The Samburu, a subdivision of Masais living in the semi-arid North Central Laikipia, are very community minded with several practices that foster cohesion. There is a circumcision ritual Muratare e Layiok about every 14-15 years; all older boys not in the previous group (usually from 11-25 ) are circumcised together, marking the onset of their Moran (warrior) period. The current age set commenced in 2005-6 after the drought. The morans traditionally live together and share everything with their age-set, usually not marrying until the completion of this Moran period.
If a boy was away at school, he can be circumsized later with an appropriate celebration and still be considered a member. Although the morans usually have large pierce holes in their ears, the boys going to school often use fake pierced ear-rings. They love hair-decorations and beads.
Samburu girls are also circumcised (clitoris removed) but individually either when young, as a teen, or right before marriage. Unless she has had the procedure, termed by others FGC (female genital cutting) she is still considered a girl and an unsuitable sexual partner. The samburu beading practice is a practice which ALL Samburu girls MUST go through either partially (for educated girls during their FGC or as they wed) or completely (for illiterate girls who have never gone to school other than the Shepherds School that started recently). Beads are a part of their lives as they grow up. The practice is normally initiated by parents around puberty, but possibly earlier. Morans (warriors) buy beads
for a specific girl and she qualifies as his legal girlfriend , accepted by the community, now usually with her assent. This tradition of morans buying beads for girls is slowing down, but remains a special indication of a Samburu girl’s beauty, as do the beads given by parents and uncles.
All beaded Samburu girls MUST undergo FGC and marriage for a bride price at any age decided by the parents especially the father and uncles. The girls are often married by 12-14, their youth and naivety preventing them from doing anything about it.
Girls who have finished 8th grade and attend secondary school, become a better marital candidate, so all is delayed. They also can resist such practices and if forced are knowledgeable enough to report to the relevant authority. If an unmarried Samburu girl who has undergone FGC becomes pregnant there are fewer consequences for her and her boyfriend than if she was still a girl; if one has a legally accepted boyfriend the risk of pregnancy is very high.
Story 1 Sabina is a 20 year old Samburu Quaker from the Friends mission in Loltulelei. After her mom was widowed and left with nine children, she removed Sabina from school Class 4 to tend an uncle’s goats. Two years later Sabina insisted on going back to school and finished Primary Class 8; she could not get a sponsorship for secondary school, so repeated class 8 applying herself to learn even more of the material. She succeeded and was the highest scoring Samburu girl on the end of the year exams. She refused the family demands for her to be beaded and become a marriage candidate, in order to bring a bride price to her mother, who was caring for 8 other children.
Thanks to a secondary school sponsorship to St Theresa’s Girls High School from Save the Elephants, she continued her education and became interested in conservation through this NGOs support program for sponsees. After graduation, she was again pressured by family to marry; a wealthy Samburu Kenyan airlines pilot wanted her. She held her ground and now is studying Conservation Biology at Kenyatta University, Nairobi – one of Kenya’s prestigious schools. She plans to return to Loltulelei and establish a conservation organization after graduation. There is none in her area.
Through her courage and pluck she has opened doors for herself. The rest of the family is following a more traditional trajectory. The eldest brother finished secondary school but lacked school fees to join a college, so he is at Loltulelei primary school volunteering as untrained teacher. Two other older brothers, who left primary school, are morans, living with their age-mates. One sister was married off at fourteen and has children. The other sister got pregnant at age 12-13 with a moran; although there was shame involved, she had the baby, is living with him in his parents family compound and is going back to primary school. He is working as a mechanic in the neighboring city. The younger three boys are still in primary school.
Sabina eagerly shared her story with me, the next post will contain the related story of Sammy and his wife Demaris whose paths took a different direction. Please contribute to literacy projects insuring healthy choices for girls.