In the northern reaches of Kenya, in a great swathe of the Rift Valley between Mount Kenya and Lake Turkana, lies Samburuland. As the name implies, this is home to the nomadic Samburu, one of the most fascinating tribes in Kenya, and the de facto guardians of the virgin wilderness of Samburu National Reserve and Buffalo Springs National Reserve.
The Samburu, cousins of the Maasai, have been called the “aristocrats of the nomadic tribes” (and in the New York Times, no less). Levis, Dockers and button-ups have yet to infiltrate their lives—they continue to dress as they always have, draped in lavish, brilliantly coloured fabric, the women wearing strings of beads and the men in feather plume headdresses. Their lives are carefully structured in a hierarchy that favors elders and values honor and respect above all else. Life transitions are celebrated with care and great pomp: from circumcision to weddings, births to funerals.
Age and the size of a man’s herd are the primary status and wealth indicators. Both are focal points in Samburu mythology, which traces the Samburu’s origin to the god Nkai, who lives on Venus (a planet clearly visible in Samburuland skies). Legend has it that Nkai sent the Samburu to Earth via a long rope, later using the same interstellar rope to send them a gift of cattle. The Samburu flourished, but over time the respect of the warrior class (young men) towards the elders began to wane, and their contempt did not go unnoticed. Nkai, in a rage, sent forth a massive thunderstorm that severed the rope between Venus and Earth forever.
This story reinforces the dominant roles of the elders in Samburu society,and underscores the belief that an elder has the ability to curse disrespectful warriors. Because this belief is so widespread, elders are careful about who they curse and why, and reckless young men are quick to make amends if they do something to warrant a curse – especially if the elder cursing them happens to have an eligible young lady in the family.
Cattle are the literal lifeblood of the tribe, and Nkai’s “housewarming present” to the original Earth-bound Samburu. Traditionally the tribe has relied solely on herds for food, living off a diet of meat, blood and milk. This diet is still largely followed, although the popular additions of maize meal porridge and tea with milk and sugar have become staples as well.
This tribal way of life—centered on cattle and warfare, with major transitions marked by age-old rites of passage—is strong in Samburuland, and the people have yet to be lured by the purported benefits of modern life.
The Samburu’s lack of interest in an urban, westernized lifestyle has been an inspiration for Hollywood since the ‘50s, when tribal members took to the screen to act in the background of Mogambo while Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly fought over the attentions of Clark Gable. The 90’s Kevin Bacon movie The Air up There has a Samburu man (Charles Gitonga Maina) in the starring role, and the Samburu way of life in this movie is eerily reminiscent of the ideal world of the Na’vi people in James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Avatar.
In the information age the Samburu’s authentic way of living, so close to the land and tied to their immediate community, is a refreshing rarity. Travellers seeking insight into genuine African culture need look no further.