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The Samburu of Kenya

Population:     142,300 (including 19,046 Chamus)
Religion:        Traditional Monotheism
Registry of Peoples code   Samburu   108573
Registry of Peoples code   Chamus   102006
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue)   Samburu   kcn

The Samburu people live slightly south of Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya. They have traditionally herded cattle, goats and sheep in and an arid region with sparse vegetation. A nomadic life-style is essential for their survival since attempts to settle down in permanent locations have reduced their self-sufficiency and ability to maintain their traditional values and practices.

The Samburu developed from one of the later Nilotic migrations from the Sudan, as part of the Plains Nilotic movement. The broader grouping of the Maa-speaking people continued moving south, possibly under the pressure of the Borana expansion into their plains. Maa-speaking peoples have lived and fought from Mt. Elgon to Malindi and down the Rift Valley into Tanzania.

The Samburu are in an early settlement area of the Maa group. Those who moved on south, however (called Maasai), have retained a more purely nomadic lifestyle until recently when they have also begun farming. The expanding Turkana ran into the Samburu around 1700 when they began expanding north and east.

 Natural disasters and insensitive government mandates have plagued the Samburu. Droughts reduce the amount of available pasture and the number of cattle is reduced through natural, though at times abnormal, selection with resulting reduction of the wealth, status and stature of family groups.

If individuals are forced to sell their cattle or lose them through natural causes, they lose their means of self-sufficiency. They are then reduced to welfare help provided by national and religious organizations. A few development projects have provided new means of establishing settlements based on agriculture as well as hunting and gathering.

This implies a sedentary agricultural life-style as well as a loss of status among the Samburu, who have traditionally held their nomadic life-style to be superior. Thus economics and survival are directly affecting the Samburu. Changes in lifestyle have come as Samburu have traveled to other parts of Kenya. Samburu, like Maasai and Turkana, work in the cities as guards.

The Chamus (Njemps) people speak the Samburu language and are often counted as Samburu people. They are reported to be 12% Christian, while the Samburu are considered as 8-9% Christian. Evangelical estimates are lower, about 3% Christian for Samburu and 2.2% Christian for Chamus. The Samburu have traditionally been allies of the Rendille, who are about 5% Christian and are related to the Somali.

The language of the Samburu people is also called Samburu. It is a Maa language very close to the Maasai dialects. Linguists have debated the distinction between the Samburu and Maasai languages for decades.

In normal conversation one who speaks one of these languages can understand the other language 95 percent of the time. But a joint Bible translation was found to be ineffective to cover both groups. Preferred word usage and some grammatical difficulties required a separate translation for Samburu and Maasai.

The Samburu tongue is also related to Turkana and Karamojong, and more distantly to Pokot and the Kalenjin languages.

The Chamus (Njemps) people speak the Samburu language and are often counted as Samburu people. The Ariaal group of Rendille have been greatly affected by the Samburu and now speak the Samburu language. The Ariaal number 102,000, making a total of 249,300 mother-tongue speakers of the Samburu language.

Swahili is used extensively, particularly among younger people. Swahili is the language of education and English is taught in schools. There is still a low level of literacy and education, however, among the Samburu.

Political Situation
The Samburu have been in a somewhat defensive position with surrounding peoples moving around them. They have had clashes with some of the migrating or nomadic peoples. They have maintained a military and cultural alliance with the Rendille, largely in response to pressures from the expanding Oromo (Borana) since the 16th century. The Ariaal Rendille have even adopted the Samburu language. They do not have such an aggressive military character as the Maasai proper.

They were associated with the Laikipiak (Oloikop) Maasai, also called Kwavi, who followed a lifestyle with light agriculture. They have added camels to their culture, further differentiating them from the Maasai. In recent decades, they have had mostly peaceful relations with their neighbors, who include Maasai, Somali, Borana, Turkana and Gabbra as well as Rendille.

The Samburu got separated from the other Maa speakers due to the migration of Maasai farther south and of other ethnic various groups around them. The Samburu have been somewhat outside the stream of national politics also. They have had less development than some others in Kenya.

Change is beginning to occur as group ranching schemes have developed and education has become available. Many Samburu warriors enlisted in the British forces during World War II. Likewise Samburu serve in the Kenya armed forces and police.

Generally between five and ten families set up encampments for five weeks and then move on to new pastures. Adult men care for the grazing cattle which are the major source of livelihood. Women are in charge of maintaining the portable huts, milking cows, obtaining water and gathering firewood. Their houses are of plastered mud or hides and grass mats stretched over a frame of poles. A fence of thorns surrounds each family's cattle yard and huts.

Marriage is a unique series of elaborate ritual. Great importance is given to the preparation of gifts by the bridegroom (two goatskins, two copper earrings, a container for milk, a sheep) and of gifts for the ceremony. The marriage is concluded when a bull enters a hut guarded by the bride's mother, and is killed

Fertility is a very high value for the Samburu. A childless woman will be ridiculed, even by children. Samburu boys may throw cow dung against the hut of a woman thought to be sterile. A fertility ritual involves placing a mud figure in front of the woman's house. One week later, a feast will be given in which the husband invites neighbors to eat a slaughtered bull with him. As a little fat is spread over the woman's belly, they will say: "May God give you a child!"

Their society has for long been so organized around cattle and warfare (for defense and for raiding others) that they find it hard to change to a more limited lifestyle. The purported benefits of modern life are often undesirable to the Samburu. They remain much more traditional in life and attitude than their Maasai cousins.

Duties of boys and girls are clearly delineated. Boys herd cattle and goats and learn to hunt, defending the flocks. Girls fetch water and wood and cook. Both boys and girls go through an initiation into adulthood, which involves training in adult responsibilities and circumcision for boys and clitoridectomy for girls

Initiation is done in age grades of about five years, with the new "class" of boys becoming warriors, or morans. (il-murran). The moran status involves two stages, junior and senior. After serving five years as junior morans, the group go through a naming ceremony, becoming senior morans for six years. After these eleven years, the senior moran are free to marry and join the married men (junior elders).

Samburu are very independent and egalitarian. Community decisions are normally made by men (senior elders or both senior and junior elders but not morani), often under a tree designated as a "council" meeting site. Women may sit in an outer circle and usually will not speak directly in the open council, but may convey a comment or concern through a male relative. However, women may have their own "council" discussions and then carry the results of such discussions to men for consideration in the men's council.

The Samburu love to sing and dance, but traditionally used no instruments, even drums. They have dances for various occasions of life. The men dance jumping, and high jumping from a standing position is a great sport. Most dances involve the men and women dancing in their separate circles with particular moves for each sex, but coordinating the movements of the two groups.

The Samburu recognize Islam as the religion of the enemy Boran and Somali. Thus virtually no Samburu have become Muslims. Their own traditional religion is based on acknowledgment of the Creator God, whom they call Nkai, as do other Maa-speaking peoples. They think of him as living in the mountains around their land, such as Mount Marsabit.

They believe in charms and have traditional ritual for fertility, protection, healing and other needs. But it is common to have prayer directly to Nkai in their public gatherings. Traditional Maasai prayer patterns are used by Samburu and Maasai Christians in prayer and worship. They also use the term nkai for various spirits related to trees, rocks and springs, and for the spirit of a person. They believe in a evil spirit called milika.

Samburu religious beliefs are based on prayers to Nkai (God), and sacrifices. Nkai is thought to dwell in beautiful mountains, large trees, caverns, and water springs. The greatest hope of an old man approaching death is the honor of being buried with his face toward a majestic mountain, the seat of Nkai. The Samburu are devout in their belief in God. But they believe he is distant from their everyday activities. Diviners (laibon, pl. laibonok) predict the future and cast spells to affect the future.

The Samburu have been slow to respond to the Christian message. But in the 1990s, increasing numbers became Christians. New missionary teams sent out as itinerant evangelists have been effective in reaching nomadic groups by becoming nomadic themselves. Other Samburu become Christians as a result of relief efforts provided by Christians groups who meet the needs of those who have become sedentary.

The Roman Catholic church has a great presence in Mararal District, center of the Samburu. Several evangelical ministries are now established in the Samburu area. But people seem to know little about Christian faith. The Chamus are reported to be 12% Christian, while the Samburu are considered as 8-9% Christian. Conservative estimates indicate about 3% are evangelical believers (lower at 2.2% for the Chamus group).

There is an open access to the people, but because of the traditional worldview, Christian workers have reported that the Samburu are slow and careful in accepting the gospel in a really personal way. Significant changes in social, cultural and economic traditions have created many opportunities for Christians to explain the gospel. Thirteen denominations are working among Samburu in 130 distinct "congregations."

The elders and leaders have been resistant to change, so most Christians are women or young men and boys. The men spend their time with cattle and do not meet with women and children. Many medical facilities, development projects and educational institutions are operated by Christians, so Christians have regular contact with Samburu persons.

The Samburu have shown an open interest in the Christian message, but Samburu are a questioning, observing people and consider claims of the gospel long and carefully. But missionaries may be welcomed into discussion groups with elders to share stories of the Bible, Jesus and Christian faith.

The book of Genesis was in print in the Samburu language in the mid 1990s. Some Bible stories and other scripture portions have been prepared.

At the end of 2006, the Kenyan agency Bible Translation and Literacy had two Bible translation projects underway, separate translations for Samburu and Chamus. It had been determined that though the forms of speech were close enough to be considered dialects, cultural differences and different sets of borrowed words made separate translations necessary.

Some have reported that oral scripture readings, music or teachings in the Maasai language are often acceptable to Samburu audiences.


Amin, Mohamed. "Samburu," Portraits of Africa. London: Harvill Press, 1983.

Global Prayer Digest. Pasadena, California: Frontier Fellowship, 1982.

Sharman, Margaret. Kenya's People: People of the Plains. Evans Brothers Limited, 1979.

Maasai. Nairobi: Consolata Fathers. No Date.

Grimes, Barbara.  Ethnologue (Electronic Edition 13, now online in Edition 15).  Dallas:  Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1995.

Orville Boyd Jenkins
January 1997
Last updated 1 March 2007

Copyright © 1997, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.
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