The Samburu are plain Nilotes. They are pastoralists who depend on livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats, camels and donkeys. Their normal diet is milk, meat and herbs obtained from the immediate environment. They hold great attachment to trees and shrubs growing and conserve them jealously for the natural environment support their livelihood. They wear traditional attires made from animal skins. Ochre and beads form part of their beautification ornaments.
The community is continually migrating, crisscrossing the four counties of Laikipia, Isiolo, Marsabit and Samburu. These counties are located in the northern frontier region of Kenya. The Samburu people are strongly rooted in their culture, norms beliefs and values. They have a strong oral tradition, passing down their history and customs through stories and riddles. These fascinating tales are narrated to the children sitting next to crackling fires inside the Manyattas in the evenings, or under moonlit skies in the arid plains around the villages.
Beads among the Samburu have always been an important aspect of their culture – not only as adornment tools, but also for their significance in traditional ceremonies, such as the four stages of human life called rites of passage-birth, circumcision, marriage and death. The various colours of the beads symbolize different aspects of the Samburu pastoral lifestyles:
Blue and green: represent water and grass respectively that is so crucial to the Samburu’s livelihood
White: being the colour of milk that nourishes the community, denotes purity and good health
Black and Brown: symbolizes the people and their natural beauty, also the colours of gourds and animal skins
Red: signifies bravery, strength and unity
Orange: signifies hospitality
Erythrina abyssinica (Lucky bean tree)
Coexisting with nature for Livelihood
The indigenous Samburu community are pastoralists occupying four counties of northern Kenya; Samburu, Isiolo, Laikipia and parts of Marsabit. These are regions considered marginalized with many challenges facing the local community. Infrastructure is poorly developed and social amenities are few and far apart. Industries are non existence and modern science plays very little role in supporting their daily lives. Through the ages, the prevailing hardships have taught the Samburu people survival strategies that come through harmonious coexistence with nature and great attachment to the Supreme Being.
Nature provide pasture for their livestock – their economic lifeline. They keep cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys and camels. Livestock provide them with their main diet – meat, milk and blood as well as hides which form part of the beddings in the manyatta. Donkeys are closer to women, being used to fetch water, firewood and carrying household belongings during migration. The Samburu people and nature are inseparable. It is by taking care of the natural environment that their survival can be guaranteed. Tree are never cut down for fire fuel but preserved. For firewood, women are only allowed to collect branches that have fallen down or dry up naturally. Indigenous trees and the domesticated animals define and support their livelihoods.
Indigenous Knowledge (IK) passed over through generations is applied on everyday life. The trees not only provide food and treat diseases, but they are an important component that form part and parcel of some revered ceremonies such as rites of passage and graduation of age sets. They also play a crucial role in conflict resolution mechanism where they are regarded as “courts” for it is here that elders sit when presiding over cases or resolving disputes. Some tree species are used when communicating with the creator (Enkai) through traditional prayer ceremonies.