Before They - Photography Project by Jimmy Nelson

Samburu

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Samburu
The Samburu people live in northern Kenya, where the foothills of Mount Kenya merge into the northern desert. As cattle-herding Nilotes, they reached Kenya some five hundred years ago, moving southwards along the plains of the Rift Valley in a rapid, all-conquering advance. 
“A deaf ear meets with death, a listening ear with blessings”
The Samburu have to relocate every 5 to 6 weeks to ensure their cattle can feed themselves. They are independent and egalitarian people, much more traditional than the Masaai. Their society has depended on cattle and warfare for so long that they find it hard to change to a more sedentary lifestyle.
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Samburu men, Loisaba

December 2010

The Rift Valley in Kenya is a dry, somewhat barren land, and the Samburu have to relocate to ensure their cattle can feed. Generally, between five and ten families set up encampments for five to six weeks before moving on to pastures new. Their huts are built from mud, hide and grass mats strung over poles. A thorny fence is built around the huts for protection from wild animals. These settlements are called manyattas. The huts are constructed to be easy to dismantle and transport when the Samburu move to a new location. Men take care of the grazing cattle, which is their main livelihood. Women are in charge of gathering roots and vegetables, milking cows, fetching water, gathering firewood, cooking and tending to children.
They are also in charge of maintaining their homes. Duties of boys and girls are clearly delineated along the same division of labour, helping their fathers or mothers.

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- Jimmy Nelson

Ndoto Mountain Range

December 2010

The scenic Ndoto Mountain Ranges of northern Kenya are part of the ruggedly beautiful and still unspoilt country of the Samburu nomadic people. Proud, happy, friendly, they defy the modern world to go about their traditional business and still cherish the customs and colourful ceremonies of their ancestors.


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- Jimmy Nelson

Milgis Village

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Milgis Village

December 2010

Fertility is very important for the Samburu. A fertility ritual involves placing a mud figure in front of the woman’s house. One week later, a feast will be given in which the husband invites neighbours to join him in eating a slaughtered bull. The people gathered will pray for a child.

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- Jimmy Nelson

Ndoto Mountain Range

December 2010

Belief in the spirits of the ancestors and even witchcraft are common. The Samburu believe in charms and have traditional rituals for fertility, protection, healing and other needs. They also believe in a evil spirit called Milika. Diviners (laibon) predict the future and cast spells to influence this predicted future.

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- Jimmy Nelson

Kaisut Desert

December 2010

Samburu are very independent and egalitarian. Community decisions are normally made by men (senior elders or both senior and junior elders),
often under a tree designated as a ‘council’ meeting site.

Women may sit in an outer circle and may make comments or expressconcerns through a male relative. However, women may have their own meetings and then carry the results of such discussions to men for consideration by the men’s council.

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Nkai is god

December 2010

The Samburu tribe have had cultural conflicts with the Somali, and so regard Islam with great suspicion. Virtually no Samburu have become
Muslims. Traditionally they believe in a distant creator, one supreme god, whom they call Nkai or Ngai, as do other Maa-speaking peoples. Nkai is thought to dwell in beautiful mountains, large trees, caverns, and water springs. The greatest hope of an old man approaching death is to be buried facing a majestic mountain, the seat of Nkai.

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- Jimmy Nelson

Nyerere & Lewangu

December 2010

Marriage is a unique series of elaborate rituals. Great importance is given to the gifts from the bridegroom (two goatskins, two copper earrings,
a gourd for keeping milk and a sheep and the gifts for the ceremony. The marriage is concluded when a bull - guided by the bride’s mother - enters the hut and is killed.
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Milgis Village

December 2010

Boys and girls go through an initiation into adulthood, which involves training in adult responsibilities and circumcision for boys. Two five-year
stages of initiation lead eventually to becoming a senior warrior (Moran). The initiates are then free to marry and join the married men (the junior elders). For girls, entry into womanhood is also marked with a circumcision ceremony.

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Laikipia District

December 2010

Laikipia District is one of the seventy-one districts of Kenya, located on the Equator in the Rift Valley Province of the country. The district has two
major urban centres: Nanyuki to the Southeast, and Nyahururu to the Southwest. 

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- Jimmy Nelson

Nyerere, Lamulen & Loingu near Milgis village

December 2010

Severe droughts have reduced the amount of available pasture and thus the number of cattle, with a resulting decline of wealth, status and stature of family groups.

Their society has depended on cattle and warfare (for both defence and raiding others) for so long that they find it hard to change to a more sedentary lifestyle. The purported benefits of 'modern' life are often undesirable to the Samburu. 

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Loisaba, Laikipia District

December 2010

In an arid region with sparse vegetation, the Samburu have traditionally herded cattle, sheep, goats and camels, all of utmost importance to the Samburu culture and way of life. The Samburu are extremely dependent on their animals for survival.

A nomadic lifestyle is essential for their survival since attempts to settle down in permanent locations have reduced their self-sufficiency and ability to maintain their traditional values and practices.
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Samburu Tribesmen

December 2010

Both men and women wear brightly coloured traditional Shukka, a length of cloth that they loosely wrap around their bodies. This is enhanced with many colourful beaded necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Both men and women wear jewellery, which is made by the women. Samburu men dye their hair with red ochre, and warriors keep their long hair in braids. The Samburu paint their faces using striking patterns to accentuate their facial features.

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Tribesmen in Laikipia District

December 2010

The Samburu love to sing and dance, but traditionally use no instruments, not even drums. They have dances for various occasions in life.
The men’s dance involves jumping, and high jumping from a standing position is a very popular sport. Most dances involve the men and women
dancing in their separate circles with particular dance moves for each sex. They do however coordinate their dances.