Some 423 warriors. Hundreds of cattle slaughtered. A gathering of 130 families to create a grand ceremonial village. This is a strong culture in Kenya, thriving in a world that pushes many indigenous people toward unwanted change.
In an unabashed celebration of masculinity, the moran (Samburu warriors) are passing through a vital graduation ceremony that shows they are rising up in their community. The ceremony, or Lmuget, is a ritual that comes once every seven years and marks the middle of the 15-year period after which a moran becomes an elder.
The Samburu are pastoralist (nomads who raise livestock on natural pastures), ethnic Nilotic people with language and traditional similarities to those of the Masaai, who are more well known in the West.
The Samburu are also known as the Butterfly People, a moniker given to them by neighboring tribes in recognition of the bright colors they adorn themselves with. The enormous land of the Samburu (8,000 square miles or 21,000 square kilometers) lies in the north of Kenya, ending just before the road turns off to Lake Turkana.
In many parts of Samburu County (see map), one can stand on the edge of a cliff and gaze into the night without seeing a single electric light. Given this huge area, the landscape changes quite a bit from dry, dusty, and drought-prone to lush greenery where agricultural plots abound among the ubiquitous cattle herds.
The endangered Grevy's zebra is thriving in this region. They are a surreal sight, grazing alongside cattle and sheep.
Maralal, the capital of Samburu County, lies a nine-hour drive—most of it unpaved, muddy, and rocky—north of Nairobi. Just outside town the only signs of modernity are an occasional dirt bike and the cell phones in the hands of nearly every adult.
The ceremony takes place in late August in a fertile region just south of Maralal, outside the village of Kisima on a plain big enough to house the hundreds of families that will gather for the moran's graduation.
The Loimisi Samburu clan has come to this area to construct a special space. They have been building the ceremonial manyatta (village) for weeks. Some 130 families, including 423 moran, around 600 children, and many friends and extended relations gather to celebrate. During the week the elders elect a president of the moran and give a name to their age group, Loimir.
Daniel Lolmareny, a Samburu who went through the ceremony with his clan last spring, said, "It's like you have passed through some life. Now you are real, real warrior. You can now defend Samburu culture."
In the life of a Samburu moran, the first seven years begin after his circumcision ceremony, which takes place around age 14. From 14 to about 21 he is a junior moran. Graduating to senior moran marks the time when he is recognized as a future leader and future family man, and is fully entrusted with the security of his community.
According to Lolmareny, the moran graduation ceremony also marks an important step toward the next phase in life, which is becoming an elder. That takes an additional six years, and comes with the ability to get married in the community.
Perhaps needless to say, young men are very eager to graduate into the respected status of full warrior, said Lolmareny.
During the ceremony, the men are a stunning sight. They are fully aware of their visual impact—sellers of pocket mirrors make a good business at any Samburu market before a moran ceremony. Tucked inside a shuka (a brightly colored, wrap-around cloth) or peeking out of their numerous beaded armbands, a mirror is rarely far from the hand of a moran.
They are also rarely empty-handed, often carrying a spear, walking stick, or long knife. For the Samburu, to be a moran means being a defender of not only their people, but also of their culture.
A Strong Culture on Display
As the sun rises, a surround-sound mooing brings the grand manyatta to life. Cows spend the night inside the great circle of dwellings, protected from predators such as leopard and hyena. Over a hundred of the bovines will be slaughtered each day of this week-long ceremony.
A Samburu in his 20s rides up on a dirt bike, wearing Western fashions and talking on his cell phone. He runs errands to the village, including re-upping on cigarettes and Safaricom minutes. Throughout the day, politicians drop by, jumping out of their Land Rovers in business wear to make an appearance in the community. Traditionally, the Lmuget takes place when the moon is at its brightest and drought is over, but nowadays the elders also await the school break.
At dawn the women tend the sacred fire and take the ashes to mark the cows set for ritual slaughter. Each moran will kill a cow by his own hand and drink blood directly from the fresh wound on the neck, an important moment that no female is allowed to witness. Until the evening dance, men and women are separated in the ceremony. Uncircumcised boys eat separately, and so do the moran. Butchering of meat is also done separately. Since men and women eat different parts of the animal, butchering, dividing, and cooking the meat takes up a large part of the afternoon.
When the elders elect the moran's president, Launoni, he will take the bell from the cow he's slaughtered and wear it on a belt of cowrie shells. Each shell signifies a member of his age group, and if one dies, he will remove that man's shell.
Making their grand entrance in the evening, the moran have put on their brightest cloths and applied red ochre to their faces and chests—not to mention even more beads, hair ornaments, and bracelets. Gathering between the flags of Kenya and the members of their clan, they warm up their voices and jumping skills. The music is entirely a cappella voices and rhythmic clapping.
Kenya's iconic image of a jumping warrior is not only part of the dance, but also illustrates to all how gifted each man is. Watching from the sidelines are hundreds of children, inspired to someday jump as high as their brothers.
Cell phones are a constant presence during the festivities, with community members taking photos to post on Facebook. A little sleuthing on the social network reveals a hive of activity.
Kenya's Big Changes
Despite their use of mobile technology, the Samburu carefully screen outsiders' intentions and perform their ceremonies away from the eyes of uninvited visitors. They point to their neighbors the Masaai, whose images and name are used to sell everything from safaris to evening wear.
"The assumption for over a century that tribal ceremony will be swept away under the relentless tidal wave of modernity is a recurring pop culture cliché that scholars have generally aimed to refute," noted Samburu scholar Jon Holtzman, a cultural anthropologist at Western Michigan University, told National Geographic.
Holtzman acknowledged that some cultural traditions have been lost in Kenya, but he said the Samburu way of life remains strong. Still, he said, desire for education that involves years apart from traditional life and wider societal changes may have an impact.
It's obvious to anyone who visits that Kenya is in the midst of a tech and population explosion, spurred in part by the government's Vision 2030 plan, which seeks rapid modernization and economic prosperity. In the past few years, Nairobi has morphed into a business boomtown. The city looks like a construction zone on fast-forward, and new cities are planned in regions that for now remain sleepy outposts.
Driving through Isiolo, just a few miles away from Samburu County, it is nearly impossible to imagine Vision 2030's plans for a resort city in this spot. At present, Isiolo remains a rough and tumble, Wild West-like town that few overlanders stop in except for gas and a hasty getaway, given its reputation for occasional tribal violence.
The discovery of oil in Turkana to the north will likely bring new roads, more traffic, and jobs. How this will affect the Samburu way of life and relations with the Turkana people remains to be seen. Conservation efforts like the Northern Rangelands Trust are engaging tribes in protecting their land, but the conservation group says pastoralist communities are going to have to fight hard to maintain their culture in the face of Kenya's rapid progress.
The next decade will bring its new trials; however, these warriors are the embodiment of their culture and express their determination to survive through these ceremonies, Holtzman said.
As the sun sets on the ceremony, the moran's singing becomes stronger and more have joined the celebration. With 400 warriors singing a cappella and showing no signs of exhaustion, the Samburu still appear strong. Women are flinging their beaded necklaces forward and back in time to the songs. Illuminated by moonlight and outlined by the dust from the dancing are countless feathers and plastic rose headpieces.
One warrior has placed a tiny LED inside one of the roses. It blinks and glows, occasionally rising high into the air above the rest, falling and rising again as he jumps.
A young woman watches with a sharp eye as the moran dance by. She puts a hand to her chin, studying each one. Then, with a girlish grin, her expression warms and she grabs the hand of her favorite warrior to join him in the dance.