Africa

The Dance of the Samburu

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I’m watching the girls whisper to each other, their hands cupped over their mouths in playful secrecy.

I can’t help but laugh, it’s incredible how some things are so universal. The scene reminds me of my high-school days, my friends and I giggling over my latest crush.

The men a few feet away, 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 there is an undercurrent of 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 Samburu, in Laikipia, northern Kenya. It’s a beautiful yet rugged sand-swept region with jagged escarpments, littered with spiny acacia trees covered in 3-inch thorns. A view completely different than the sweeping plains of the Masai Mara I’ve come to know after three years photographing the migration.

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It’s quiet in the manyatta, most of the men are miles away where the drought has been kinder, grazing their herds. The Samburu are a pastoral people, 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 who are the peacekeepers of the tribe, defending the tribe against predators and battles with the neighboring Turkana, they’re in their early twenties.  The older women and children of the village are already in their homes settling in for the evening, leaving the rest to their fun.

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The dance is an 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 Samburu 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. But on this night it’s a casual, impromptu affair. It’s a way to let off steam, spend time with friends. The Samburu version of hanging out.

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The unofficial leader of the Moran 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 shukkah 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 are dressed with the same pomp and circumstance but each with his own sense of style. All of them carry a rungu (a lightweight club used as a weapon and for protection) tucked tightly under their armpits, leaving their hands free to clap.

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The 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.

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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 turned out to be 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 if there is an emergency. Phones are a welcome convenience since few Samburu own man-made transportation and messages in past were carried great distances on foot.

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It’s because of their distance from the rest of the world that the 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.

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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 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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A very special evening with the Ol Malo Lodge photographing members of the Samburu tribe dancing in northern Kenya.

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123 replies »

  1. “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.

  2. 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! 🙂

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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. 🙂

    • 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.

  7. What a fabulous and colourful way to hang out in Kenya. I’m seriously envious of your experience – and your photos.

  8. 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 🙂

    • 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. 🙂

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

Would love to hear from you!