The Samburu are well known for the strength of their warriors, but the little known silent strength of the mamas are the driving force behind society.
Each area in Samburuland has their NGAMITONI, which means Matriarch. This is a mama that leads the women and her community with incredible strength. This word originated from the way Samburu talk about Elephant. The literal translation is ‘the leader of the elephants controls the rest when moving’.
While the morani hold the strength of the cattle and lead battles, and the elders lead the direction of the community, the mamas hold the manyattas and children, they run everything at the community level.
A mama is a mother, a married woman with children, effectively the female equivalent of a moran. Their immense strength binds their community together and drives it along.
It’s not easy being a mama, they shoulder the majority of domestic work, often including difficult labor. However in a western sense it’s not easy being any Samburu. To us it’s a life of hard work but to them it’s their lifestyle, one with immense payoff.
Mamas are brought up with this way of life, they develop incredibly strong neck muscles which allow them to carry water and firewood and carry food supplies hours back from market.
They love and look after their donkeys who help them with their daily chores. They never overwork a donkey, only using them to collect water every few days and not every day. If a mama only has one donkey she will carry the water and give the donkey a day to rest and graze.
Mamas are a dominant part of every manyatta, with elders marrying a number of times. The realization I had living in a manyatta challenged all my traditional perceptions of gender roles in society, it made me rethink what I would have previously thought of as ‘right’.
The Mamas I was living with were a tight knit group, a sisterhood that relied on each other and held an incredible bond. This is a very complicated concept for a small post but the best example I have is of when I asked the first wife of my host Talis what she thought when her husband married again and she told me her reaction was ‘relief, I had been telling him to get another wife for so long’.
Mamas are renowned for their beauty and fashion, wearing intricate beadwork and colorful clothing. One way to tell a mama is her brass earrings and the chain Ngaiweli which hangs from the right ear. Her earrings are the signifier that she is married, given to her by her mother on her wedding day, and the Ngaiweli chain is an equivalent of a wedding ring, brought by her groom to the wedding.
Life in a manyatta will change throughout an average year, so for the mamas lifestyle drastically shifts too.
Drought periods mean long days of hard work maintaining the livestock, manyatta, fetching water and taking care of the children. In some cases the men may need to take livestock away in search of grass and they will be left to take care of the manyatta and children alone.
Alternately following the rains manyattas will explode with social activity, with ceremonies, singing, dancing, and masses of storytelling.
Mamas really are the backbone of the Samburu. To give justice to the incredible role they play over the coming weeks we’re going to post on topics such as marriage, fashion, birth, and beads among others.
NEXT WEEK: ELEPHANT POACHING PT. 1
All Images and text ©2012 Samburu Trust. All rights reserved.
1,3: J. Francombe.
2,4,5,6: S. Kenyon.