Culture Samburu 


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Butterfly people, the Samburu (or Sambur) is a unique and popular tribe due to their long preserved culture. Despite education, civilization and western cultural influences, the Samburu people have clung to their traditional way of life, making them a symbol of Northern Kenyan culture.

Beautiful dressed Samburu Mamas

Samburu Traditional Wedding

(Note: Rendille and Samburu tribes practice the same marriage ceremony, Most marriage rituals, procedures and marriage songs are similar in both communities)  

In Samburu culture and traditional to be an adult is above all to be married, to be a father or a mother and Bachelors or spinsters are not normal if they exist in Samburu society. They can only be associated with physical malady or mental deficiency, which does exist at times but which is considered as a misfortune. Therefore, initiation to a large extent is a preparation for marriage which will lead to adulthood. The duties of a wife are explained and specified to the girls while a sense of paternal responsibility is instilled in the boys.


How Samburu marriage is arranged?

Newly Married

When a girl reaches a marriageable age, usually 14 or 18 years of age. Rarely does a girl marry before the onset of puberty and rarely does she stay unmarried after reaching 20 years of age. Boys marry much later in life, usually at around 30 years of age. Earlier marriages do occur although they were infrequent in the past and appear today as a modern innovation.

 In traditional Samburu society, young circumcised men served as warriors for a least 15 years while married life was reserved for older men. The Moran-hood period was a necessity for every moran before being initiated to young elders.

Samburu Morans
Photo coutesy Leadekei Alove

This period was important for initiates, it molds them to be respective and independent so that they will know how to take about family responsibles.

Early married life was also perceived to be a distraction that would seriously affect the discipline and fighting ability of the warriors.

In traditional Samburu society, all marriages were arranged by the parents of the boy and girl. Today, there are changes in that when a young man is attracted by a girl and he wishes to marry her, he notifies his father and mother who then investigate the kinship and the economic background of the girl’s family. They are usually ready to abide with whatever decision the parents come up with.

Marriage is not only the couple affair. It is primarily an alliance between two kinship groups. Betrothal period is normally long. Each family had informers to view the boy’s or girl’s behaviour. The information concerning each family has to be exhausted first before any final decision is made. In this long period, the two families concerned have primarily to establish whether there are any kinship connections between them.

In Samburu culture it is difficult and takes long to arrive at married, apart from each families having informers to view the boy or the girls there are also so prohibitions that had to be investigated before the marriage arrangements can commence.


Marriage prohibitions in Samburu

The first prohibition is marrying a girl from one’s own clan. They are brothers and sisters therefore to marry her would be considered incestuous. The second prohibition is to marry a girl who is a member of ones’ mother’s clan. In the end, the inquiry to establish a marriage suit is allowed to continue if neither the girl nor her intended suitor share a common clan tie.

Observed Characteristics

Among other characteristics to be keenly observed by the potential suitor are the reputation and wealth of the girl’s immediate family. Similarly, the girl’s parents are also interested in trying to determine the kind of in-law relations likely to be established by her marriage to a particular young man. Harmonious in-law relations are considered more important than the relative wealth of each family.


Bride wealth and its importance in Samburu culture

The bride wealth (Nkishu e nkauti) are the cattle that are transferred from the family of the bridegroom to the family of the bride. In Samburu society, it depends on the family; however, there is to be a good number of cows to be given to the girl’s family. This giving of cows to the girl’s family, gives the suitor the right to determine marriage residence. The girl must leave her family to go and live with the husband’s parents. It also makes the children born of the marriage belong to the man and in case of separation the children will remain at the man’s home.

As soon as all the negotiations of marriage are over, including the bride wealth, the boy’s family announces the marriage. As the right time for the ceremony is arrived at, the girl is circumcised in the morning or evening according to the girl’s family orientation.

In the morning the bull is killed, thus concluding the marriage contract. While the people are in high jubilation, the other rites continue including, bridegroom and the best man presenting for pieces of meet to the mothers in-law, parent’s admonitions to their daughter in the presence of the bridegroom and the elder’s blessings to the new couple. The following morning sees the departure to the boy’s home or, if far away, a nearby place for the girl to get healed.  The family must make a “white House” there for the bride.

Apart from the bride wealth there are also the dowry and the marriage cattle. The dowry are the animals the girl brings with her from her family. Usually in Samburu they are goats, sheep, a donkey and the household things. Some families, however, give their daughter some cows. On the other hand, the marriage cattle are those allocated to the wife and husband for their subsistence by their kin. These are always given to the wife by all members of the husband’s family and relatives; to avoid calling her by name, they instead give a goat, a cow, a heifer, a calf or any other animal. These cattle are meant to initiate and boost the new couple in their life.

Another Colourful wedding in Songa, the land of plenty

The wedding occurs more frequently in the rainy season when it is easier to accumulate enough butter for all the rituals needed for a wedding. Butter has a magico-religious significance when used for anointing during ritual. Large quantities of butter are needed to smear the body of the bride and all the girls and women of the village and nearby villages who come to attend the wedding.


For the Samburu, polygamy was normally for the wealthy as a sign of prestige. Basically, marriage is monogamous. The whole family or even clan helps the young man to get the first wife but the rest depends on his own personal means to seek prestige, upon the wife’s consent.

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