Like in other African cultures, in the Samburu culture the transition from one stage of life to another or change of marital status are events that are accompanied by rituals and ceremonies that have their roots in the ancient tradition.
The Samburu children, or Layeni in Samburu language, do not have a role in the society, the only task that is entrusted to them is to lead goats to grazing; only after the initiation ritual they are entering a stage of maturity and play an active role.
The initiation ritual for the Samburu establishes the transition to adulthood and consists, like in other populations, in the practice of circumcision, a ceremony that takes place around the age of 15.
During the ceremony the boy is shaved, is given new shoes and is covered with a sheepskin on which the mother has previously sprinkled grease and coal dust.
Circumcision is practiced at the door of the boy’s home with the assistance of an elder, and like for the Maasai, the boy should not show fear and emit no moan of pain as proof of his courage.
After the ceremony the young man receives gifts, food, and a bow and arrows; his mother wears a necklace made with black and white beads that indicates that since then his son has become a moran or lmorran, i.e. a true warrior.
For the time it takes him to recover, usually a month, the young man stays in his mother’s hut, after that he leaves the village and learns to hunt birds with the bow and arrows received as a gift.
When Moran warriors return to the camp, they are blessed by their mothers with an ostrich feather soaked in milk; a ceremony is also held, during which a bull is killed and the young man must swear not to eat meat in the presence of women and from that moment onwards he begins to smear red ocher on his body.
Each moran chooses a new name and a rite is held, to celebrate this passage of the Samburu life; the celebration includes the sacrifice of an ox that is killed by suffocation: the animal, however, should not fall to the ground, it must be held up by the young people for whom the ceremony is celebrated, as a demonstration of their strength.
The main occupation of a moran is to defend the cattle, this involving planning raids in the villages of rival ethnic groups to steal their livestock.
After 10 years of their lives spent as warriors, the Samburu boys move on to the next step and become ipayan, i.e. young elders, a stage of life when they get married and have children.
The ceremony, called imugit in the local language, that marks this passage, consists of sacrificing an ox the meat of which is eaten up completely and the bones are burnt; at this point the moran age-set terminates and this passage is over only after the tribal haircut.
Marriage entails a complex ritual, that begins with the groom engaging in negotiations with the bride's family to obtain the consent to marriage.
The groom is required to deliver eight oxen to the future father-in-law as a pledge and procure gifts to be donated to the bride; great care is given in the preparation of the gifts, which usually consist of two goatskins, two copper earrings, a milk container and a sheep.
The groom will also provide several heads of cattle to be sacrificed during the marriage ceremony.
According to tradition, on the wedding day, at dawn, the bride is practiced clitoridectomy, but fortunately today this practice has almost disappeared.
The groom leads the cattle to the house of the bride’s mother, and when the animals are killed, the marriage is considered celebrated.
The wedding party begins with the division of the ox meat while the elderly bestow blessings and put butter on the head of the bride’s father.
The next day the bride must leave her mother's house and move to her husband's village, she has to travel all the way to her new home without ever looking back; on her arrival two lines of elderly bless the new couple.
In the new hut the bride lights up the fire, using two sticks rubbed over dried donkey dung: the fire should not go out until the new family moves elsewhere.
The taboo according to which the bride should not look back on her way to her new house is associated with a Samburu legend, that tells how the elephants were once human beings.
The legend tells that once upon a time a young bride was about to get ready to leave her family’s house and her father gave her precise instructions on how to follow her way, that included the prohibition to look back; but the girl was so sad that she could not resist to take a last glance at the home where she had grown up.
During the night, the Nkai God, furious with the disobeying girl, decided to punish her: the body of the young girl began to swell and grow up until it broke the hut roof and finally turned into a majestic elephant.
The Samburu believe that all elephants descend from this first girl-become-elephant and that the elephant and the Samburu people have the same blood ties.
The popular belief tells that, if the elephants find a dead man they place bundles of grass or branches on his grave, and similarly if a Samburu comes across an elephant skull, he takes a bundle of green grass, spits on it and rolls it inside the cavities of the skull; this is considered a sign of respect and blessing: the green grass is the symbol of peace, while the spit is the rain, that is considered a divine gift in these areas.
Another rite practiced by the Samburu concerns female fertility, that is regarded as one of the greatest values.
In the case of infertility, the wizard performs a fertility ritual that consists of placing a mud figure at the front of the door of the woman’s house to keep evil spirits away; a week later, a ceremony is organised, during which the husband invites the entire village, sacrifices a bull whose fat is smeared on the belly of his wife while she recites the "God will give you a son" prayer.
A childless woman is mocked by people and insulted; the walls of her hut are smeared with cow dung.
Even death has its ceremony, although the Samburu usually do not bury their own dead; as a matter of fact, only the very elderly and children before one year of age are buried.
Once dead, the elderly are shaved and placed on the skin they used for sleeping with their face turned towards the sacred mountain, the residence of their God; the burial place is not far from the village, the tomb is recognisable so that people can identify it and place a green sprig as a sign of greeting.
A dead child is buried inside the hut, close to the fire, after this the hut is abandoned by the family.
The corpse of all those who are not buried are left on the ground outside the village.
Life, tradition and culture of Samburu people
- Samburu social organisation and villages
- Samburu religion
- Samburu rituals and ceremonies
- Livestock farming and diet in Samburu communities
- Samburu jewellery and clothing