The young girls from the Samburu Tribe whisper to each other, their hands cupped over their mouths in playful secrecy.
I can’t help but laugh to myself; it’s funny how some things are so universal. The scene reminds me of my high-school days, my friends and I giggling over my latest crush.
A few feet away, the men form a loose circle in the center of the manyatta (the Samburu term for home or compound). They clap as they sing while the girls watch.
One by one, each man steps into the center and jumps skyward, eager to outdo their friends. It’s a good-natured spectacle, but it’s also a testosterone-fueled competition. The higher a man jumps, the more virile he is and worthy of attention.
I am with a small group of young men and women from the Samburu tribe in Laikipia, northern Kenya. It’s a beautiful yet rugged sand-swept region with jagged escarpments and spiny acacia trees covered in 3-inch thorns. It’s a scene completely different than the sweeping plains of the Masai Mara I’ve come to know after years of photographing the migration.
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It’s quiet in the manyatta; most of the Samburu men are miles away where the drought has been kinder, grazing their herds. The Samburu people are a pastoral community; their wealth and stature are based on the number of cows they own—they’ll walk for days to find water and grass.
The girls are teenagers. The Moran, unmarried males in their early twenties, are the peacekeepers of the Samburu tribe; they defend against predators and battles with the neighboring Turkana. The village’s older women and children are already in their homes, settling in for the evening, leaving this group to their fun.
The Samburu dance is a part of a social ritual that goes back hundreds of years. It serves to bind and enrich the community. In larger, more formal gatherings, dozens if not hundreds of the Samburu tribe of all ages take part, food is prepared, and the festivities can go on for hours.
During the dance, they pass on tales of heroism and history; they flirt with the opposite sex. Fathers find husbands for their daughters or more wives for themselves. Young boys become men in group circumcision celebrations. Children, watching their elders, learn what it is to be Samburu.
On this night, however, it’s a casual, impromptu affair. It’s a way to let off steam, spend time with friends. The Samburu version of hanging out.
The unofficial leader of the Moran (a warrior) is a handsome man with fine features who is bedecked and bedazzled with handmade beaded jewelry. He is bare-chested save necklaces of varying lengths and patterns that wrap around his neck and then crisscross his torso.
His bright red sukkah is tied into a short sarong and a large sheathed machete is draped from his hip. His cropped hair is short and stained with red ochre, a symbol of beauty. He’s wearing a wide, beaded headband topped with a small, incongruous plastic rose.
The other moran
The Samburu girls are no less splendid. They wear bangles, armbands, and layers of circular beaded necklaces over a red multi-strand affair that covers their shoulders like a lampshade. Their ankles are wrapped with 3-inch beaded cuffs. All of them are bald, indicating they’ve been raised traditionally. Their swan necks are red with ochre, and one of the girls is wearing an elaborate face-mask with an ornate headpiece that rises from her head like a feather.
The sun is setting behind a cloud-filled sky when the dance begins. The dance wasn’t going to last long but I love being allowed to watch. My hosts, the team at Ol Malo Lodge, learned of the get-together at the last minute, and knowing I would enjoy it asked the Samburu if I could attend and take photos.
It’s what I’d been hoping for.
Earlier in my trip along the more populated outskirts of the Shaba National Reserve, a 15-minute flight to the south, I visited a manyatta that was a commercial venture. I recognized the familiar routine: an introduction to the tribe, a tour of the manyattas, a little dancing, and singing, and then the women sold (often aggressively) their handmade jewelry.
The experience isn’t a bad one—I picked up a few necklaces. It was great the first time I did it with the Maasai two years before, and for the tribes, it’s a valuable source of revenue. But it’s not an experience I wanted to repeat. I prefer interacting with people who are genuinely going about their day, not ones re-enacting their lives through performance.
In remote areas of Laikipia, the Samburu still live in many ways like their ancestors. They’re not devoid of modern influences. A few have cell phones, but they’re used infrequently and only for important communications such as finding grass or water or an emergency. Phones are a welcome convenience since few Samburu own vehicles and messages in the past were carried great distances on foot.
It’s because of their distance from the rest of the world that the Samburu dance I am watching is such a privilege. To know that my experience is authentic and not reproduced for a tourist’s pleasure makes it extra special.
As the men jump, the handsome leader sings a few words, and the rest answer him in kind, clapping to a steady beat. The singing is similar to street rap: whatever is important or funny or interesting at the moment is what fuels the lyrics.
The melody is always the same but the words change depending on what the leader has to say. At times the girls, arm, and arm with the moran join the dance, most of the time they watch.
Near the end, they break into two lines, the sexes facing each other. Reaching across to clasp hands as if in greeting. They lean back for a beat, their chins tucked towards their chests. Then lurch forward, jutting their heads with the motion. They grunt loudly while stomping their feet to punctuate the movement.
Perfectly timed, the dance comes to an end with the setting sun. I mingle with the young Samburu and my guide Leuya (Lay-you-uh) and thank them for letting me watch. Moments later they disperse and disappear into the darkness.
“Is that it?” I said, wondering if that’s all the time they would have together.
“No, I’m sure some of them will meet later tonight when everyone is sleeping.” He paused. “You know what I mean?”
“Yes,” I said. Both of us looked at each other with knowing grins plastered to our faces.
It really was like high school.
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117 thoughts on “The Dance of the Samburu Tribe”
Of course, what a magnificent blog and revealing posts, I surely will bookmark your website.All the Best!
Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoy it. 😉
I’m so happy! Thank you very much for letting me know. 🙂
Lovely post. Makes me feel proud to be of the Samburu people.
Very interesting, thanks for making it!
“Young boys become men in group circumcision celebrations.”
I’m officially out. We would not be cheering if young women got their clitoris removals. Remember that the prepuce contains double the nerve endings of a clitoris, and it permanently damages a man’s sexual pleasure.
It’s a barbaric practice. Sadly, the scourge has entered the US.
In many circles women do have their criteria removed. It’s hard for me to fathom.
Nice and congratulations! I like this
THANKS FOR SHARING!
How I wish I was in your place enjoying the sight of something so beautiful! The traditional ways of life in most countries are so arresting and ravishing! The description of this beautiful art form invites me to pay them a visit. Thank you so much for sharing such an awe-inspiring article! Have a pleasant day and an amazing week ahead!
I am so pleased the piece touched you. The Samburu are an amazing people and I only scratched the surface of a completely fascinating culture.
You have a great day/week/month too! 🙂
Incredible photos, and an incredible experience. Makes me want to go to Kenya!
It really was incredible. I feel so blessed to have seen it. I hope you do go to Kenya. You won’t regret it.
Loved your post! I agree, it is truly special to be a part of an authentic travel experience versus watching something that’s been put on just for the tourist. I saw something like that once in the Amazon and realized how much I didn’t enjoy it.
It’s a hard line for me because I appreciate that it’s a revenue stream in areas that need it, but ideally, it’s not what I want to experience.
Great Post. Like it
Thank you so much!
I’m very loved it..
I’m Very Loved It That’s Post, Thank You For Post
I love it. I shared it on my blog as well, I hope you don’t mind. 🙂 Wonderful photos and a wonderful experience I’m sure it was.
Not at all. I’m glad you liked it enough to share. Thanks!
Very Good Post
Thank you very very much. I’m glad you liked it.
I always love your photos, especially those of Africa (and ballet). I don’t know if you saw it, but there was a documentary of a man (I don’t remember if American or British) who lived with Samburu males while they were seeking out new water sources for their cows during the drought. I can send you the source if you are interested. I am approaching a big birthday next March and am feeling inspired by your photos to return to some of my favorite places and people in Africa, as well as visit some new ones. Thanks always for your thoughtful, respectful and beautiful photos.
hey. I found out that this culture similiar with one of my country’s culture. You should check it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79qjW_1E7s8
The ethic call Papua. It’s in the East of Indonesia
Kenya is still an amazing destination for tourism
It sure is!
You pictures and words were very beautiful!
Thank you very much!
i like your article, very inspiring and thank you for your post 🙂 🙂 🙂
I’m very happy that you enjoyed it and found it inspiring. Thank you for letting me know. I Hope you return to the blog. 🙏
A truly brilliant set of photographs, I especially like the third one from the end with the men dancing in the foreground, but with the point of focus on the young girl in the background. The men act like a tunnel through which you glimpse her at the end. Fabulous composition.
You are too kind Mark. Thank you. Your appreciation means a lot. 🙏
your images are amazing, especially the portraits!
Thank you, Marie!
This spoke volumes compared to any documentary. So enjoyable.
beautiful picts… those picts tell a lot of story
Charming story, Susan.
Thank you, Stefano. Thanks for stopping by.
Great captures and such brilliant colour!
Thank you! It was a great evening.
Hi Susan – stunning photographs. I visited Kenya four years ago and it was just incredible.
Thank you very much!
Love that you were in Kenya. Where did you go?
Nairobi, Nakuru, Masai Mara and Mombassa. Two of the best weeks ever! Would love to go back in August for the wildebeest migration.
Oh man, what an amazing trip! If you go again, check out Amboseli.
Yes we were present a few years ago at the Wildebeest crossing. Tragically amazing. At Amboselli, our lodging was just outside the park. Where else besides Nairobi do Kenyan safaris depart and how might
you get there? Thanks.
I don’t belive they do depart from anywhere else in Kenya I’m afraid.
Incredibly beautiful! I taught 3rd grade for years and the Masai were part of our Social Studies curriculum. Thank you for this post…so close to my heart! Your photographs capture the true essence of their cultures and emotions. Very captivating and honest! Thank you again!
I’m so glad you like it, but I must point out that the story is not about the Maasai, but their northern cousins the Samburu. Both cultures are very similar but they are two different tribes. Thank you for spending time with my blog. 🙂
You’ve done it again Susan! Now I’m going to have to visit Kenya too ASAP :). The colours in your images are just mind blowing and the story…two thumbs up kiddo xx
LOL.. Yes, you need to go from Cuba straight to Kenya!! Glad you like it.. Please share with your friends if you have a chance. 🙂
I sure will 🙂
I am curious of your opinion about where would you recommend to visit independently in Africa? Do any companies come to mind?
Hi there –
Happy to help but need some more information. Are you wanting to go on safari or have beach or city included in your trip. Do you want to travel totally solo or solo with a group. If a group, just a cultural tour or something more niche like a photo tour or a trekking tour? What about Africa attracts you?
Thank you Susan. 1. We are typically interested in safaris mixed in with sights of natural beauty. 2. My wife and I realistically would need to have some sort of planned itinerary in mind. 3. The famous delta in Botswana seems to be of most interest. Tanzania would work as well. Would it be preferable to hire a guide? How safe is Kenya now? It seems we underestimated the distance factor in getting from place to place in past visits.
Well, you’re in luck, if you’re on safari, beauty will be mixed in all over the place. 🙂 Are you in the States? I have a couple people I would recommend you work with. It’s difficult to arrange a safari in multiple camps unless you’re working with someone, whether it’s a travel specialist or a Safari company that owns camps. Might be better if we discuss offline. Can you send me an email via my contact page and let me know, are you amenable to working with a specialist or do you want to work on all the flights, transfers, guides, camps, yourself?
Susan : Thank you for the info. We are overbooked on travel right now but hopefully we can talk more about your suggestions later this year.
Oh sure, no problem. I misunderstood. I thought you wanted info now. 🙂
What a stunning series!!! Awesome colours too & a nice insight in tribal culture. And you captured the most beautiful smiles… 🙂
Thank you!! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
Amazing pictures !!!!! Wahouuu !
Glad you liked it!!
What a fabulous and colourful way to hang out in Kenya. I’m seriously envious of your experience – and your photos.
Hi Roxanne! It was a very very special evening, I have to say. 🙂 Thanks for taking a look at the post. xo
I always like reading your posts!!!! 🙂
I’m so glad! Thank you for returning. 🙂
Beautiful pictures! I am happy to have read your stories of Kenya. I am African (Ghanaian) living in Ohio, and just started a travel blog. Please follow if you don’t mind 🙂
Thank you. Glad you like the photos.
This blog is so well written! simple language but still quite captivating!
Such a lovely compliment. Thank you so much for spending time with my blog and for letting me know that you enjoyed it. I hope you return.
Loved the photos. They look so vigorous and stunning in them, that I had to read the post. Enjoyed it 🙂
Well I couldn’t ask for more than that. Thank you for letting me know and I hope you return.
Hi Susan….can’t wait to go! Hope to have an authentic experience as well…just a glimpse would be beyond!
When are you going? 😀
Great Pict and Thanks for Sharing, Now I Know 😀
You bet, thank you.
The key word in your post was voyeur. I get it now.
It’s a great experience. The first time I met the Maasai, that’s the experience I had too. It’s just as I’ve returned on multiple occasions I’m interested in something a little different. They weren’t making money off us, there was no selling of jewelry, we just kind of showed up in their backyard. 🙂
I guess you are right. The Masai gave us a show.
beautiful pics my someday thanks for sharing
You’re most welcome… I’m so glad you liked it. 🙏👍
You are right. Our Masai visit was indeed a scheduled one but the cultural feel seemed similar to your experience. They brought out the cows and engaged in recitative singing . It is logical that the longer you spend with a tribe, the more authentic it becomes.
Actually they didn’t do any of that except at the commercial Manhattan. In the area where the post talked place we are more voyeurs fit a short period of time.
Glad to see your post! Really good story…
So glad you liked it! Thank you for letting me know.
Great captures and story. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it.
So interesting and wonderful photography. The colors are amazing. It is nice to get a glimpse of such an amazing place.
Thank you! It’s true, the colors are extraordinary so glad you like the piece.
Very interesting post. This experience appears to be much like the safari my wife and I were on a few years ago in Kenya. . We jumped with the Masai and visited their primitive huts. Did the Samburunwish to bargain with you for their goods? Such beautiful costumes.
A little different since you mentioned that you jumped with the Maasai and the were bargaining with you. I think you were visiting a village that catered to travels.
wow those pictures are really nice. you are very lucky to be able to travel and explore such remote parts of the world 🙂
Thank you. I’ve been very blessed and I also make it a big priority in my life. I go without other things to do it.
Oh Susan, this was such a lovely post. I have been to the Laikipia Plains, and have watched some of the native dances, admired the beautiful bead work, clothes, and people. Your rendering of it here could not be more wonderful. Thank you so much.
Thanks so much Jet!!!
Am a fun of your posts, just have discovered that you visited my country:Kenya, warm welcome, am sure you will have fun..
Thank you, Jimmi. I’m so glad you like the posts. I love Kenya. I’m in New York now but had a great time last September. 🙂
Great documentary photos. You’ve really captured the colors and sense of movement. How wonderful to get to spectate the traditions of another culture.
Hi Laura, thanks for checking it out. I’m glad you liked it. 🙂
Although the Samburu have a different culture, they have lots in common with us!
I agree, I think like most cultures, we’re more similar than dissimilar.
I am sure. It is the similarities and differences, the connections and the diversity, that make human life so interesting, right?
Hi Susan, since I lived in Kenya for seven years, teaching in Nairobi, I have come to appreciate the traditions of some ethnic groups like the Samburu.