Kenya is a microcosm of Africa. People have migrated here from all over the African continent for centuries past, and each incoming group has added to the cultural weave with a distinctive ethnic thread of their own.
More brilliant than most, are the strands contributed by the Samburu, who live in the painted deserts of the north. It is said that the word ‘Samburu’ means butterfly, and there is much of the butterfly in these brightly coloured people, who flit across their harsh but beautiful landscape like so many exotic moths.
The young warriors, lithe and slender, may pride themselves on their beauty but they are renowned for their prowess as warriors. Unlike their cousins, the Maasai, the young Samburu men do not smear their entire body with ochre but make triangular designs down their chest and back. Wearing their traditional shukas wrapped tight around their waists, they apply elaborate paint around their eyes and accentuate the fineness of their elegant facial features with a beaded visor. Down their backs hang long braids of hair.
The girls, close shaven, wear intricate beadwork caps that loop around their eyes and nose. Their necks are encircled by hundreds of rings of beads, which undulate as they dance. Every woman’s collar is unique. Her first loops are given to her by her father. Later, her boyfriend may give her a collar as an indication of his love, but this must be returned when the girl is betrothed to the man of her parents’ choice. Now she will wear only scarlet beads until her marriage, and thereafter her beads will indicate how many children she has born. Lovers of butterfly yellow, brilliant blue and flaming pink, these days the Samburu seem to be conducting a love affair with the imported plastic flower. Both sexes like to top off their headdresses with either a daffodil or a tulip, worn in the style of a plume.