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The Native Perspective, Episode 8: The Samburu

The Native Perspective is a Food Circle project that discusses taking urgent climate change action in order to protect indigenous peoples who depend on their natural environments for survival, food, shelter, and to maintain their cultural identity. Because climate change affects those who rely on nature the most, it is crucial to support indigenous communities worldwide which in turn ensures the preservation of ecosystems, as indigenous peoples have developed a balanced rapport with their natural surroundings and there is much knowledge to be gained from their lifestyles for more sustainable living. The dialogue also draws talking points from ecocriticism; it examines people’s attitudes towards nature, and indigenous studies; centering and elevating the voices of different indigenous cultures and promoting their experiences. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

The Pastoralist Tradition

In the culturally abundant Northern Kenya resides a semi-nomadic tribe, called the Samburu. Closely related to the Maasai tribe in East Africa, the Samburu are known to hold to their traditions. With the ethnical background of plain Nilotes, the Samburu settled in the northern parts of Kenya centuries ago, separating from the Maasai that drifted to the south [1]. Their spoken language is a dialect derived from the Maa language, the name itself, Samburu, originates from the Maa word “saamburr”, meaning leather bag that the Samburu use [2].

The Samburu are pastoralists. At the very core of their culture and practice is livestock: keeping cattle, sheep, goats, camels and donkeys. The staple foods of the Samburu people's traditional diet are milk and, occasionally, cow blood [3]. For the latter, a small cut is made in the cow's jugular to release the blood, which is then collected in a cup. Afterwards, heated ash is used to immediately seal the wound. Only extraordinary occasions call for meat consumption. Roots, vegetables, and tubers are additional supplements to the Samburu diet.

The villages of the Samburu people are known as manyattas [4]. Typically, the Samburu live in groups of five to 10 families. Samburu males traditionally take care of their herds and are in charge of the tribe's general security. The Samburu have a rich oral culture that includes tales and riddles to pass along their history and traditions. The youngsters of the tribes are told these enthralling stories over crackling fires inside the Manyattas or beneath the moonlight and the stars that stretch over their towns. These stories serve the purpose of enhancing the magic and instilling in future generations a sense of the significance of the Samburu and their appreciation for the land, the animals, and their elders.

The Samburu traditionally wear a bright red skirt-like garment known as a shukka, along with a white sash. Numerous beaded bracelets, earrings, and necklaces add to this look . Despite exclusively being made by women, jewellery is worn by both men and women. To draw attention to their facial characteristics, the Samburu also draw distinctive patterns while painting their faces. In the Samburu culture, dancing is highly significant. Men dance in a circle while jumping particularly high from a standing position, akin to the Maasai dances. Typically, the Samburu don't use any musical accompaniment for their singing and dancing. Men and women coordinate their dances but do not dance in the same circles.

What is more, the Samburu calendar is crucial for predicting the seasons and dry spells, rains and rituals. The tribe's elders have a mystical understanding of these seasons and can predict the right time for any activity without the use of a calendar. Every tribal event is prepared with input from a select group of families that possess this heuristic foresight.

Harsh Climate Turns Harsher

Just as any indigenous community, the Samburu’s livelihood is founded upon the closeness and dependence on nature and weather. Subsequently, climate change has been a major contributor to the disruption in the lives of the Samburu. The weather patterns have changed: the Samburu face longer, more frequent and more grave periods of drought [5]. Similarly, rainfalls have also gotten more inconsistent. They are now shorter yet more intense, sometimes causing a flood. Then, gullies are created as a result of sheet erosion. These gullies impair areas that would have been used as grazing land for the herd. On top of that, the Samburu are faced with temperature changes. Over the course of 40 years, only the past few years demonstrated a significant amount of temperature anomalies in the Samburu region [6].

As a consequence of these intensifying droughts, the Samburu are challenged to manage rangelands that are becoming less and less productive. During the dry seasons, the animals lack grass and food, which cause them to become weak and die. The floods also have anchored certain animal diseases, killing a great share of Samburu livestock. The casualties of drought and flood continue to rise and the Samburu livelihoods are often left in scarcity. The environment becomes fragile and the Samburu are forced to leave their lands, which affects their culture and tradition.

Driven by disputes over resources like water and pasture, as well as livestock raids after droughts, the effects of climate change were also contributing to high levels of insecurity in the community. The neighbourhood now faces a severe water deficit as a result of droughts brought on by climate change. Women and girls were most negatively impacted since they had to travel great distances to get water, which prevented girls from attending school and mothers from doing any productive work. The Samburu now embrace education and search for new means of subsistence due to the challenging life of pastoralism. Because of the instability in their surroundings, their houses and children's education must now be standardised. This shift puts both a financial strain of the Samburu families and impose conflicts among the tribe members and the traditional ways of living.

Shift in Gender Roles

But what is particularly striking is that climate change is not only causal to changes in Samburu weather and herd conditions, but it also affects the social order. When it comes to gender roles in the Samburu tribe, up until now no significant changes had occurred over the past centuries that would instil a shift in their customary gender dynamics. Samburu men are in charge of grazing the herd, while women take on the rest, that is, supplying water and firewood, taking care of homesteads and raising children [7]. There hasn’t been any room for leniency when it comes to this order: men don’t permit women to handle finances or even call their husband by their name. Interestingly enough, these roles have begun to change and it is due to changes in climate. Pushed to the brink of survival, the Samburu are forced to adapt to these tough conditions; the vicious drought has impelled men to be absent for months, searching for pasture with their herds. As a result, women have started to work for money, taking up jobs that previously were considered appropriate only for men. One of these jobs is trading livestock. With men gone for months on end, women are now able to earn and have more control over household financial matters. For many Samburu women this newly discovered autonomy is a positive change.

Despite everything, the Samburu are armed with resilience. By the means of indigenous knowledge, these people seek solutions to persist through the reality of their circumstances. There are multiple initiatives and projects launched with the purpose of attending to the situation in the far north of Kenya - the area that is particularly vulnerable to climate change. For instance, the Archers Post, a settlement in Samburu county, has attempted to brace these challenges head-on and, in consequence, modernised their homestead. In this settlement the Samburu have adopted the use of biogas under the Integrated Management of Natural Resources for Resilience in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (IMARA) SIDA Program [8]. This program takes on the task of giving everyone access to sustainable energy, including indigenous tribes. Contrary to the existing gender dichotomy, the Samburu women seem to be the frontiers of these sustainable developments, taking responsibility for energy-related decisions, displaying intent to achieve flexibility, as well as shifting the pastoralist lifestyle to an alternative livelihood. By guidance of the World Vision charity, the Samburu have been introduced to sustainable farming and other agricultural developments that are adjusted to their living conditions. Still, the challenges of the Samburu are far from resolved; with continuous funding, charity projects and programs shall resume providing the necessary aid to the Samburu people.

Author: Liva Puka


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  1. History of the Samburu People | Samburu Council

  2. Samburu Language | DBpedia

  3. The Samburu: Indigenous People of East Africa | TripSavvy

  4. The Samburu Tribe of Kenya and East Africa | Siyabona Africa

  5. Climate Change and Pastoralist Livehoods Shifts in Northern Kenya: The Case of Samburu East District, Kenya | University of Nairobi Archive

  6. Climate Change Samburu | Meteoblue

  7. In Northern Kenya, the Climate Crisis Shifts Gender Roles | Foreign Policy

  8. Rising to the Challenge: Samburu Woman Becomes Clean Energy Champion | SEI