional bracelets

Samburu warriors dancing.Their main task is to protect the village from the lions and hyenas, during the night. When they dance, they enter a kind of trance.

I moved around the circle with my camera and taking long exposure photos, or using selective focus, swung and moved to the music and tripped the shutter as the moment struck. I needed to capture the mood of this hypnotic dance as the primal beat and visceral sound of the feigned lion call spoke to my own deeply rooted primordial essence while colours of the Butterfly People swirled around my mind's eye like a whirling dervish. When it was all over, I sat in the dusty circle, oblivious to the heat of the African sun, mesmerized and slightly intoxicated. It was then that I made a silent plea to the generations yet unborn that at least some remnants of tradition hold fast through the relentless winds of time and may it not all be lost.
  Samburu woman dancing,Nangida village, Kenya.The samburu dance is magnificent: the women stand like this and make their necklaces jump, in a very proud attitude.
                               Female Samburu traditional dancers

                                                     Samburu Dance
Story by: Katherine Keates


                                     Beautiful  Samburu girl

                             Samburu Tribesman with his hair decorated with feathers

                                           Samburu Girl with her traditional hair-cut

                                       Smiling Samburu Tribesman

                                                   Samburu woman dancer with beads 

                                        Fashionable Samburu tribesman

                                 Women from the Samburu tribe - #Kenya

           Samburu warrior with beaded ornaments - Kenya

            Samburu women in a chanting dance mood

                   Samburu Warrior

                                    Samburu, Kenya in traditional dress, Samburu, Kenya

                   Samburu warriors in tribal dress resting in the Nyiru Mountains of Northern Kenya

                                    Beautiful Samburu woman
Samburu Dance
                            Samburu Dance

                                                                           Samburu Girl

                                   Samburu Woman and Child, Samburu, Kenya, Africa

                        The Samburu People

                        Samburu woman chewing on a stick

Samburu Dance
                                    Samburu Dancers

                                                Pretty Samburu girls

Samburu Dance
                      Samburu warrior dancers

Samburu Dance
                                               Samburu people

                                 Young  Samburu tribespeople dancing

                                    Samburu woman

                                    Samburu Dancer

       Pretty Samburu Woman wearing her traditional beads

Samburu men bleeding a cow for the blood meal - Kenya

Breakfast time for Samburu: Orange juice or 1 litre of fresh cow blood?
Samburu in Kenya, like Maasai, drink 2 times a week some blood from their cows. They do not eat the meat, but drink the milk and the blood. They make a hole in the vein with an ark, take the blood, and quicly drink it, before it coagulates. see:

                         Samburu man smiling after drinking one liter of cow blood - Kenya

                          Samburu woman

Samburu girls, Kenya
                                                Samburu Kids

                                      Samburu mother and baby - Kenya

                      Kenyan Soldier from Samburu tribe

Samburu People: Samburu tribal people of Kenya

Samburu Generations - Samburu National Park, North Eastern

                                              Samburu Bracelets

Samburu Elders huddle together under a tree to play a game


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  3. I will be visiting the Samburu people for a wedding this spring. Can you suggest some gifts I can bring to my hosts, and to the bride? I read that they prize mirrors, so I can bring some of those. Other suggestions?

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