The Samburu who number approximately 450,000 are a nomadic pastoralist ethnic group that live in central north Kenya just above the equator, slightly north of Mt Kenya. They are closely related to other Maasai groups: Maasai (Kenya and Tanzania), Lchamus (Kenya) Arusha (Tanzania) and Laikipia Maasai/Mukokodo of Kenya. So their cultures, way of live and language are the same.  They live in an arid and semi-arid lands, open scrub and grasslands with significant environmental variation based on altitude. Their lives revolve around their cows, sheep, goats, and camels for milk, meat, blood, clothing and social interactions. Milk can be taken fresh, sour, yoghurt or mixed with blood.

They live in large circular homesteads –‘Manyatta’ of 1 to 50 families. They have age-sets that are initiated after every 15 or so years. Men have Age Set System: At age 14 -20 young men are initiated into an age set. This group forms a man's peer group for his entire life. Group moves together through distinctive age grades including: Warrior hood- Live as bachelor/warriors, lmurran, (ages approx. 15-30).May not marry or eat food seen by women (except milk and blood).Distinguished by their braided hair style.   Elder hood: Married men (Lpaiani).Figures of authority in Samburu culture. Distinguished between junior elders, fire stick elders (lpiroi), senior elders, retired elders. An age set moves together through these stages.


The warriors defend the community and take care of livestock. Old men take care of the livestock, provide guidance, counseling, arbitration, and decision making. Women build huts, prepare food, milk livestock, fetch water and firewood, make artifacts, ornaments and guide the young women and girls. Boys mainly care for livestock while though girls do the same; they also help their mothers in household chores.

Traditional they belief on deity- Nkai, a personified being, who symbolically has both male and female aspects; Provides life giving force to the world.

Practice little sorcery, but have a strong belief in the power of the curse--the old in particular have the ability to curse the young.

Nkai’s power is manifested in supernatural things like earthquakes and lightning . They coexist well with nature and do not cut trees anyhow or kill wildlife unless for meat and ornaments. They only feed on wild animals that have two divided hoofs,  chew cad, and do not have canines and upper incisors.

They take care about plants. They understand that life depends on plants. So, however much there is need for firewood, fences, roots etc, it should not make one to excessively damage tree(s). They encourage pruning of brunches rather than cutting all or top ones.

In some ceremonies that they undergo, they use plants from various climatic conditions. That is from wet and dry lands. That signifies that all are critically important in life.  

Socio-economic conditions
Literacy is fundamental to socio-economic development and poverty alleviation but it is still elusive among the Samburu people. 88% of them are still illiterate as compared to Nairobi with only 12.9% illiteracy level.. Primary school enrolment among the Samburu is quite low at 44%.

Samburu county has major variations in development and ecology and there are variations in school enrolment according to areas i.e Urban (50%), Highland-rural (39%), and Lowland-rural (10.8%). Majority in school are boys (approx 70%). Girls are disadvantaged as many families belief that they will eventually be married off and thus benefit other families. Therefore, with meager resources they ‘invest’ on boys

The following is some statistics on Samburu area.

Indicator Level
Pre primary enrolment 15.8%
Primary enrolment 44%
Primary school completion rates 42%
Malnutrition 32.3%
Access to adequate sanitation 16.1%
Access to safe drinking water 13.2%
Poverty rate 88%Abslolute poor


Historical factors contributed to the low education status among nomadic pastoralists in Kenya. Introduction of formal education among the nomadic pastoralists has been a slow process. The nomadic pastoralists were pushed into semi-arid so-called native reserves and interaction with other communities was restricted. They had marginal contact with the missionaries and the government, and therefore had nothing to respond to, as they remained closed in the reserves. Most of the nomadic districts were referred to as “closed districts”. They remained outside the sphere of influence of the colonial settlers, missionaries and the colonial government. The missionaries later penetrated into these areas as did other settled communities. Schools were started although enrolling very few “natives”. It was not until after independence that primary school enrolment increased in the nomadic areas due to enforcement by the government especially through chiefs. School enrollment increased rapidly in other areas but remained chronically low in nomadic pastoral areas.

Distance to nearest school is another factor. Some settlements are as far as 46km from the nearest school. 52% of the Samburu people live more than 3km away from the nearest primary school.


Mobility of the people is another factor. People move around with livestock in search of pasture and water. In general, within a period of 8 years of primary education, 50% of the households change residence. However, variations exist. Only about 5% of those living in urban areas change residence within this period, while for Highland-Rural dwellers, it is 12% but every household in the lowlands move -at 100%.An elderly man one time when asked why they are ever mobile retorted:-

“Rains here last only a month, so we have to be constantly on the move, to chase after pasture and water to keep our livestock and ourselves alive…. Do not ask me about children’s schooling in this situation ask me about how to keep them alive”.

Herding of livestock has also contributed a lot in keeping children out of school. In general about 45% of school aged children do not enroll in school due to livestock herding.  One parent retorted to our question when we asked the number of children in her household not in school:

“My son we would appreciate sending children to school, to be like you and the rest, but what do we do with livestock – our livelihood”.

Cattle rustling activities between nomadic pastoral communities too, contribute immensely to low access to schooling. Incidences of human lives being lost, livestock taken away, families displaced and children left malnourished and traumatized are common phenomena.


The Samburu are a proud warrior-race of cattle-owning nomadic pastoralists.  The name ‘Samburu’ means, ‘Samburr’ being the traditional leather bag specific to them which is used for carrying meat and honey on their backs.

They dwell in the remote and much more arid north Kenya region which was referred to as Northern Frontier during the colonial era for which a special travel document were required, a requirement that extended for a few years even after Kenya attained its independent status. 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, Samburu land upto today remains remote and unspoilt, having escaped the negative impact of mass tourism.

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.
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.

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 elderhood, from marriage until death. Samburu society is polygamous.
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.
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.

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. They paste ochre onto their shaven heads, darken their eyebrows with charcoal, and paint intricate designs on their faces.. Morans are aloowed to choose one single mistress to avoid in-fighting between warriors- the mistress of whom he 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.

Good character, etiquette, respect, and discipline are nurtured as virtues that help one to co-exist well with others, avoid curses and live long.





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