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Nomads of the North

  • Friday, October 1, 1999

The northern part of the Laikipia-Samburu Heartland, just north of the equator, where Mt. Kenya's foothills give way to desert, is inhabited by some 107,000 members of the Samburu tribe, a nomadic, pastoral people also known as the Liokop.

The Samburu, who herd cattle, goats, sheep and camels, share the Maa language and many social customs with their Masai relatives to the south. But the Samburu tend to live in smaller clans, in settlements of perhaps four to six livestock owners.

Elders hold a special place in society. The so-called "firestick elders" are responsible for the moral education of young males who become murrani, or warriors, in their teens. Samburu warriors are easy to identify by the ochre designs on their faces, plaited hair and colorful shukas, fabric wrapped sarong style. They are in their mid-20s before they are allowed to marry, a status that further elevates their prestige.

Milk is a dietary mainstay of the Samburu. Bark and roots are used in soup, and some families grow maize and other vegetables, although farming is difficult in the region's dry conditions. Animals are only slaughtered if no other food is available, usually during the dry season.

Drawing on a practice of the neighboring Rendille tribe, the Samburu increasingly are keeping camels, animals that endure the arid conditions better than cattle. Camel safaris guided by Samburu are available to tourists. So are the beautiful baskets and jewelry crafted by Samburu women.

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