The Samburu are historically close to the Maasai. Their languages are nearly the same (both Maa) and culturally they are virtually indistinguishable to an outsider. Both came from the region around present-day northwest Turkana in the seventeenth century. The Samburu turned east, establishing themselves in the mountain pastures and spreading across to the plains; the Maasai continued south.
Improvements in health and veterinary care over the last century have swelled the Samburu population and the size of their herds. Many in the driest areas of their range in the northeast have turned to camel herding as a better insurance against drought than cattle. Since livestock is the basis of relations between in-laws (through the giving of “bride wealth” from the husband to his wife’s family), having camel herds has disrupted patterns of marriage and initiation into new generations because camel herds increase more slowly than cattle herds. Memories, recording every transaction over successive generations, are phenomenal (the Samburu have only begun to acquire writing in the last four or five decades).
The Samburu age-set system, like many others in Africa, is a complicated arrangement to which a number of anthropologists have devoted lifetimes of investigation. Essentially it’s a gerontocracy (rule by old men), and the polygamous elders are assured, by the system they manipulate, of having the first choice of young women to marry. The promiscuous and jingoistic – but, by Samburu reckoning, still juvenile – warriors are forced to wait, usually until their thirties, before initiation into elderhood and subsequent marriage and fatherhood bring them a measure of real respect. In turn, they perpetuate the system on their own sons, who have everything to gain by falling in line and much to lose if they withdraw their stake in the tradition – perhaps by going to Nairobi or the coast to look for work.
For women the situation is very different. They are married at 15 or 16, immediately after the still widely performed operation of clitoridectomy and before they have much chance to rebel. But they may continue affairs with their morani boyfriends, the unmarried juniors of their new, much older husbands. This polygamy in itself seems to be an important motivating force for the whole generation system. For the warriors and their girlfriends, there’s a special young people’s language – a vocabulary of conspiratorial songs and idioms – which has to be modified with the initiation of every age-set, so that it’s kept secret from the elders.
This highly intricate system is now beginning to collapse in many areas, with a widespread disruption of pre-colonial ways; even the circumcision initiation of boys to warriorhood is less of a mass ceremony. While herds are still the principal criterion of wealth, people in some areas are turning to agriculture. There are enormous problems for such initiatives, especially when there’s no aid or government support, but they do show that the standard stereotypes don’t always fit. As for the morani warriors, opportunities for cattle-raiding and lion-killing have diminished with more efficient policing of their territories, although there are still frequent clashes with the Turkana on their northern borders. For some, tourist hunting has taken over: morani in full rig, striding past the beach hotels, looking for sales opportunities or liaisons, are no longer an unusual sight.