The Vibrant Colors and Cultural Fabrics of the Samburu People

by Sandy Salle on June 7, 2010

SamburuAs one of Africa’s most unique cultures, the Samburu people are often recognized for their riveting beauty and decorative appearance. Samburu, which translates to mean “butterflies,” was given to the Samburu tribe by other tribes because of their layers and layers of bead-covered jewelry, fascinating face painting, and colorful dress.

The Samburu’s cloth dressing is called shukkas, which is accented with bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and colorful beads. Although the women make the jewelry, both men and women wear these gorgeous, decorative pieces.

Born from the Plains Nilotic movement in the Sudan, the Samburu tribe speaks a dialect of the Maa (Nilotic) language, which is a language spoken in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and parts of the Sudan. This derived dialect is now called the Samburu language.

SamburuToday, the Samburu tribe’s settlement spans nearly 80,000 square miles, which the tribe moves throughout in search of food and water for their cattle, goats, and camels. As nomadic-pastoralists, the Samburu tribe lives in groups of five to ten families and does not settle in one particular area for a long period of time. This mobile nature makes it difficult to build permanent residency; therefore, their huts are built from mud, hide, and grass, and are supported by large rods. This settlement of huts is referred to as manyattas.

The Samburu’s nomadic nature also limits their dietary staples, which predominantly consists of gathered roots and vegetables, and a mixture of milk and cow blood. Meat is only eaten on special occasions.

Below are several highlights from the Samburu culture:

The Role of Men and Women

With definitive gender roles, the Samburu tribe separates men and women in all aspects of their lifestyle. Traditionally, men are responsible for protecting their tribe and defending their cattle. While the men act as warriors and cattle care-givers, the women gather vegetables and roots from the area for their families. The women also cook, milk the cows, gather water, tend to the huts, and raise the children.


At a young age, the boys of the Samburu are taught to hunt and raise cattle and are instilled with a warrior mindset. Their rite of passage into manhood involves a circumcision ritual, which occurs in their early teen years and involves the attendance of the entire village.

Once circumcised, the young man enters the stages of becoming a warrior and lives with the other adult males of the village. He then grows out his hair, braids it, and dyes it with red ocher, until he reaches his early twenties.

The young girls of the village help their mothers with chores and gathering food, and they too must pass through a rite of passage to womanhood.

Each of the Samburu girls is given necklaces by the young warriors and, eventually, the necklaces accumulate to create a large, thick necklace. During this beading stage, the young females hope to be given necklaces by their most admired warrior. By the age of 16, women should have enough necklaces to support the structure of their neck. This symbolizes that they are ready for marriage.

When a young man and woman marry, there is a series of elaborate rituals including an intense final ritual that involves the killing of a bull that enters the hut that is guarded by the bride’s mother. There is also much importance placed on the groom’s gifts to the family, which include two goatskins, two copper earrings, a container of milk, and a sheep. As a dowry, the male provides the bride’s family with cattle and sheep.

Samburu men often marry numerous times, especially if they are wealthy. Each of his wives will have her own hut with her children and these huts will form a circle.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa - WantToGoTravel June 7, 2010 at 5:03 pm

I love seeing the difference around the world. They are beautiful! Thanks for sharing this.

Victoria Morgan June 8, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Great post Sandy!

Sandy Salle June 8, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Thanks Vickie! Glad to hear you enjoyed it 🙂

Sandy Salle November 22, 2016 at 9:30 am

I love that – butterflies are so beautiful, so are the Samburu people.

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