There is nothing in Samburu society more important than Cattle.
They are the most blessed; simultaneously the family’s life savings, their bank, and even the money itself. The cattle are their greatest asset, and wealth can be greatly admired.
On top of their financial importance they are in themselves a free, self-replenishing, self-expanding supermarket chain. You can cover a majority of the Samburu diet by drinking their milk and blood alone and for extremely important ceremonies you can slaughter them then eat and wear them. Absolutely nothing is wasted.
1. Boran bull
With the added threats of drought, predators, and theft by neighbouring tribes, a picture begins to form of a delicate commodity that requires skilful maintenance.
Over thousands of years the morani have developed into the protectors of the cattle and the people, their bond is so strong that they endlessly obsess over them.
Their sole duty as a warrior is to protect the cattle, and steal the cattle of their enemies if the opportunity arises. Warriors leaving Samburuland to urban areas can be easily distressed seeing cattle locked up in trucks and have violent, emotional fits.
2. moran with cow
The morani spend long months alone with cattle in the drought, living off their blood and milk. Any cow of a certain age will always have a brand for their Samburu clan and blood is taken when needed, usually no more than every 3 months.
This is similar to giving blood in a hospital, more or less painless for the cow which is monitored carefully to make sure it has recovered before blood is taken again. In long droughts if the cattle stop producing milk the morani will live off blood alone.
Leather is used every day as straps to collect water, or to sleep on or wear. Any important ceremony or celebration for the Samburu will involve slaughtering of animals and the use of their skins, and cattle bestow the highest honour.
3. moran cutting shoes from a skin during warrior initiation
During the warrior circumcisions shoes are made for the new men to wear for a month during their initiation. During marriage ceremonies the best man slaughters a large bull to bless the marriage.
Skins are used as shelter and to sleep on when the warriors go to look after the cattle alone during lale – a special type of manyatta for that one purpose.
A skin becomes an important memento of significant moments in someone’s life. Whether it was a celebration, christening, or coming of age – each mama knows which skin represents each child and what for.
4. elders blessing a skin with milk during warrior initiations
Wherever you look in Samburu life you can see everything comes back to the cattle and survival. The biggest regular social events are Sokos (markets) held to trade, collect food and veterinary purposes for livestock, and turn the wheels of the immense bush telegraph that spans across the plains.
As Samburuland modernises cattle obsession modernises with it in a distinctly Samburu way. For example good quality medicine is available for cattle now at markets, and cheap mobiles are widespread (usually kept in beaded phone holders).
5. a moran on his phone
From my time spent with warriors it is easy to see that camera phones are mostly used for sending each other pictures of their bulls, and SMS is all about communicating everything cattle related, whether it’s the health of the herd or the length of grass.
A popular daily Samburu blessing is;
‘anteperie lchonito lo lmogi o munyak’ – rest in the skins of the blessed ones.
6. warriors bringing cattle in to be milked at dusk
NEXT WEEK: WATER IN SAMBURULAND
All Images and text ©2012 Samburu Trust. All rights reserved.
1,2,5,6: S. Kenyon.
3,4: J. Francombe.