In Northern Kenya, the Samburu (semi-nomadic pastoralists), people who are related to the Massai tribe are dependent on their livestock for survival. They are said to dwell in Woto, which is the name of the place they consider their homeland. Historically, they were known as the world’s wealthiest livestock keepers. As they are under pressure from the government, they are required to settle into more permanent villages and have begun to resist this as it would damage their traditional way of life. Unlike the Massai tribe, they hold strong to their old values and culture.
Samburu Way of Life
The Samburu dwell in small groups of five to ten families and live in huts that are constructed using animal hides, mud, and grass mats lined up with poles. They speak the language Maa and their social structure is called a gerontocracy. In a gerontocracy, elders rule the tribe and make all the decisions, while gender roles and distinctions between being male and female are quite prominent.
Dancing is also a significant part of their culture and consists of standing in a circle and jumping high. Most interestingly, women and men do not participate in the same dancing circles but will often coordinate when the dances will occur.
Samburu Age-Gender System
The Samburu also have an age-gender system that goes from child to murran (warrior), to junior elder to finally elder. Male children at the age of 15 are initiated into “manhood” through circumcision and associated rituals between 15-20 years of age, and spend the next years as murran or bachelor-warriors (13). As murran, the men engage in some of the most arduous jobs in Samburu life, such as long-distance herding and warfare. At this time, their physical appearances are considered the most glamorous. Murran do not marry until they have begun their next age set, and cannot eat food in the presence of women. Alternatively, women do not move through separate age sets but are subjected to female circumcision.
Samburu Diet and Food
In this next section, I will discuss the Samburu diet, which plays an important role in their way of life. In Uncertain Tastes, Holtzman argues that the experience of food itself – symbolic, sensuous, social, and material – is intrinsically characterized by multiple, and frequently conflicting layers. He attaches food with memory, broader cultural structures and political processes. Certain animals are off limits for eating, such as elephants, fish, reptiles, birds, donkeys and other game animals. Elephants are off-limits because they are deemed as resemblant to humans. Samburu often criticize their neighbors for the consumption of elephants. Overall, cattle such as goats, sheep, and camels play a large role in their survival and diet.
A profound shift in diet from blood, meat, and milk has occurred and their diet has transformed into primarily grey foods. It has become difficult to survive primarily on milk, meat and blood, and the Samburu tribe have begun to consume more purchased foods such as maize. According to Wired, two thirds of their calories actually come from fat, and they consume about 600-2000 mg of cholesterol a day.
For the next part of this blog post, I will derive most of my research from Uncertain Tastes by Jon Holtzman. Most of his fieldwork occurred in the early 1990s and early 2000s so it would make sense that at least some or many of the customs have shifted in the Samburu. He made use of qualitative interview methods, oral history, and archival history. For the Samburu, Holtzman believes that food is “contextualized and that the experience of food itself – symbolic, sensuous, social, and material – is intrinsically characterized by multiple, and frequently conflicting layers” (blurb).
According to Holtzman, “a reliance on a pastoral diet of meat, milk and blood” and a general avoidance of cultivated food has long been a central importance”(27). “Food is symbolic, sensuous, social, and material-is-intrinsically characterized by multiple and frequently conflicting layers” (Holtzman 2009). The term nkanyit meaning a sense of respect, is embodied by the Samburu eating values; eating the right foods, sharing, and not displaying greed (95). While women generally are responsible for the domestic chores such as collecting water, gathering vegetables, roots, and assisting with childcare, female identity is constructed around the provisioning of food as they procure, cook, and allocate it according to the needs of the household (96). In this next section, I will highlight the different ways of eating milk, meat, blood, grey foods also known as maize, and tea.
Milk (kule) takes a very feminine role in the Samburu and is distributed in different forms; fresh or curdled. As the more superior milk, curdled milk sits for a few days to a few weeks and sits until it ripens. Fresh milk that sours is drinkable but is considered as more undesirable among the Samburu. Milk from cows is the most valued, sheep milk is considered as sticky, goat milk is thought to be rather thick with bile, and camel’s milk is seen as dilute but provides endurance for walking (103).
Meat, also known as nkiri, takes a nutritional role secondary to milk. It holds a very masculine role in the Samburu and is the number one food for murran. Any protein is known to build strength and ferocity and represents masculinity. Particular cuts of meat are associated with certain age and gender groups. Cow meat, goat meat, and sheep meat are among the most commonly eaten meats.
Cow meat is the most desirable among the Samburu and is only eaten if someone dies, someone ages, or if someone gets married. Goat meat is eaten when treating illness, and sheep meat is desired for its high fat content. In certain rituals, sheep are eaten but the meat is also believed to cause asthma, malaria, and other illnesses (98).
Samburu Blood Consumption
According to Holtzman, there are more than ten ways for the Samburu to take blood. Blood can form the entirety of a meal. It can be taken from living animals and slaughtered ones too, and is more associated with male consumption. Holtzman says, that blood is valued as meat as it “is red like meat, has a taste closer to meat, and dribbles from undercooked meat and sometimes is a byproduct of slaughtering” (104). Nchopet is drunk directly from a killed sheep or goat and is deemed as the most masculine form of blood. Drinking nchopet can be competitive, as men will attempt to drink as much as they can and quickly too.
Blood can also be taken from livestock such as cattle and goats by tying a tourniquet around the neck and shooting a special arrow. Blood flows out of the stream and is gathered in a calabash. Other types of blood consist of saroi, which is pink blood made by stirring blood to remove the coagulant and is mostly given to dogs, nchakule– blood mixed with animal fat and milk consumed by murran home from eating meat, and nchorde which is fresh milk and blood. Npupoi, is another form of added fat with boiled blood. However, grey foods such as maize and tea are consumed more nowadays.
Samburu Maize aka Grey Foods
Maize meal is considered a grey food that is consumed by the Samburu, including the murran, and there is a large amount of variation in the types of maize and how it is consumed. As livestock declines, the maize meal is favored amongst the Samburu and they associate these new processed foods and different modes of eating with the reduction in livestock holdings. It is consumed as a large porridge called loshorro. It is boiled to a much stiffer consistency than other ngurama (maize meals). In other parts of Kenya, white maize is the norm, and yellow maize only comes as famine relief from abroad. It is not popular at all and is rumored to be used as livestock feed in the United States.
Maize meal has been problematic for the murran as they do not wish to consume it in the face of women, and symbolically, it is not considered as an appropriate part of their diet. It is still imperative that they maintain a pastoral, traditional diet. Some groups have attempted to grow their own maize.
Other forms of maize are eaten as a whole grain, and it can be roasted or boiled on the cob. Plain maize of not desired as it is tasteless and difficult to eat. Lately, maize mixed with beans has been seemed more delicious for the Samburu.
Colonialism: Samburu Tea and Tobacco
Tea was introduced from the 1930s to the 1940s and was drunk with large quantities of milk and sugar. The Samburu became interested in tea due to European colonialism and to encourage more livestock sales (182). In the 1940s,the Samburu were seen by their colonizers to have a dangerous amount of livestock, and they began an attempt to try to get the Samburu interested in commodity consumption. In the 1950s, sugar was provided in large quantities; 127 kilos per month.
Overall, the preparation of tea and having tea itself was deemed as a luxury. Often prepared by women, tea was once considered a traditional, special drink that only men consume, but it is now so common that some tea drinks don’t have enough milk with it (there is not enough milk being produced). When tea was first introduced by the colonizers, women drank tea considerably less than men, and only older murran began to partake in the tea.
The tea is diluted in milk (1/3 milk) and is still served with sugar. The more milk in a cup of tea constitutes a very good cup of tea. Although tea has no ritual, it has become a food that is associated with hospitality and reciprocity. One cup of tea contains about 150-200 calories (50 calories in milk and 100-150 calories in sugar). When sugar is available, tea is drunk with the sugar in the morning and the evening surrounding meal times. Sometimes, the tea is so filling it often becomes a whole meal in itself. Overall, tea has been more favored than other processed counterparts, including maize, and as transformations began to occur in the Samburu, views and beliefs surrounding tea have dramatically changed.
In another blog post, Cuban cigars are highlighted as attached to commercialization with a lot of cultural significance. However, in Northern Kenya, tobacco, also called lkumpau, is often viewed by the Samburu as a highly ambivalent commodity. Tobacco has a long history tied with colonialism, comes with a lot of negative health effects, and it is used in rituals (marriages and animal killings). Most adults chew and inhale it with snuff, and they see it as addictive. If given tobacco as a gift, all are required to accept it even if it will not be consumed in the future. If it is used too much, the Smamburu believe that individuals may begin to behave erratically.
Among the Samburu, tobacco is believed to come from supernatural origins and is always associated with supernatural forces. It is believed to have been brought back from the dead; discovered and given to a young boy in the forest who had a close encounter with the dead. Some also think it emerges from lightning strikes or supernatural forces that are not part of this world.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
According to Holtzman, food is powerful and inscribes “both identity and difference as well as forges salient relationships based on such factors as generation, class and ethnicity” (9). Food can open a window into subjects, ideas, norms, beliefs that are embedded into a specific group of people. The Samburu believe that “friendship is through the stomach” (132). Through using several theories and concepts, Holtzman successfully portrays that food is not a cohesive whole but rather an ambivalent intersection of norms and beliefs that are embedded in a rich history. The readers of his ethnography can see how the tribes relate to food, how they remember their past, how food becomes attached to colonialism and loss of tradition, and also how they use food to create new memories.
Since this particular ethnography is a bit outdated, it may be needed for more anthropologists and researchers to return to Kenya after the global pandemic is over and conduct more research and participant observation. Are the eating traditions still the same or are they veering towards more processed foods such as maize? How do the Samburu view globalization and western products? To learn more about Kenya, feel free to view this blog post here.
Holtzman, Jon. Uncertain Tastes: Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya. University of California Press, 2009. Accessed June 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppxv9.